Silver Lining in Teacher Shortage

Published July 27, 2012

Most states use teachers and school staff inefficiently. Since 1970, nationwide student enrollments have risen 8.5 percent, but teaching staff has increased more than 90 percent. Today, North Dakota averages one teacher for about every 12 students–a very low ratio.

The state doesn’t just need more teachers, but more excellent teachers. On average, children who have a teacher in the top 20 percent learn approximately three times as fast as children with one in the bottom 20 percent, according to a recent Public Impact report. Children two years behind their peers academically almost never catch up–unless they have an excellent teacher four years in a row, according to research by Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek. Better teachers mean better future earnings and likelihood for more fulfilling jobs.

Top teachers favor opportunities to advance and control their careers. Current school structures do not allow this. They should. State leaders should remember technology makes it possible for teachers to reach more students, saving taxpayer money and teacher housing scrambles. It’s an opportunity for the state to explore how to extend excellent teachers’ reach, so more children can get the best instruction possible. Starting now will put North Dakota in the national lead.

The report suggests several ways to do this. One is reducing teachers’ administrative work. Don’t have them grade or administer tests or fill out paperwork. Let a computer or aide do that. Another is letting one excellent teacher manage several classrooms staffed by junior teachers she can mentor along with their students. A third is letting star teachers reach more children in more locations by teaching online.

These options also will free money to attract these valuable employees with higher pay. One of the biggest reasons teacher pay cannot rise quickly is today’s teacher can teach only a similar number of students as a teacher 100 years ago. Other professionals have seen their pay rise because improving technology reduces the need for labor, making salaries in the smaller workforce go up because fewer people can do the same amount of work. This has not been true for education–until now.

Letting teachers work remotely part- or full-time also means they can live in areas with no housing shortage and lower living costs. This is an excellent potential benefit to localities beyond the oil boom. It multiplies value further by also allowing students to work remotely full- or part-time, meaning better taxpayer savings from less busing and cafeteria costs.

State leaders already have taken some unprecedented steps toward relieving the shortage. They have agreed teachers certified in other states count as certified in North Dakota and made it easier for qualified professionals to enter education. The state offers teacher loan forgiveness, and districts are working to secure housing.

Officials can do even more–innovative options abound. North Dakota could, like Alaska and New Hampshire, give parents funds and support to homeschool their children. As in Arizona, some or all of the state’s $9,000 per-pupil spending could be tied directly to children, depositing this into an account parents control and can split among various education options, allowing teachers, schools, and other providers to specialize and compete and families to mix and match options.

North Dakota occupies an enviable position among states, with little unemployment and increasing tax revenue. Now is the time to secure that position and lead the nation long-term.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.