Education in Appalachia: The Crisis

This site is meant to be a resource for educators and researchers interested in learning more about the catalog of Appalachian Children’s Literature in addition to sources on education within the region. The researcher believes that it is important for educators to utilize regional literature as a means of building connections between the world one lives in and the opportunities for academic pursuits. ​

According to Hall’s study of the “Failure of State-Led Development Aid” in the region:
“Appalachia continues to lag behind in education and overall health. In central Appalachia, only 12 percent of adults have a college degree compared to 28 percent nationally… (88).  A 2011 report from the ARC described Appalachia’s outmigration as “among the worst in the nation” and expressed concern regarding the migration of Appalachia’s “prime age” workforce. From 2000 through 2009, 183 Appalachian counties, nearly 45 percent of the region, experienced net population loss (ARC 2011, p. 2). The ARC views this loss as a case of “brain drain,” where those who are most likely to generate economic activity leave the area in pursuit of better opportunities. Those who remain in the area, faced with smaller markets and shrinking labor demand, experience continued and worsening poverty.” (92)

These findings are unsettling. The fact that Appalachia continues to experience such a degree of out-migration, mostly as a result of education and opportunity, is astonishing.

Not surprisingly, the recent history of Appalachia is complex. From the 1950s to the present, Appalachia has experienced job loss, government intrusion, educational reform, and serious emigration. The ingrained poverty of Appalachia was further complicated by reform and outside land and resource ownership. All of these elements had an impact on the people, education, and livelihood of the region. By studying the history, scholars may get a glimpse at what practices have some potential to change the future.

The 1950s were a time of great exploitation in Appalachia. Coal mining was mechanized, which led to extensive job loss within the region (Eller 20). The welfare system expansion coincided with mechanization and the introduction of strip mining. The combination of these events led to extensive poverty and limited economic and industrial growth (33). By the 1960s the state of Appalachia had grown so “desolate” that politicians and journalists entered the region to assess and report on the reality of life for residents. The findings were varied but the image presented to the rest of America was one of extremely poor people and conditions. Government intervention was to follow (61). Programs like the War on Poverty, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Appalachian Regional Development Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act were all an outcome of journalists and politicians entering the region (72-89). As these programs succeeded in some areas and failed in others, the 1960s and 1970s saw an influx of non-government initiatives, grassroots movements, and community activism (109). This was most often in response to government failure on environmental policy (e.g. Mountaintop removal) and employment failures in the region. The 1977 Surface Mine Reclamation Act was cut back from its original aggressive version to a more modest version in order to be passed (196). Coal continued to see a rise and fall in profitability mostly in response to the oil industry. In the early 1980s, as coal became more necessary when oil production dropped off, Appalachia suffered the exploitative intrusion of mountaintop removal, which requires few employees but produces vast environmental impacts (197). Into the 1990s Appalachia saw economic improvements, but it still lagged behind the national standard (217). Tourism and second home development increased, yet environmental destruction in the form of mountaintop removal still continued (222). Educational programs improved, literacy rates increased, and dropout rates decreased. With these glimmers of progress, out-migration of young and educated Appalachians continues at a baffling rate (239). Eller puts it well when he says:

“Thus, in an ironic way, Appalachia at the turn of the twenty-first century was a microcosm of the contradictions confronting modern American life. The flood of suburban tourists seeking to renew their relationship with the natural world passed young people along the highway leaving the mountains in search of better lives in the cities from which the urban refugees had fled” (257-8).

The extensive issues following Appalachian education and the resulting out-migration lead an educator in some ways to be disheartened. Scholars’ studies of place-based education and the benefits of using regional literature offer a glimmer of hope to the issues plaguing Appalachia. The Encyclopedia of Appalachia states:

“Since the 1970s, so much good writing has emanated from southern and central Appalachia that the period is sometimes known as the Appalachian Renaissance. Contemporaneous with the rise of Appalachian studies as a discipline and sometimes motivated by the same desire to rectify negative attitudes toward the region, this literature presents Appalachia as a region of remarkable diversity” (1038).

Recent Appalachian literature, both for adults and children, must deal with the complex themes that have emerged in the region since WWII. Mountaintop removal, emigration, poverty, loss of land, substance abuse, lack of education, sexual identity, and broken families are all issues that have emerged or continued in the region since the 1950s and must find a voice in its literature.

Historically, educators in Appalachia have been admonished for their lack of cultural sensitivity or basic knowledge of the values and customs of the region. Today, there is little excuse for this practice. Educators are better equipped than ever before to understand the complexities of teaching in Appalachia and to alter their lessons or teaching style accordingly. Appalachian students will forever struggle with the rest of the world’s inaccurate preconceptions, the classroom should be a place for them to overcome stereotypes and push beyond expectations. Time should be spent analyzing and reforming the image of Appalachia through the study of past and present regional literature and place-based learning. Programming should encourage students to look at perceptions of Appalachia critically. Students should be shown the inherent value of their region, and, by extension, themselves. Hopefully, by building pride, more students will be willing to stay within the region to become innovators, investors, and educators. Appalachia may still fall behind other areas of the country when it comes to literacy and dropout rates, but there is hope. Any student may be encouraged and inspired by teachers, family, and friends. The region could benefit from the interaction of educators, families, representatives, and students. By utilizing open communication and collaboration, in addition to employing place-based learning techniques, the region’s schools and economies can experience growth and improvement. Appalachia has the potential to move beyond the stereotypes.

In conclusion, Waitt boldly asserts:
“Students, who frequently do not have a sense of their own culture except as it is conveyed by the media, would benefit greatly from discussions of the social and educational inequities that continue to marginalize Appalachia…If education is truly about presenting students with choices, then Appalachian students merit accurate accounts of their history, need tools to critique the erasure of their culture, and deserve to see themselves reflected in the stories they read.” (84)

Teachers across the region are witnessing the change in unengaged learners as a result of studying and valuing regional literature. Students are able to relate to the characters in regional literature, and as a result, find themselves rethinking what it means to be Appalachian. In order to reduce the rates of out-migration and “brain drain”, educators need to take these findings to heart. It is time to change what is broken.  

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