To:                   Board of Regents

 

From:               Richard A. Crofts

Commissioner

 

Date:                June 25, 2002

 

Subject:           Teacher Retention


At the May meeting of the Board of Regents in Dillon I was asked to work with OPI to review teacher retention issues and recommend options that would reduce the need for graduating teachers to seek employment outside of Montana.  Since May I have consulted with OPI and officials of the MEA-MFT who are deeply concerned about this issue.

 

Most discussions of teacher retention in Montana base their comments upon a study entitled Who Will Teach Montana’s Children? Published in February 2001.  The study was prepared by Dori Nielson, a researcher at The University of Montana – Missoula and formerly an information specialist at the Office of Public Instruction.  The study is to be updated by the end of this summer.  Please contact Sherry if you would like a copy of this study.

 

There are two dimensions to the issue of teacher shortages in Montana.  In an OPI survey of school districts for 1999-2000, some teaching areas were identified by nearly all sizes of districts as difficult to fill.  The shortages named most often were music, special education, foreign languages, and guidance.  However, Montana’s small and rural school districts experience difficulties in filling positions in almost all teaching areas.  Thus, any program to address the problems of teachers shortages in Montana must address these two areas:  teachers shortages in selected disciplines (though the list of disciplines is likely to grow) and difficultly in recruiting and retaining teachers in rural Montana.  Of course, when these two factors come together (recruiting a music teacher for a rural Montana elementary school district, e.g.) the recruiting difficulties become almost insurmountable.

 

Ms. Neilson’s study projects the annual need for new teachers in Montana to be about 900 per year.  Based upon demographic data from the Teachers Retirement System, the number of teachers retiring each year is likely to grow.  The public and private approved teacher education programs in Montana are producing about that number of graduates per year.  However, the need for new teachers would be met only if all of those graduates remained in Montana and took available teaching positions.  Of course, many persons who graduate from teacher education programs do not end up taking teaching positions and, more startlingly, a large proportion of those graduates apparently do not remain in Montana.  In fact, Ms. Neilson’s study concludes that only 29% of the graduates of teacher education programs in Montana are teaching in Montana one or two years after finishing college.  The updated version of her study may provide more insight into that phenomenon.

 

Ms. Neilson also cites a study by the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association which concludes that four factors contribute most significantly to the existing teacher shortage:

 

  1. Part-time and multiple assignments.

For example, a small elementary school district in rural Montana attempting to recruit a music teacher would need only a part-time appointment.  The likelihood of finding a qualified and prepared teacher to take a part-time appointment accounts for considerable difficult.  In addition, in all but the largest Montana school districts, teachers are required to teach in more than one subject area - - sometimes several.  Even for the candidate certified to teach in more than one area, the appeal of such assignments is less attractive than more focused teaching loads in larger districts either inside or outside of Montana.

 

  1. Salaries and benefits.

The decline in the ranking of Montana’s salaries for teachers is well documented.  What is less well-known is that benefits available to Montana’s teachers are also not competitive.  This is especially true with regard to the retirement program available to Montana’s teachers and with regard to health insurance.

 

  1. Rural Isolation.

The problems caused by rural isolation include travel for work, social amenities, and services; limited opportunities for family members; personal and professional isolation; difficulty in finding housing; workload issues because of multiple assignments; shortage of opportunities for mentoring and exchange with professional peers.

 

  1. Small elementary districts.

To quote from Ms. Neilson’s study:  “Montana still has more than 100 elementary districts with 40 or fewer students.  In 1999-2000, 73 of these districts had one teacher.”  The problems cited above are greatly exacerbated in these districts.

 

Because such statistical studies are based upon projections, there may be reason to question the extent of the problem.  However, there seems to be little reason to doubt that Montana is experiencing a problem in recruiting and retaining teachers and that the problem is likely to get worse.

 

In preparation for the 2001 legislative session Governor Racicot appointed a Task Force on Teacher Salaries/Shortages.  The Task Force identified nine areas of recommendations and several of those recommendations were turned into legislative initiatives.  The only one of those initiatives that was funded by the 2001 Legislature was a total of $30,000 for compensation for Montana teachers who successfully completed the National Board Certification process. 

 

As we head into the 2003 legislative session, the K-12 community has focused its efforts on two proposals:  (1) a loan repayment program for teachers who are teaching in critical teacher shortage areas define both in terms of academic subject areas and geographic areas; (2) an amendment to the TRS statute to increase the retirement benefit by approximately 10 per cent for participants who retire with 30 years or more of service. 

 

A loan repayment program has been demonstrated to be successful in rural Montana by our own Rural Physicians Incentive Program (RPIP).  However, it should be noted that the RPIP is not funded by state dollars, but by an additional assessment added to the tuition bills of medical students in the WWAMI program.  The improvement to the retirement benefit would attempt to keep experienced teachers on the job for a few years longer by making it economically beneficial for them to teach additional years.  It might also help respond to the circumstances in which Montana teachers take their retirement benefits and then move to another state to continue their teaching career.

 

Finally, here are the options I would recommend to the Board of Regents:

First, it seems to me, and I think the K-12 community would agree, that the best way to attack this problem is the adequate funding of Montana’s K-12 schools.  Members of the Board of Regents will have the opportunity to support improvements in school funding during their work on the unified budget request to be submitted by the Board of Education.

 

Second, I think we should support the establishment of a loan repayment program and I have added that issue to our legislative agenda.  This too can be included in the unified budget request from the Board of Education.

 

Third, the cost of the improvement to the teachers retirement system in the out years would be very significant and I believe that the Regents should be cautious about supporting such an expensive proposal in the light of our own budgetary needs.

 

Fourth, we have in our own budget request a different approach to helping resolve this issue.  Both MSU – Billings and MSU – Northern have proposals to deliver undergraduate and graduate level teacher training to place-bound students in rural Montana.  For Billings this involves the on-line delivery of these programs and for Northern it involves the use of telecommunications to provide teacher training on the campuses of four of Montana’s tribal colleges.  The required investment for Billings is $325,000 and for Northern it is $163,000 for the biennium.  I believe these programs hold great promise in delivering educational programs to prospective students who have already to some extent demonstrated their unwillingness to leave the state.

 

I look forward to our discussion of this important issue.