It’s a phrase that would have chilled our parents and grandparents. Minnesotans expect an excellent public education system — top-flight teachers, administrators and staff; an outstanding curriculum; nation-leading graduation rates. It’s an expectation as old as Minnesota, rooted in our immigrant tradition of hard work, sacrifice and the drive to get ahead.
Without exception, we place great stock in education. Pioneer immigrants set aside township land for schools, sometimes building them even before churches. Minnesota grew on their foresight and investment.
Today, Minnesota’s increasing economic and population concentration in the Twin Cities metropolitan area presents a new set of educational challenges. The rural-urban divide grows greater, but our educational goal — to make Minnesota’s next generation of students the smartest, best-educated and most adaptable ever, no matter where they live — hasn’t changed.
Are we up to the challenge?
Minnesota’s education system is still solid but shows signs of severe stress. In 2007, 101 of the state’s 339 school districts placed levy increase proposals on the fall election ballot.
An expanding high-tech sector is competing with schools for skilled science and math graduates, reducing the pool of potential teachers. With fewer qualified teachers available at the same time science and math graduation requirements are rising, some schools — rural schools, specifically — are finding it difficult to fill science and math teaching positions. This situation could lead to school districts being unable to offer required courses.
Increasing emphasis on standardized test performance is driving a troubling new set of learning priorities. “Teaching to the test” rather than raising student achievement with high-quality curricula is fast becoming the norm.
Meanwhile, more than half of all teachers change schools in their first five years. More than 15 percent of them leave the profession after the first year, citing a variety of woes, including stress and professional isolation. This revolving door of new teachers replacing dissatisfied ones lowers the quality of education while putting districts in permanent hiring mode, drawing resources away from the classroom.
Minnesota 2020 understands the complexities of the education system. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, because challenges vary greatly from school district to school district. However, we contend that a muscular teacher recruitment and retention program will reduce costs, assemble better faculties and produce the smartest, most adaptable and most capable generation of students in Minnesota’s history.
Here are the key findings and recommendations from our full report:
· More than half of Minnesota superintendents report an “extreme teacher shortage” in math and science, and nearly half identified a teacher shortage in special education.
· More than half of all teachers change schools in their first five years. More than 15 percent leave the profession after the first year, blaming poor facilities and working conditions, stress, professional isolation and other factors.
· Retirement in high-demand subjects will hit rural districts hardest. Of the 80 chemistry teachers who retired between 2002 and 2006, 10 of them left southwest Minnesota schools. Of 485 math teachers who retired between 2002 and 2006, 51 retired from east central Minnesota and 42 from northeast Minnesota schools. In Earth and space science, 10 of the state’s 56 retirees came from east central Minnesota schools.
· Urban schools report using alternative teacher licensure at twice the rate of principals from small rural schools. Slightly more than half of the urban school principals surveyed felt alternative licensure has been a “very effective” strategy, compared with only 28 percent of rural principals.
Costs of Teacher Turnover
· Turnover puts school districts in a costly permanent hiring mode. Recruiting, hiring, administrative processing and professional development, among other factors, add up to costs ranging from $4,366 per teacher who leaves a school in rural New Mexico to $17,872 in Chicago.
· Teacher turnover and higher recruiting and retention costs uniquely disadvantage rural districts. Turnover reduces the quality of education in small rural schools, which often lose their best teachers to larger, better-paying districts.
· Demand for math and science professionals.
· The 21st century economy requires employees who are well-educated in math and science. Projections to 2012 show employment in science- and engineering-related occupations will increase about 70 percent faster than the overall growth of jobs.
· An expanding high-tech business sector is strongly competing with the education system by paying top dollar for skilled science and math graduates, reducing the pool of potential math and science teachers.
· According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, starting pay in 2006 for biological scientists was $73,000 a year, for chemists $61,000 and for physicists $91,000. Adjusted for inflation, these professions saw at least a 15 percent salary increase since 2000. The average beginning teacher in Minnesota earns $31,456 and overall average is $50,450. Adjusted for inflation, a beginning teacher’s salary has risen 2 percent since 2000 while the overall average has dropped 2 percent.
· To retain teachers and curb the costs of teachers leaving the profession, Minnesota must take the lead in initial orientation and ongoing mentoring of new teachers. One study found that the five-year national teacher retention rate of 56 percent jumped to 88 percent with a comprehensive program of new school induction and mentorship.
· Though most Minnesota schools offer mentoring programs, they are often underused after the school year starts. The Minnesota Department of Education should create a mentoring network that is effective in all districts — big and small, rural and urban. Teachers who get quality mentoring and induction programs generally are happier and more productive.
· Mentoring should follow the Mankato model, providing experienced teachers on a rotating basis to teacher preparation colleges for extensive work with undergraduates, graduates and faculty as well as extensive mentoring and induction in the home district.
· As teacher pay in Minnesota continues to lag behind inflation. Our schools are at an extreme disadvantage in hiring new teachers. For our schools to stay competitive, we should raise all teacher salaries. In addition, we should examine whether schools should offer incentives for high-demand subject areas.
· Increase recruitment of teachers from other professions by using paraprofessionals and alternative licensure. No district, however, should rush inadequately trained teachers into classrooms.
This piece is reprinted from for Minnesota 2020, a new think tank. John Fitzgerald is a Minnesota 2020 Fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.