This is the first installment in an ongoing series focused on the education workforce shortage. In the coming months, we’ll take an in-depth look at best practices and solutions, from features on innovative approaches for teacher prep programs to Q&As with educators about why they stayed or left — and what’s needed to keep them or bring them back.
On Monday, the superintendent of a small rural school district in North Dakota picked up a teacher at the airport who was recruited from the Philippines. This sort of outsourcing has become more common among rural districts pushing to fill workforce shortages, something that does not often happen in the more urban, larger districts, said Laurie Matzke, assistant state superintendent of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
“There is a big hurt out in the field right now to find teachers,” said Joe Kolosky, director of the office of school approval and opportunity for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, in an email.
For rural communities, attracting skilled educators — particularly in specialized fields — has long been a challenge to close teacher workforce gaps. It’s more difficult to recruit teachers, especially younger ones, because there are fewer amenities available compared to cities and larger districts, said Michael Heilman, executive director of North Dakota Small Organized Schools.
“Unless they grew up in a very rural or remote area, it becomes more difficult for them to say, ‘I’ll go spend five or six years here or there,’” Heilman said.
In North Dakota, where 90% of the state’s 176 school districts are rural, the teacher shortage has been a persistent problem for the last decade, Matzke said. But she and other state leaders are now banking on an untapped resource: Those who already live in these communities.
The state’s education department is focusing on helping rural residents earn degrees for high-need teaching positions, like special education and elementary education, Matzke said.
Teacher shortage worsens in North Dakota, particularly in special education
The department is using roughly $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to provide scholarships to three different universities launching online education programs, so paraprofessionals earn a bachelor’s degree to teach in rural areas of the state.
The department wanted to focus on providing paraprofessionals this opportunity because they already have two years of college education under their belt, which gives them a chance to “fast track” into a teaching position, Matzke said. She estimates it should take a paraprofessional between 1 ½ to two years to earn a teaching degree.
“That’s why this type of a program was so needed, because they can’t work all day and then drive two, three hours to get to a university. So we really needed an online program,” Matzke said.
How it’s funded
A key goal of this online educator preparation program is to make it affordable for teaching candidates to earn a degree.
The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, which is private, automatically deducts $100 out of $470 per credit hour for students in the online elementary education program, which will launch in September, said Meghan Salyers, the university’s director of student teaching and accreditation.
Additionally, the state education department’s grant covers a third of the cost for those eligible, and another third can come from school districts that want to use professional development funding. That leaves the prospective teacher with $123 per credit hour to cover on their own, Salyers said.
Federal pandemic relief funding to the state is limited for now, but Matzke said there’s hope North Dakota can be approved for teacher apprenticeship programs backed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Then, these state apprenticeship dollars can help sustain funding to the three current university programs, she said.
There are other federal dollars potentially available that can supplement these efforts, as well, Matzke said. These include the Title II funds for professional development and Title III funds for English learners in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Other possible federal dollars used could come from the Individuals with Disabilities Act for special education and the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, she said.
Matzke said she anticipates the next two years, there will be 150 new teachers entering the field in the state as a result of the new online education programs.
North Dakota first launched the model at Minot State University in Minot in 2019 to specifically train special education teachers, Matzke said. That effort was initially funded through the state’s special education discretionary budget. Due to its success, the state’s education department wanted to invest further and expand for other teaching degrees. Currently, the state is still deciding on a third university to participate in the online ed prep model.
Minot State University’s first cohort began with nine students. The total number of participants has since increased by 63 from two additional cohorts, she said.
At the University of Mary, there were more than 60 applicants in July eyeing the new elementary education program, Salyers said.
Both programs currently have waiting lists, Matzke said.
Removing entry barriers
“There are people interested in going into teaching,” Matzke said. “But you can’t go to a university and wrack up $80,000, $90,000 in debt and expect to pay it off on a teacher’s salary.”
The cost of a degree is an inhibitor to recruiting teachers, she said, so when states and districts can help prospective educators afford a teaching degree, it’s a win-win.
“There’s a little bit of a misconception that nobody wants to be a teacher,” Matzke said. “I think there are many people out there. You just have to remove the barriers, and us removing two of them has been wildly successful — which is the funding and the rural aspect. So by putting it online and providing scholarships, that’s been the magic ticket for us.”
In North Dakota, Salyers has also noticed that, generally, teacher prep programs are not experiencing much of a decline in enrollment. At the University of Mary, enrollment in teaching programs has grown by 158% within the last five years, she said.
Concerns for teacher shortages remain
But Nick Archuleta, president of the teacher union North Dakota United, said the research shows teacher shortages are still worsening. A January survey of 1,149 North Dakota United members found 74% of those polled saying teacher retention will be a significant issue for the 2022-23 school year.
More North Dakota teachers are considering retiring or leaving the profession
On top of that, 90% of members surveyed said they expected to retire as an educator when they were first hired, but only 41% said that’s still the case.
The latest effort to recruit rural teachers through online ed prep programs is a step in the right direction, Archuleta said. But at the same time, the integrity of the profession must be protected.
“We are always a little bit leery of alternative pathways to licensure that aren’t as rigorous as we are typically used to,” Archuleta said. “The fact is there is an art and a science to teaching.”
There are many challenges that hinder teacher recruitment, like a lack of respect for the profession by the public, low pay and limited support, he said.
“I know that the desire is to find something fast and cheap, but those are very rarely long-term solutions to a vexing problem,” Archuleta said.
While Salyers believes these new online ed prep programs supported by the state will be impactful, she recognizes it cannot be the only solution to fixing the teacher shortage.
“No one entity is going to be the solution to this problem. It’s just not possible for any one person. It is absolutely essential that all of us, all of the stakeholder groups, come together and we create multiple pathways, because that’s what it’s going to take,” she said.