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Help Wanted: Finding Qualified Teachers in Rural Minnesota

July 19, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Who teaches science if science teachers can't be found?

Minnesota's Senior High, Junior High and Middle schools are facing a curriculum quality crisis because, increasingly, math, special education and sciences-certified teachers in can't be found. This is a statewide problem but it hits rural Minnesota especially hard.

Attempts to solve this problem have been batted around the Legislature for years. None has been successful. The problem calls for new incentives to draw hard-to-find teachers to Minnesota schools.

Ted Suss is the superintendent of Wabasso Public Schools, a district 110 miles southwest of Minneapolis with about 400 students and 32 teachers.

Attracting teachers to Wabasso is difficult.

"A Spanish teacher is almost impossible to get," Suss said, and so are teachers in the sciences. Suss had a biology opening this year that attracted two candidates. One was offered a better job and backed out. That left exactly one candidate. "I hope he's OK," Suss said.

The "No Child Left Behind" federal educational policy requirements have increased the need for special education teachers with two- or four-year degrees, making them positions that are exceptionally hard to fill in a rural district like Wabasso, Suss said.

Across Minnesota, superintendents report the most critical teacher shortages are in physics, chemistry, emotional behavioral disorders, math, earth science and English as a second language.

There were 55,237 teachers in Minnesota in 2006, a 1 percent drop since 2002. But in understaffed subject areas the falloff was much steeper. For example, the number of physics teachers declined 5 percent from 2002 to 2006, to 605.

School officials often cite low salaries as an issue in recruiting first-year teachers. In 2005, beginning teachers averaged $28,600 a year in Minnesota. Physics students with bachelor's degrees who entered the state workforce in 2005 earned an average of $45,000.

But if a physics student becomes a teacher, he is likely to stay where he is hired. A study of 2,728 new Minnesota teachers in 2001 found 68 percent were still in the same district in 2005. The most common reason for leaving the district? Death. The second most common reason was being hired by another district.

Determining salary satisfaction is slippery. When asked, Minnesota teachers cite many reasons for job satisfaction, but salary isn't one of them. However, when dissatisfied teachers were polled, only 7 percent blamed low pay for their decisions to leave a district.

Scott Croonquist of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts downplays the negative effect on rural schools of higher teaching salaries in the Twin Cities. "Sure, a teacher gets a $7,000 bump in pay (moving to the metro area), but that's more than offset in the cost of living," he said. Family location and cultural amenities play a bigger part.

Suss agrees. Despite his lower pay schedule and rural isolation, he has only one or two openings each year. He sometimes loses a teacher to another district, but many get married or start a business in Wabasso and stay.

The pressing question remains: what should Minnesota do about this? Minnesota 2020 recommends several solutions.

  1. To attract university students to high-demand areas, offer college students loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement.
  2. Minnesota should make the path easier for educators who want to make a mid-career shift into high-demand subjects.
  3. When capable, non-certified special education providers in small towns want to teach at rural schools, they should be put on a college degree and teaching licensure fast track

We face a simple reality: there are not enough teachers to fill important science and special education positions in Minnesota schools. Without these teachers, subjects necessary for state accreditation will be missed. Without these classes, student will perform poorly on state standardized tests. And most important, without these teachers we are failing students and their families. Minnesota needs and deserves better.

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