Going the country mile: How UW-Madison is addressing Wisconsin’s rural education issues

Wisconsin attracts thousands of tourists year-round who make the trek to explore its scenic farmlands, and camp, canoe, ski, fish and hike its great outdoors. While visitors to Wisconsin’s rural and wilderness areas are plentiful, attracting teachers to its smaller cities and townships can be a challenge, say some education experts.

Why is that?

It’s definitely not due to a shortage of teacher applicants, claims Peter Goff, a renowned expert in labor markets and human capital management, and an assistant professor with UW–Madison’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Goff is currently engaged in a much-anticipated study on the supply and demand of teachers across the state, including rural districts, which will challenge the prevailing notion of a so-called teacher shortage.

“We don’t even have a definition of ‘shortage’ and the data typically used to characterize shortages has been limited or flawed, so it’s difficult to determine if a teacher shortage really exists in rural areas or not,” he says.

Goff further explains the challenge in defining a shortage in educators across the state. “If we were to look at a district that is having trouble filling a vacancy, is that a shortage? It is certainly a problem and a very real challenge in some schools, but at what point is it a shortage?” he asks. “Also, when schools hire late in the summer, staffing will be more difficult than if they had started recruiting the month prior.”

Something else to consider is that many districts choose not to increase pay for skills that are in high demand, and Goff wonders if this represents a teacher shortage or a leadership issue? What’s more, Goff says some district leaders are concerned because the number of applicants is lower than in past years. “So at what point is a reduction in the applicant pools sufficient to claim a shortage?” he says.

As a matter of fact, his research appears to be pointing to quite the opposite problem. The most current data he obtained through WECAN (Wisconsin Education Career Access Network), shows that 16,000 teachers applied for only 6,000 vacancies in the 2014-15 school year in Wisconsin.

“Very seldom do you have to close a vacancy without getting a body in it,” says Goff, whose study has uncovered another finding that is sure to surprise many education professionals: “The applicant pool for rural districts doesn’t look that much different from urban districts in terms of the number of applicants and hiring criteria, such as GPA, licensure and years of experience.” Through further research, he hopes to clarify the more important issue. “The big question is, are the top picks for teaching positions in rural schools consistently accepting jobs elsewhere — and why?”

Goff says the real problem is teacher retention. “Teachers right out of school will take a rural job just to get some experience under their belts while continuing to look for one in a suburban area, so the turnover rates in rural schools are tremendous.”

Not to mention, costly. The UW‒Madison education labor expert says it costs anywhere from $4,000 to $9,000 to hire one teacher in Wisconsin. “So if you hire teachers who are transitory and you have restricted funds, as they do in rural schools, you are bleeding yourself every time you hire a new educator.”

Ken Kasinski adds another perspective to this conversation. As the agency administrator for CESA 12, an education service agency in Ashland comprised of 17 rural school districts, Kasinski says they have a number of specialized vacancies that districts just can’t fill. “We need at least one speech therapist, some career and technology education teachers, special education instructors and librarians, for starters.” He believes the most immediate problem in his region is recruitment.

“A lot of teachers don’t want to come to a town of 2,500 people and work in a school with just 200 kids. They wonder if they will have access to enough resources,” explains Kasinski, who has been working in rural education for the last 30 years and has loved every minute of it. He makes a strong argument for rural teaching: “We always talk about smaller learning communities as the best way to educate students. Isn’t that exactly what rural schools are?”

In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea that university research should benefit all citizens of the state, a partnership of the state’s Department of Public Instruction along with UW–Madison’s School of Education and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research offers school districts help in addressing local issues.

This program, called Network Fellows, places skilled graduate students in education organizations across the state to provide free problem-solving assistance. It is a new way to connect UW–Madison education researchers with the state’s K-12 educators and policymakers.

Earlier this year, The Network assigned doctoral student Jennifer Seelig to assist Kasinski and other district leaders of CESA 12. Together, they decided she would work on a project to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

“We tell our fellows that they ARE the Wisconsin Idea: Their job is to bring to the field the knowledge and resources of our great university for the public good, and Jennifer has done exactly that through her field work in Northern Wisconsin,” says Laura Dunek, a Network project coordinator who helped place four fellows in rural assignments last year.

Besides high poverty — about 51 percent of students in CESA 12 are eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to its administrator — many other issues feed into recruitment and retention challenges for rural school communities, such as isolation.

“If you’re a single person trying to find a relationship outside of work, it’s very difficult way up here in the north woods,” says Kasinski. As is finding a place to live, since affordable rentals are generally hard to come by in Northern Wisconsin.

According to Seelig’s research, other significant factors play into attracting teachers to rural classrooms. For one, rural teachers earn less than urban and suburban educators. Based on a 2014 DPI pay scale, the average salary for a teacher in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District was $53,914 compared to $45,087 in the Chequamegon School District. And because rural schools are smaller, teachers may have to teach more than one subject, translating to more work for less pay.

It also doesn’t help that fewer students are going into teaching overall. The U.S. Department of Education reports a 27.9 percent decrease in the number of college students enrolling in teacher prep programs across the state.

In his research, Goff discovered that one of the strongest draws for where teachers ultimately decide to work is the proximity to where they did their student teaching. “The closer that districts are to education preparation programs, the more student teachers they will get,” he asserts. And therein lies another problem, says Seelig. “Most colleges and universities are not located in rural areas.”

However, the biggest challenge, as Seelig sees it, is that too many people are moving out of rural areas, directly impacting school enrollment and therefore, state funding. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that rural school districts from 2000 to 2010 suffered a 7.5 percent enrollment decline. In Price County, where Seelig has been living while working on her dissertation on the relationship between rural schools and communities, more than 40 percent of its student population has disappeared in the last 15 years, she says.

The graduate fellow notes: “Declining enrollment in rural schools, declining populations in rural areas and recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers is all related.” But she remains hopeful. “Everyone up here is aware that losing people is the issue, and recognition of the problem is the key to solving it.”

To attract more teachers up north, Kasinski and Seelig collaborated on several innovative solutions that they presented to district superintendents. One novel idea that bubbled to the surface was to develop a marketing strategy and brand for individual districts in the CESA 12 region.

Basically, sell the Northern Wisconsin experience, says Kasinski. “For instance, did you know that Chequamegon is the home of the fat-tire race won by Greg LeMond? Or that world-class athletes in Nordic sports come up here to train? And that the famed Firehouse 50 bike race passes through Drummond?”

They encouraged superintendents to work in concert with community partners to put together a digital welcome packet for prospective teachers, similar to what Chambers of Commerce do, which would contain information on community events, housing rentals, Internet service providers, healthcare options and recreational activities—areas of interest Seelig identified in her research as important to education job applicants.

Kasinski also believes it is important to sell the benefits of teaching in rural schools. To prospective teachers considering the move, he gives it his best elevator pitch. “You will love the uniqueness of the area and the high quality of life. Most important, you will definitely have a hand in shaping education.” He further elaborates, “Instead of taking orders from the central office, you will be an active participant, not a subtle observer.”

In November, Seelig and Kasinski will serve on a panel with Goff at the annual conference of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance in Stevens Point, where the graduate student will also present her research on the rural labor market, as well as teacher recruitment and retention efforts in rural Wisconsin. Dunek and her UW‒Madison colleagues will be in attendance, as well.

Seelig renewed her Network fellowship in August, and says this ongoing assignment has opened her eyes to the many challenges facing rural schools, where 44 percent of the state’s 860,000 pre-K through 12 public school students attend, based on DPI data. “This project has given me an opportunity to really listen to CESA 12 and these school communities. I think a lot of times, they know what they need, but no one is listening.”

The graduate fellow says she has enjoyed working collaboratively with CESA 12 administrators, and has appreciated the opportunity to share the university’s resources and help rural school districts develop solutions to the problems they face.

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