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Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007

Recruiting and Retaining High-Quality Teachers in Rural Areas
David H. Monk

Organizational Features of Rural Schools

Several organizational features of rural schools directly affect teacher recruitment and retention. Among the most important are demographic characteristics of the teachers, teachers’ workloads, and teachers’ salaries.

Characteristics of Teachers in Rural Schools
Table 2 shows how several key teacher attributes— experience, advanced schooling, and race—are distributed among schools of different types and sizes. It suggests, in particular, a discrepancy between rural and small schools in the average level of teacher experience. The share of inexperienced teachers, though relatively low in rural areas, is high in the smallest schools, perhaps suggesting the smallest schools face the greatest hiring and retention challenges. These data are consistent with the findings of a study using a sophisticated research methodology that controlled for the influence of other background characteristics.14 The table shows that both rural schools and the smallest schools have a below-average share of more highly trained teachers, and that rural schools have an above-average share of non-Hispanic white teachers.

The data in table 2 are consistent with Robert Gibbs’s findings in 2000 that teachers in rural areas are only about half as likely to have graduated from top-ranked colleges or universities as their peers in urban areas (7 percent for rural teachers and 15 percent for urban teachers).15 Researchers also consistently find that teachers in rural areas have comparatively low educational attainment, which suggests one reason why rural areas may be less likely to offer college-preparation programs. Elizabeth Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira report, for example, that 93 percent of twelfth graders in urban areas were enrolled in schools that offered calculus, as against 64 percent of rural twelfth graders. They found similar gaps in other content areas.16 William Carlsen and I also found that rural science teachers were less likely to have graduate degrees and more likely to have majored in education with less course work in science and mathematics than their urban counterparts.17

Table 3 provides insights into the hiring practices of small and rural districts. For example, it shows that the share of rural districts requiring full standard state certification for the field to be taught is larger than the share of all public school districts with that requirement. Here again, rural districts and small districts differ, with a somewhat smaller share of the very smallest districts—those with fewer than 250 students—requiring full certification. The share is even lower for the largest districts. The table also shows that rural and small districts are less likely to require passing scores on state tests as well as standardized tests such as the Praxis examinations required by some states for certification (though passing scores on the Praxis examination vary from state to state).

Table 4 makes clear the difficulty that schools of different types and sizes encounter in filling various teaching positions. Relatively small shares of schools report difficulty hiring general elementary teachers, although the smallest schools have more difficulty than most. In classic shortage areas like special education, mathematics, and the sciences, however, the share tends to be higher in the rural and the smallest schools, again suggesting that these schools face special challenges in recruiting teachers.

Working Conditions for Teachers in Rural Areas
Studies comparing working conditions for teachers in rural and other kinds of school settings have found differences in average class size and in the mix of courses taught, particularly at the secondary level.

Pupil-teacher ratios are relatively low in both elementary and secondary schools that enroll few students. According to the NCES, elementary schools with fewer than 300 students report pupil-teacher ratios of 13.3, compared with 20.3 for schools with more than 1,500 students. Figures for secondary schools are comparable, although they tend to be lower.18 The lower pupil-teacher ratios in smaller schools affect different aspects of teacher workloads. On the positive side, smaller schools tend to have smaller class sizes, although cost sensitivities can prompt measures like combining grade levels. Smaller class sizes, all else equal, are an attractive feature of working in small or rural schools.

Other advantages can stem from a small school or small classroom environment. Rural teachers, for example, report more satisfaction with their work environments and feel they have greater autonomy and more direct influence over school policy.19 Evidence also suggests fewer problems with discipline in rural areas.20

On the negative side, smaller numbers of students limit the ability of teachers to specialize and may require them to deal with wider ranges of pupil needs. This drawback is perhaps most obvious at the secondary level, where a single high school science teacher may teach all the science subfields, but even in elementary schools teachers can find themselves dealing with a wider age span than is customary elsewhere because grade levels have been combined.

Smaller student enrollment can also make it hard for schools to offer more specialized courses. In earlier research using data from New York, I found that increasing enrollment up to 100 in a grade level in secondary schools predictably broadened the curriculum. Increasing enrollment beyond 100, however, often resulted in increased sections of existing courses rather than in more varied courses.21

The smaller numbers of students in rural schools can also affect school stability from one year to the next. Schools with larger numbers of students tend to enjoy a cushion against change. But when students are few, the school or district can change substantially from one year to the next in ways that affect the work of teachers. Recent federal legislation, most particularly the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, raises the stakes for fluctuations from one year to the next, notably in calculating the adequate yearly progress (AYP) accountability yardsticks. Failures to meet AYP standards because of fluctuations stemming from small numbers make small schools vulnerable to sanctions even when teaching performance is exemplary. The small number problem is exacerbated when the performance levels of subpopulations are assessed, making the already small numbers even smaller. The Bush administration has begun to provide increased flexibility to small and rural districts as part of its refinement of NCLB, but making accountability measures sensitive to the realities of small and rural schools and districts remains a challenge.

Salaries of Teachers in Rural Schools
Table 5, which compares average salaries across school and district types and sizes for 2003-04, shows that compensation tends to be low in both rural and small school settings. Salaries for teachers in the smallest schools are 16.5 percent lower than the national average. The share of teachers in the smallest schools who report having an extra job is higher than the national average (19.5 percent compared with 15.9 percent for the sample as a whole). Teachers in the smallest settings are less likely than those in public schools nationwide to be receiving supplemental compensation for extracurricular work or from other school sources, though no such difference appears to exist for teachers in rural districts.

In a separate study Gibbs found that urban salaries are approximately 21 percent higher than rural salaries for starting teachers and 35 percent higher for teachers with master’s degrees and twenty or more years of experience.22

Why Are Rural Teachers’ Salaries Lower?
Researchers have offered various reasons to explain why teacher salaries are lower on average in rural and small school districts than in other areas.

Neoclassical economic theory holds that people’s willingness to accept a particular wage is related in part to the attractiveness of the location where the work will be done. In highly attractive places, workers will be willing to accept a lower wage, so perhaps wages are low in rural areas because the attractiveness of the areas to teachers, on average, induces them to accept lower wages. The opposite, however, might be true if teachers, on average, are not receptive to rural living. In such a case, rural school districts would have to offer higher wages to attract a comparable pool of applicants. In such a case, again, the lower prevailing wages in rural areas could suggest that rural school districts make do with less qualified pools of candidates and are more likely to face retention problems.

Closely related to the mix of attractive and unattractive features in the locale is the mix of features of the job itself. On the one hand, the smaller pupil-teacher ratios and the relative absence of disciplinary problems and greater social cohesion (to the extent that it exists) could prompt teacher candidates to accept lower wages, all else equal. On the other hand, the inability to specialize and the need to teach wide ranges of students could be dispiriting to teachers and mean that higher wages would be necessary to attract and retain comparable candidates.

One aspect of teachers’ work in rural areas that has not received much attention is the availability of services for students with special needs. Rural schools are likely to have to struggle to provide these specialized services because of combinations of poverty and higher costs owing to small scales of operation, and shortages of such services will tend to make teaching less attractive.

Differences in the underlying costs of living also explain some of the nominal differences in teacher wages. Housing costs, for example, tend to be higher in urban areas. But people in rural areas may depend more on automobiles than their counterparts in urban settings, a difference that has a bearing on the cost of living.

The lower wages in rural schools may also simply reflect a lower fiscal capacity in rural areas, coupled with only limited efforts by states to offset the effects of poverty through equalizing grant-in-aid programs.

Rural schools arguably face higher costs of operation because of their smaller size and sparsely settled locations. More concretely, small schools may have to hire and pay for more teachers on a per pupil basis because certain courses must be offered, if only to a few students. One way to absorb these extra costs is to pay lower salaries. As noted, schools are sometimes small by necessity; when school officials and voters choose to have small schools, it complicates the policy implications of size-related costs.

Such rural attributes as sparse settlement or geographic isolation can also raise transportation costs and draw resources away from the core instructional program in general, and teacher salaries in particular.

Rural districts in micropolitan areas will be under pressure to offer wages and working conditions comparable to those of nearby urbanized areas.23 An inability or unwillingness to compete will lead to applicant pools with lower qualifications, all else equal. Districts in more isolated rural areas will feel less pressure to compete with neighboring districts, though isolation itself may adversely affect the available pool of candidates for teaching positions.

Teacher labor markets, in general, tend to be highly localized. A study by Donald Boyd and several colleagues shows that teachers want to teach in schools near where they grew up and prefer areas like their hometowns. For example, 61 percent of teachers entering public school teaching in New York State from 1999 to 2002 started teaching within fifteen miles of their hometown; 85 percent began teaching within forty miles of their hometown.24 Several studies stress the hardship the localized teacher market poses for urban areas, which tend to produce lower shares of college graduates than do suburban areas.25 And similar challenges exist for rural areas, which also produce relatively low shares of college graduates. Indeed, one study finds that the share of rural youth getting some college education is lower than that of urban youth, so teacher supply problems are even more serious in rural areas.26 It is hard to escape the conclusion that the real beneficiaries of the localized teacher market are the wealthy suburban districts that turn out high shares of college graduates and have attractive working conditions.

In a study of hiring in Pennsylvania, Robert Strauss found a dysfunctional penchant for hiring candidates with local ties, which he traced in part to the minimal limits in the school code on indirect conflicts of interest in hiring relatives or friends. Strauss faulted the willingness of school authorities to sacrifice academic credentials in favor of ties to the local area and even called into question the nation’s commitment to local school board authority for school governance.27 More recently, a study of hiring in a large Florida school district suggests that school principals factor academic credentials into a broader array of considerations in what appears to be a rational assessment of the prospective teacher’s fit with the organizational context of the school.28 For example, if teachers with better academic credentials leave a rural school after very short periods of employment, it could be rational for the hiring authorities at that school to prefer other candidates whom they believe will stay in place longer. This could then translate into a preference for candidates who grew up in the vicinity of the school, even at the risk of introducing elements of provincialism into school operations.

Retention rates also influence teacher salaries. High turnover and an inclination to hire inexperienced people will lower average salaries. The data in table 2 suggesting that rural areas have lower shares of inexperienced teachers, while the smallest schools have a relatively high share of such teachers, are confirmed in work of Richard Ingersoll that finds teacher retention to be greater in rural than in other schools. He also finds that teachers leave smaller schools at higher rates.29

Anecdotal evidence suggests a sharp split in district experiences with respect to teacher retention. On the one hand, some teachers settle into small and rural districts and stay for extraordinarily long periods. Indeed, some teachers who grew up in or near a rural community spend their entire career in the same school—a boon or a horror, depending on your perspective. On the other hand, some teachers in these schools leave shortly after arriving in the classroom. Among the possible reasons for this revolving-door phenomenon are the disadvantages associated with rural living, the low salaries, and a tendency to assign greater weight to the drawbacks of rural school teaching (that is, seeing the wider range of students and subjects being taught as undesirable and more important than positive features such as smaller class sizes and fewer discipline problems). Teachers remaining in rural settings do so either by choice or because they cannot get work elsewhere. Presumably school authorities in rural areas seek teachers who are highly talented and genuinely interested in teaching in rural schools. It remains unclear how many teachers and prospective teachers fall into this category.