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Why the teacher shortage is here to stay

North Dakota Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Kristin Baesler moved quickly to deal with the 200-teacher shortage with school opening just weeks away.

An 11-member Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force was formed to assess the problem and propose solutions. As a consequence, regulations were liberalized to permit school districts to hire “community experts” on a temporary basis to fill the gaps.

There are scores of people in communities qualified to fill in but the solution may require more than temporary assignment because there are no signs that the cavalry is coming.

For one thing, our colleges and universities are not turning out enough new teachers. According to figures at the Department of Public Instruction, the number of students earning education degrees declined from 816 in 1994 to 660 in 2013.

In addition, the drop-out rate from the profession is high, with Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania reporting that his data suggested that 40 to 50 percent of beginning teachers quit within five years.

And there is little hope that North Dakota can attract out-of-state teachers to replace the temporary “community experts” with permanent full-time professionals. The teacher shortage is national so we must compete with the higher wages in the national market.

In recent years, North Dakota has improved its relative standing in salaries, moving from 49th to 36th place but the average salary in neighboring Minnesota is still $6,000 higher.

But Ingersoll claims the problem is more than salary. He argues that one of the main factors is shrinking classroom autonomy, resulting in the inability of teachers to participate in key decisions in shaping their jobs, something important to professionals.

Teachers have always been restricted to some degree by state law. In fact, every session of the Legislature seems to come up with new ideas for classrooms, the last one being a requirement for a new civics examination.

Beginning in the 1960s, particularly with the advent of federal funding, the federal government has further restricted the autonomy of school districts by adding new mandates relating to a wide range of activities.

Then came No Child Left Behind and Common Core, America’s response to globalization of markets and international competition.

Unless the United States is willing to surrender its place in the global market, something like Common Core providing national standards is important to keep all students in the race. Global competition is forcing classrooms into a cookie cutter pattern, making classroom autonomy difficult to preserve.

Linked to both No Child Left Behind and Common Core is the threatening issue of teacher evaluations. Thus far, the evaluation proposals have consisted of unreasonable expectations that would rank every teacher a loser.

Ingersoll claims that student behavior and discipline also make teaching positions less attractive and probably a major factor in teacher dropout rates. While private schools have broad latitude in dealing with incorrigible students, the public schools are stuck with them.

Rather than supporting teacher discipline, parents rise up in wrath, blame the teacher and threaten lawsuits when their innocent incorrigibles are penalized in school.

Obviously, attraction to a career of teaching is greatly dampened by this variety of negative job characteristics.

CareerCast, a job search organization, ranked elementary teaching 117th based on work environment, stress and hiring outlook. Even bartending did better.

Before we can make the teacher shortage temporary, we will need a broad strategy framed to answer the tough questions but that will require solid data on the causes of teacher dropout, career attitudes of high-schoolers and satisfaction in the classrooms.

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