An Old Twist on a New Problem: Addressing the Teacher Shortage

Opinion piece from founder and former director Gary Funk

January 3, 2023 |
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Thanks to our founder and former director, Gary Funk, for sharing this op-ed on recent media covering the teacher shortage, The issue of the rural teacher shortage is a core focus of Rural Schools Collaborative's work, particularly through Rural Teacher Corps efforts.


The national teacher shortage is beginning to garner the attention it deserves. In August, an Annenberg Institute for School Reform working paper noted there were “at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers, both of which are conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally.” The report also stated that teacher shortages are “poorly understood” and further obfuscated by a lack of quality data. In October, a GAO (United States Government Accountability Office) monthly report to Congressional Committees also focused on the teacher shortage, especially in “specific geographic and demographic areas and specific subject matters.” The GAO report went further, though, and admonished the Department of Education for lacking strategies and data that adequately address the problem. Most recently, The 74, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to national education issues, highlighted a Tennessee study, which concluded “teacher staffing challenges are highly localized, causing shortages and surpluses to coexist.”

These reports suggest that the “teacher shortage” has moved from prediction to reality—albeit one that affects specific regions and communities differently. While some areas (think more affluent and suburban) may have an adequate supply or even an abundance of teaching candidates, many communities, urban and rural, struggle to staff classrooms with qualified teachers. Case in point, Philadelphia, where I live now, needs to add 1,000 teachers, principals, and support personnel before next year! This is certainly a national problem, but like so many other things, it seems to spare the affluent. Rural areas, particularly regions with historically underserved populations, are among the most impacted. It is not surprising that Annenberg’s researchers identified rural regions in the Southeast, Appalachia, and some Mountain states as areas of great concern.

The heightened attention to the teacher shortage is long overdue, and the issue was a primary reason we established the Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) in 2015. If you lived in the Ozarks, rural North Dakota, or Alabama’s Black Belt, you didn’t need peer reviewed studies to see what was coming down the pike—the dwindling number of qualified teaching candidates was already apparent. RSC’s founding board of directors believed that the rural teacher shortage had been largely ignored, and that we should do all we could to support intentional efforts to recruit, prepare, and place outstanding rural teacher-leaders. This objective would become a primary tenet of RSC’s organizational mission.

While RSC’s focus is grounded in education, we also believe the teacher shortage is an issue that transcends the classroom. Consider that in many parts of the country public schools are often the primary reason that a small town still exists or at least maintains a semblance of community vitality. Furthermore, public schools are frequently the largest employers in rural communities, and any hope of attracting young families or new business opportunities to more remote locales may hinge on the perceived availability of good schools. To our thinking, the rural teacher shortage was far more than a “staffing problem,” it was truly an existential threat to a viable rural future.

“To our thinking, the rural teacher shortage was far more than a “staffing problem,” it was truly an existential threat to a viable rural future.”

RSC’s Rural Teacher Corps Network

Annenberg’s working paper recognizes that “teacher shortages are driven to a substantial degree by limitations in the teacher supply.” The report’s three authors (two from Kansas State University and one from the University of Illinois) specifically suggest that “states struggling with teacher shortages might benefit from investments in their new teacher pipelines, such as financial incentives for prospective teachers or the promotion of Grow Your Own programs and alternative certification.” They are careful to add, though, “It would therefore be wise to ensure such investments prioritize producing the types of teachers that are most needed (e.g. secondary vs. elementary) for the schools that most need them.”

RSC’s work squares with Annenberg's recommendations. Our rural teacher corps project promotes a Grow Your Own model that is thoughtfully developed through regional collaboration. RSC was fortunate to develop partnerships with successful early adopters such as the Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ Ozarks Teacher Corps, California State University-Chico’s CLASS program, and The University of West Alabama’s Black Belt Teacher Corps. These partners provided a strong and credible foundation as we began to build out our Rural Teacher Corps network, an effort that now includes 19 programs from 15 different states across the country. Furthermore, through RSC’s philanthropic work, we have been able to provide more than $300,000 in direct support for rural teacher corps planning grants as well as launch the I am A Rural Teacher digital platform, which includes teacher narratives, policy recommendations, and even a job board!

Ozarks Teacher Corps, funded by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

Still, I would be the first to admit that RSC’s rural teacher corps work has been modest—barely scratching the surface. At best, it represents incremental progress in specific regions, and we are mindful that our rural teacher corps partners will need to track long-term results to determine program efficacy. Realistically, addressing the teacher shortage issue at the national level will require a substantial increase in funding from the Department of Education and leading charitable funders. It will also necessitate a much clearer understanding of what the problems are and where they actually exist, along with deliberate work to inform the public about the importance of the issue. In essence, tackling the teacher shortage will require a national mandate.

Along these lines, the GAO report included two specific recommendations for the U.S. Department of Education:

  1. The Secretary of Education should build on the department’s efforts to raise public awareness about the value of teachers by developing and including in its “Elevating Teachers” strategy time frames, milestones, and performance measures to gauge results.

  2. The Secretary of Education should direct Federal Student Aid and the Offices of Elementary and Secondary Education and Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to collect resources that address the key challenges contributing to teacher shortages, and share those resources with states and school districts in an easily accessible manner to help them address specific recruitment and retention challenges.

Clarifying the issue. Raising awareness. Funding solutions. This is how I read the GAO recommendations, and I believe that nothing short of this will meaningfully address the nationwide teacher shortages.

The Will and the Means

Clearly, the Department of Education needs to prioritize teacher recruitment to a much greater degree than it has. This is truly a situation where the horse should lead the cart! I fear that if the Department fails to assume a visible and assertive leadership role, other and less savory “solutions” will fill the void. We are already seeing this, as a number of quick and cheap options are being bandied about by state legislatures across the country. These shortsighted and often disingenuous proposals to simply put bodies in the classroom include fast track alternative certification, temporary licensures, and even waiving certification efforts altogether. Hey, anybody can teach! Right!? If the Department of Education does not take a stronger leadership position in producing more teacher candidates, the privatization movement will continue to seep through the cracks, and it is hard to imagine how this will end up being in the best interest of our students or rural communities.

So, if the Department of Education decided to marshal its resources to combat the national teacher shortage, what might this look like? How could a massive initiative be tailored to address the areas with the greatest needs? Well, here’s a suggestion: Why not consider an old twist to a new problem and launch a national teacher recruitment campaign that would rejuvenate the American Normal School? They are still there. They still primarily serve rural regions, and they are, to a large degree, struggling greatly with state budget cuts and declining enrollments.

“If the Department of Education decided to marshal its resources to combat the national teacher shortage, what might this look like? Why not consider an old twist to a new problem and launch a national teacher recruitment campaign that would rejuvenate the American Normal School?”

The American Normal School (not necessarily an American invention; the first one may have been in France) had its heyday in the Dewey-rich era that comprised the first half of the Twentieth Century. Normal schools were established specifically to train teachers, and there were literally hundreds of them. These small and focused institutions dotted the national landscape hither and yon. There were some famous urban examples, like the formerly segregated Harris and Stowe colleges in St. Louis, but as if Jefferson had come up with the idea himself, normal schools were often placed smack dab in the middle of rural areas, where they would provide qualified teachers to scores of rural school communities. Volumes could be written about the demise or transformation of normal schools (depending on one’s perspective), but the point is that they still exist and could provide an excellent infrastructure for addressing the rural teacher shortage.

A highly branded national Department of Education program that would enable former normal schools (think wind direction universities, Western Illinois University, Eastern Kentucky University, Northwest Missouri State, and so on) to launch regional rural teacher corps would be ideal. This kind of effort would be a catalyst for collaboration, and participating institutions would be obligated to build inclusive support networks of communities and school districts. In addition, major national funders could augment public monies by providing philanthropic matching funds, similar to the funding pool that was available to rural awardees during the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation (I3) rollout.

This kind of approach would align with both the Annenberg and GAO recommendations, and it would provide a pathway to synergistically address several major challenges to rural regions:

The Teacher Shortage

A federal effort to use former normal schools in developing a tapestry of rural teachers corps would be, to my thinking, a cost-effective way to directly address the rural teacher shortage. The infrastructure, so to speak, already exists, and it would enable the Department of Education and its philanthropic partners to target the areas of greatest needs. A good example is The University of West Alabama (where a normal school for girls was established in 1883), which is located in the Black Belt, an area of high rural poverty and glaring teacher shortages. UWA, which should be lauded for already developing a comprehensive teacher corps program, is a perfect example of the type of institution that warrants targeted funding. They are in the right place, and bolstering teacher education makes perfect sense for the institution itself. These kinds of colleges are of their regions, and they are best suited to develop the on-the-ground collaborations that will be needed to address the teacher shortage in a meaningful way.

Historically, many of these schools have been at a disadvantage when it comes to procuring federal grant funding. They often lack the “academic horsepower” of the larger and richer land grant universities, and, subsequently, they are not as connected to what I will call the consulting “elite,” who often determine the success of these kinds of applications. However, these former normal schools are the places that need the funding, and they are often located in regions that are the most at-risk. Using former normal schools as the conduit to address the teacher shortage is a way to weave a tailored response to a nuanced problem and achieve multiple good outcomes.

Black Belt Teacher Corps, The University of West Alabama

Regional Job Development

“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?” Well, rural America needs viable job recruitment, and I would suggest public school teaching vacancies may be the best avenue for attracting young people to rural communities. Healthcare jobs are plentiful and equally important, but healthcare facility consolidation has left many rural places dangling, and public schools are often a rural community's largest employer. I am not ignoring the value of entrepreneurship in rural revitalization, but I maintain that it is very difficult to attract the “innovation class” to rural regions without strong public schools.

The relationship between rural economic development and public education has been largely ignored for too long, and a normal school-based rural teacher corps initiative, one that requires regional collaboration, has the potential to unite the business sector with the social sector in what should obviously be a shared goal. Any rural turnaround has to involve an influx of young people, and an intentional teacher recruitment initiative, one that is aspirational and celebrated, is a good place to start.

The Enrollment Cliff

Higher education is in the midst of a rude awakening. A number of demographic trends, including lower birth rates during the Great Recession, will substantively decrease the demand for higher education. While the impact on top-tier schools will be minimal if any, the smaller, less urban institutions, the former normal schools, are looking down the barrel.

The intersection between fewer students and state budget cuts is an ugly place, and it is even more troublesome when one considers how important these regional state colleges are to regions that are already in decline! In a recent piece for Vox, Kevin Carey wrote, “trade policy, de-unionization, corporate consolidation, and substance abuse have already ravaged countless communities, particularly in the post-industrial Northeast and Midwest. In many cases, colleges have been one of the only places that provide good jobs in their communities, offer educational opportunities for locals, and have strong enough roots to stay planted. The enrollment cliff means that they might soon dry up and blow away.”

Combined, economic deprivations, teacher shortages, and threats to regional higher education make for an unsavory recipe. Therefore, it makes all the more sense to launch an effort that has the potential to address all of the above. I am not an economist, but I do think that I can make the case that large scale investments into rural teacher corps programs have the potential to bolster regional economies.

“Combined, economic deprivations, teacher shortages, and threats to regional higher education make for an unsavory recipe. Therefore, it makes all the more sense to launch an effort that has the potential to address all of the above.”

Obviously, something of this nature would require “re-focusing” on the part of some colleges and universities, but it could provide a higher purpose to higher education and position regional colleges at the forefront of efforts to re-energize struggling rural areas. At the very least, a stronger focus on future teacher recruitment would enable struggling regional colleges to have authentic “school-to-work” conversations during a time when encouraging first-generation college attendance will be of the utmost importance.

I am not suggesting an anachronistic return to a single-focus mission, but I do think that many former normal schools would benefit from rediscovering their teacher education roots; this should include a thoughtful exploration of the relationship between public education, rural communities, and economic development. Eastern Illinois University’s Rural School Initiative provides an excellent example of how to do this. And the proof is in the pudding at EIU, as they have received a number of external funding awards to support this work.

Philanthropic Opportunities

Rural teacher corps programs have the potential to attract philanthropic dollars. Some very good examples already exist. The Ozarks Teacher Corps is primarily funded by a seven-digit estate gift, and the resulting endowment supports students from several different southwest Missouri colleges. Just this fall, Illinois’s Monmouth College announced a major gift that will partially fund its recently established rural teacher corps, and Morehead State University in Kentucky has received significant charitable support for its teacher preparation programs. For all of its struggles, rural America has a lot of wealth, and much of that wealth is held by older people who care deeply about their communities. If these former normal schools would work collaboratively with community foundations and the like, and if these institutions were to truly prioritize teacher recruitment and preparation (perhaps giving future teachers as much publicity as athletes), there is unlimited potential to what could be raised in support of rural teacher corps-like work. However, this will require a radical shift in how many colleges currently conduct their fundraising activities—a transition to more openness and more collaboration.

Students from the Volgenau College of Education and Paul Lovelace, Founder and Director, Teach Outside. Morehead State University

Already in Place

The Department of Education is already funding rural teacher corps efforts. For instance, just this fall, the DOE announced it was allocating $13.4 million, over three years, to the Northern California (NorCal) Growing Responsive, Equitable, Adaptable and Transformative (GREAT) Teachers Pipeline project. This program, led by the California State University-Chico's School of Education, “provides financial and administrative support, as well as industry guidance, to prospective students throughout their college journey and into a classroom of their own.”

Founded as the Northern Branch State Normal School of California in 1887, Chico State is an ideal partner for this kind of public investment. They have the teacher education tradition (fortunately, one that has remained at the institutional forefront) and they serve a diverse rural area that has been challenged by poverty and natural disasters, the latter being something that will become more prevalent with climate change.

The Chico State award was one of 22 new three-year grants totaling more than $60 million under the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED program) to enhance the teacher pipeline. This is a substantive investment to be sure, but considering the GAO criticisms and other recommendations, there is the opportunity and need to do more. The fact is, SEED grants have been out there a good long time, and, to use the rural vernacular, the current approach isn't "cutting the mustard.” More has to be done, and a highly branded and sustained national teacher corps initiative would have the potential to substantively change the current narrative.

CLASS students, California State University Chico

We Need a New Story

In an interview with The 74, Tuan Nguyen, lead author for the Annenberg working paper and an education researcher at Kansas State University, said, “There are substantial vacant teacher positions in the United States. And for some states, this is much higher than for other states…. It’s just a question of how severe it is.” He added, “The pandemic has just exacerbated the situation that was already starting to build up…just made it worse for some states.”

Nguyen’s thoughts illustrate why a targeted approach to rural teacher corps development, one that would include creating a network of the historical normal schools, is a sensible way to address the teacher shortage. Still, I contend there is something bigger at play here. A purposeful and intentional effort to develop a new cadre of teacher-leaders, one that is truly aspirational and national in scope, has the potential not only to prepare more teachers, but to also build new narratives for struggling rural regions. It would serve to place thousands of young people and their collective futures at the forefront, and, perhaps, these would become inspirational stories written by rural folks, replacing far too many unfortunate reports about rural folks.

“A purposeful effort to develop a new cadre of teacher-leaders has the potential not only to prepare more teachers, but to also build new narratives for struggling rural regions.”

Hope lives in murky vernacular territory, but hope is not rural communities slowly bleeding jobs and population, becoming older, and getting smacked about by the never-ending torrent of political wedge issues. What hope could be, I suspect, is a veritable army of young people, returning to small communities with a purpose, and writing a new narrative on how public schools can build and bolster a better America. A national rural teacher corps initiative could be a means to that end.

Mariah Garzee, TARTANS alum, Monmouth College, Illinois
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