Workforce development ideas can promote teacher talent in rural schools

The road leading into town of Dedham, Iowa.

Recently, my colleague Elizabeth Mann Levesque published a series on innovative approaches that some employers have adopted to promote workforce development. Many businesses—often in the manufacturing or service sectors, and outside of major urban centers—have found it challenging to find and hire workers with the specialized skills to thrive on the job. Persistent needs for specialized labor, particularly in a strong economy where candidates have many other occupational choices readily available, have compelled these industries to either invest in internal training programs or partner with higher education partners to develop the talent pool they need.

Though we do not often consider the teaching occupation when we discuss workforce development programs, I see several fundamental parallels—particularly with rural schools. In both cases: Employers look for workers that need some specialized training after high school; employers work in geographically constrained labor and service markets; and employers cannot offer higher wages to attract workers due to financial pressures (whether from competitors in the private sector, or anemic budget allocations in the public sector).

I argue that rural schools facing similar staffing challenges would do well to study some of the innovative approaches to workforce development coming from the private sector. Similar adaptations have been started in various locales across the country, but these initiatives should be scaled to provide a robust supply of talent to these areas in need.

A weak supply of teachers in rural areas

The exact nature of current teacher shortages is not entirely clear, though the long-term signals point to general weakness in the labor market. One perspective argues that declining enrollments in teacher training programs, the continued loss of baby boomer teachers to retirement, and pressures to lower class sizes to pre-Great Recession levels creates an increasing gap between the number of credentialed teachers and the number of new vacancies in schools. Another perspective counters that shortages are not a global problem for the entire workforce, but a local problem, since schools in rural or socio-economically disadvantaged settings disproportionately account for teacher vacancies. Rural schools stand out, as they have particular difficulty in meeting their workforce needs, reporting both large shares of teacher vacancies and experiencing higher levels of turnover than suburban and urban schools. Also, regardless of locale, vacancies are not widespread across all subject areas, but are concentrated in science, math, and special education.

Those on each side of this debate agree that the lack of teacher talent—at least in some areas—is an issue that has persisted for years. Consequently, many schools must rely on non-traditional sources to meet their needs (whether from Teach For America, teachers hired from abroad, or long-term substitutes). Opinions vary on whether those sources are good for students and sustainable for the health of the workforce.

Schools could do more to develop their talent pools

A common thread that Levesque describes in her workforce development series is the need for employers to think creatively about developing latent talent among their communities, rather than waiting for the right people to apply. For example, Taco Comfort Solutions, a manufacturing company based in Rhode Island, has been partnering with educational institutions in the area since the 1990s to offer learning opportunities—ranging from GEDs to master’s degrees—to help provide training to workers to professionally develop the capacity to succeed on the job. An encouraging outcome from this approach is low turnover, due to the combination of pre-existing ties to the community and a sense of reciprocal loyalty due to the investment in their professional development.

This approach, where employers take an active role in investing in and developing the workforce they need, is quite common in private enterprises, though runs against the norm in teacher hiring. This is to be expected, as firm- or occupation-specific skills will require more tailored training experiences before workers can do well on the job.

Conversely, teaching requires less firm-specific human capital. After all, teaching third grade, for example, is essentially the same across tens of thousands of elementary schools in the country. Thus, teachers can learn the requisite skills in their teacher training program while earning their bachelor’s degree, and employers only need to advertise their vacancies and hire among the qualified applicants. This approach works well enough in many settings, though because job searches in specific school settings and specializations cannot generate a strong enough applicant pool everywhere, these settings facing persistent hiring challenges stand to benefit most from making longer-term investments promoting workforce development.

Promising practices that can be scaled up

Some rural districts have recognized these persistent human capital needs and have begun to be strategic in workforce development. Two particular examples of promising approaches for rural settings are worth highlighting and expanding in different ways to continue improving talent pools in rural settings.

First, grow-your-own programs are initiatives designed to encourage young people to consider a career in teaching, often organized as partnerships between university-based teacher training programs and local school districts. The programs help identify and steer interested people through the process of completing their teacher training and help connect them back to schools in the communities from which they came. Though not specifically intended to promote teacher diversity, many grow-your-own programs have realized a more racially diverse pool of teacher candidates, which helps to address another shortage in the workforce.

Empirical evidence on grow-your-own programs is scant, though the extant qualitative and case study evidence suggests that these programs have helped boost the ranks of teachers in high-need areas. These programs could be even more impactful with a broader geographical reach: Most grow-your-own programs have historically been based in urban areas, though rural schools could really benefit from a more consistent source of teaching talent.

A number of states are beginning to develop programs specifically targeting their rural labor markets, including Colorado and Wisconsin, though just about every state could benefit from targeted workforce development for their rural schools. Those who worry that recruiting promising individuals from rural locales to become teachers may inadvertently contribute to “brain drain” should take comfort in empirical evidence that shows teachers often return to schools that are located near (or are similar to) the schools where they were educated.

A second approach is opening access to teacher training programs for rural schools. One interesting bit of evidence is that not all rural districts face similar challenges in hiring: Districts geographically close to teacher training institutions report fewer shortages. This corroborates findings from Washington state showing that first-year teachers have a high likelihood of teaching in the schools and districts where they performed their student teaching (essentially internships during their final year before graduation). Naturally, where they perform their student teaching is not random, but is typically based on partnerships between the university training program and hiring districts—and geographic proximity reduces those partnership costs considerably.

Making those training programs more accessible to rural districts will engender closer working partnerships, can foster opportunities for student placement, and thus help strengthen the supply of teachers to those locales. Training programs could be strategic in reaching out to further-flung locales to attempt to strategically develop a portfolio of student teaching possibilities in a range of settings. Also, geographic proximity does not need to inhibit working partnerships: Some programs, including Texas Tech’s TechTeach, have established partnerships with rural school districts and community colleges to enable students to earn their degree online while staying home in their communities, and performing their student teaching locally.

The time is now

Both the grow-your-own recruiting model and the access offered through long-distance partnerships offer meaningful ways for school districts in rural settings to engage in workforce development. Investing in workforce development is likely the costlier, further-off option to fill positions when compared against simply reviewing resumes to the vacancy. However, the investment may potentially help change the trajectory of hiring challenges in the long term. As the COVID-19 outbreak forces all work into virtual meeting rooms— putting the furthest-flung rural schools the same distance away as the large urban school district down the street—now may be an opportune time to invest in these long-distance partnerships.