North Dakota Teacher Shortage May Not Be As Bad As Reported

“North Dakota’s shortage of teachers has gotten worse, with the highest number of unfilled posts in a decade, and a provision that would have allowed ‘community experts’ to take on educational roles appears to have failed,” the Associated Press reported earlier this week.

The number cited by the AP and other media outlets for the number of teachers the state is short was 204, but what many people may not know is the bulk of that number are teachers who work as substitutes or have temporary teaching licenses and are classified as “irregular.”

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”It’s fair to say there is disagreement about the extent of the shortage and what number should be given as an indicator of teacher openings,” he told me via email.[/mks_pullquote]

The matter came to my attention by way of this Facebook posting by former educator and anti-Common Core activist Brian Kappel in which he quotes Janet Welk, the director of the state’s Education Standards and Practices board, as saying the media didn’t report the teacher shortage numbers accurately.

“As you can see the press reported 204 openings which includes the ‘irregular’ positions that are filled with teachers working their way into the profession somehow,” Kappel quotes Welk as saying after she provided him with a spreadsheet detailing the shortage.

I asked Kappel for a copy of the spreadsheet he obtained (see it below) and of that 204 shortage number some 149 fall into the “irregular” category.

I asked Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel to verify this data for me (he did) and to explain why “irregular” teaching positions were included in the overall shortage number.

“It’s fair to say there is disagreement about the extent of the shortage and what number should be given as an indicator of teacher openings,” he told me via email. “We think it’s fair to say that a teaching position filled by an ‘irregular’ is properly included as part of the shortage, because these are not long-term folks, and an ‘irregular’ is hired only when a ‘regular’ isn’t available.”

He continued:

There is also a fair amount of disquiet about North Dakota’s teacher licensing requirements and whether they keep qualified teachers out of the classroom. You’ve made note of this in your own writings.

The posting you forwarded described the shortage numbers as “inaccurate.” They are not inaccurate, but it’s fair to say, as I’ve mentioned, that there is disagreement about how the numbers that we have should be interpreted.

I should also add that these shortage numbers have been calculated in this fashion for a number of years. States report these numbers to the U.S. Department of Education to include it its state-by-state “EdFacts” publication. The Education Department has guidelines about how these numbers should be calculated, to allow for comparability among states.

So there you have it. The 204 positions reported as the shortage is the official number, but not all of those positions are the same. Many seem to be substitutes and other sort of positions than what most of us think of, which is a full-time, in-the-classroom teacher.

Certainly schools have a need for substitutes. Teachers get sick and take vacations and have family emergencies just like everyone else. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that the state’s teacher shortage is any less of a problem in light of these new facts. But it seems to me that the 204 teacher shortage position requires more nuance in how it is presented to the public than it has gotten.

I think most in the public have probably been given a false impression of that number.