Demand for K-12 teachers in North Dakota outstrips supply
According to data, more needed teaching positions are being filled "irregularly" or not being filled at all.
In a first-grade classroom at Manvel Public School, Amanda Hoverson circled small drawings of bees 10 at a time on an electronic whiteboard. She ended up with three rows of 10 and another, final row of four.
One, two, three, four — Hoverson and the gaggle of 6- and 7-year-olds counted the last row of bees together.
"Four ones," Hoverson told the class. "Now, how many in all do I have? Do not blurt, raise your hand."
34, a student answered — correct!
"Does this make sense?" Hoverson asked to a chorus of "yes," and the students moved onto a packet of similar problems that they worked on individually. Hoverson is a student-teacher at the school, where she also substitute teaches and coordinates Manvel's after-school programs.
“They’re like sponges when they’re young,” Hoverson told the Grand Forks Herald. “They are still excited to learn and ask the dreaded ‘why’ question that many adults seem to be afraid to answer at times.”
She's been a nursing assistant, a loan coordinator, and a paraprofessional before now, but, in the long run, Hoverson wants to be a school counselor. For the moment, that means pursuing a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in early childhood education via online classes at UND.
About 200 miles west, Rachel Edwards’ children got old enough to give her the figurative room to pursue a teaching degree through a similar UND program. She wants to help small groups of elementary-aged students improve their reading and writing skills. Currently, Edwards is student-teaching second-graders at Kenmare School District. Her own childhood wasn’t very “cookie cutter,” Edwards said, so school became a refuge that sometimes was more comfortable than home.
“And my teachers were just really huge supports in my life, even beyond education,” Edwards said. “And if I can be that for even one student – that's my goal.”
When she and Hoverson receive their degrees, they’ll be part of a supply of new teachers in North Dakota that some education officials and academics worry isn’t enough – or soon won’t be enough – to meet the demand of the state’s public school districts.
“I think there was a challenge before the pandemic hit, and I think those challenges have been exacerbated,” Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of K-12 schools at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, told the Herald. “The additional pressure of the responsibility of public health has been something that teachers have never experienced before. ... They also aren't feeling the support that they once felt from, whether it be individual community leaders, or as a nation in general.”
In August 2021, staff from the Department of Public Instruction and the North Dakota University System showed data to the state’s interim Higher Education Committee that indicates:
- The number of people enrolled in teacher education programs in North Dakota has dropped from 2,383 in 2016 to 2,243 in 2020.
- The number of people receiving a bachelor’s degree in education from any of those schools has trended downward, from 731 in 1997 to 613 in 2019.
- The number of needed teaching positions across the state that go unfilled or are filled by someone with atypical credentials rose to 3.59% in the 2020-2021 school year. (It’s 4% this school year.)
- Special education, counseling, science, fine and performing arts, and ag education are among the areas with the most critical need for teachers, as measured by the number of positions that are either unfilled or filled by people with “irregular” credentials, such as a temporary teaching license.
Beyond that, the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board, which issues and oversees the state’s teacher licenses, declared this school year and last that every area of instruction in the state – special education , language arts, science, and so on – has a “critical shortage” of workers.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by a statewide teachers union found that only 41% of 1,100 respondents saw themselves retiring from the workforce as a teacher, and a North Dakota University System analysis of teacher license data indicates that the retention rate among K-12 educators is set to hit a 15-year low.
“You’ve got a pipeline need,” said Mark Sanford, the former longtime head of Grand Forks Public Schools and now a Republican state legislator who chairs the higher ed committee. “And you’ve got an issue of retention.”
Anecdotally, recruiting teachers to public schools in Grand Forks is getting more complex and challenging, according to Linsey Stadstad, the school district’s human resources director.
“It’s just getting harder to find qualified applicants to fill the vacancies that our teachers are leaving," she said.
So why is that pipeline seemingly getting drier, so to speak? Herald interviewees’ responses boiled down to three answers: the COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed yet more demands on educators across the country; the increasingly divisive politics of public education; and pay, which is notoriously low and can nudge teachers, especially those with science or technology backgrounds, toward other, better-paying fields.
“I think we do have a lot of young people today that are not choosing the teaching profession because it's hard. It's challenging. It's a little bit unpredictable,” said Jenny Bladow, the director of teacher education at UND and a former teacher at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks. “We don't know what to expect five, 10 years from now when it comes to teaching in a traditional classroom setting. Is that going to exist? What's that going to look like?”
The university has put together “accelerated” programs in which a student can earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education in as few as three years, assuming they already have an associate’s degree. Hoverson and Edwards, the two prospective teachers, are both earning their degrees that way.
Total graduates from UND’s teacher education program have fluctuated between 115 and 166 since the 2015-2016 school year, according to data provided by university administrators. They predict about 109 people will graduate from the program in the 2021-2022 school year.
About 30 miles south at Mayville State University, administrators have been thinking along the same lines.
Similar to UND, Mayville has increased its online course offerings. The university also offers a 2.5-year path to an undergraduate special education teaching degree that, in essence, sacrifices students’ summer vacations for speed. And, this semester, administrators there began another master’s degree program that aims to help people with an undergraduate degree in education get the credentials they need to fill specific shortage areas, such as special education.
Mayville also boasts a program via which prospective teachers who are already trained in the subject they want to teach – someone with a biology degree who wants to teach high school science, for instance – can parlay that into a master’s degree in teaching. UND has a similar program, as well.
“They have the biology background, but they’re missing the pedagogy – how students learn,” Pam Johnson, the dean and chair of Mayville State’s Division of Education, said. “By building those skills, they’re able to be a higher-quality teacher whenever they enter the teaching field.”
That university’s “MAT” program — which is an abbreviation for the master of arts in teaching — began in the 2016-17 school year and, last year, produced 12 new teachers. Johnson indicated she takes particular pride in it.
“The numbers don’t seem big enough to sometimes always make the metrics of the cost to the university pay out, but it’s a critical shortage area and we are proud of it,” she said. “We want to serve the taxpayers of North Dakota. … They need math teachers? Well, we’re going to make sure you get some math teachers. Special education teachers? We’re going to make sure you get some special education teachers.”
The school graduated 41 new teachers in the 2016-17 school year, and that figure has risen each year since then to a projected 90-plus this school year.