Rural America is Struggling to Keep Teachers and Shortages Continue Rising

Photo: ABC News

When most of us hear about struggling schools, we probably picture poor inner-city neighborhoods and school buildings filled with graffiti, drugs, and violence. While many struggling schools are located in urban centers, just as many can be found in rural areas or small towns – especially in the South. Rural schools face a number of unique obstacles. Approaches to improving education that make sense in urban contexts do not always work for them, particularly when it comes to teacher recruitment and retention.

A recent analysis published in the Washington’s Post Answer Sheet blog considers the problem of teacher shortages in U.S. schools as well as several potential solutions. What’s missing from this analysis is a discussion of some of the unique challenges of teacher recruitment and retention in a rural setting.

What is Causing the Shortage?

The root of the problem is a decades-long inability to hold onto young people, who’ve been leaving small towns for bigger cities and never coming back. The shift is especially pronounced in the Midwest, where 85% of rural counties are shrinking.

Many small towns and rural areas suffer from a lack of human capital. These places usually offer few economic opportunities. This prompts many young people – especially those attaining high levels of education – to move to bigger cities to start their professional lives, leaving many school districts with a very small pool of young, educated individuals to draw upon as teachers and administrators.

Encouraging teachers from urban areas to work at rural schools is not easy either. Many educators are reluctant to move to an unfamiliar area, fearing a sense of isolation. Recruiting experienced principals and other administrators is also a struggle for rural schools, which can compound the teacher recruitment and retention problem – educators often are reluctant to teach in schools where they don’t feel supported by the administration.

Financial resources also play an important role in teacher labor markets. Poor rural school districts often lack the tax base necessary to offer competitive wages to teachers and school administrators. Some states have adopted policies to help address these problems, but for many rural districts, a lack of resources remains a major problem when it comes to personnel recruitment. The persisting disparities are apparent when we look at average salaries: The typical small-town or rural teacher makes almost $12,000 less than their suburban counterpart.

Incentivizing the Disenfranchised

Across the nation, states have put together task forces and committees to study the issue and make recommendations on how to address the teacher shortage. The Learning Policy Institute reports that many, including Washington, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, have proposed legislation to provide scholarships and loan forgiveness for teaching service. Hiring retired teachers, building paraprofessional pipelines and subsidizing year-long apprenticeships are also strategies school districts have explored to address the issue.

Some districts have sought additional grants to make their infrastructure match the level of instruction their students need. But others have entered partnerships with local businesses that lend students their time, money, and resources.

Along with financial compensation, districts should make serious efforts to inform potential teachers about the potential benefits of working in a rural district. The lifestyle of a rural teacher will not appeal to everyone, and districts shouldn’t sugarcoat some of the difficulties that might come with living in an unfamiliar rural area or a small town. But there are also attractive aspects to teaching in a rural area, including the opportunity to have a lasting impact on students who may otherwise lack access to a qualified teacher.

Teach for America successfully attracts many applicants for their competitive program, which sends people to teach in to hard-to-staff schools in both rural and urban areas. Districts should follow this program’s lead in highlighting to potential recruits the importance of serving in their schools, as well as the tight community that they may find in a more rural setting.

Finally, districts need to be cognizant of the fact that attracting top talent starts at the top. A school with poor administrators will struggle to attract and retain talented teachers, so the same tactics that are necessary to recruit qualified teachers should be used to aggressively pursue talented principals and other school administrators.