Rural School Staffing: Hot Spots Hidden in Numbers

By Mary Schulken — August 10, 2010 3 min read
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Two headlines that will surprise no one: Small schools and schools with high numbers of kids in poverty and minorities -- many of which researchers say are concentrated in certain rural regions -- lose the most teachers. Also, principal turnover rates in those same categories of schools are the highest in the nation.

I came across the numbers that show those facts while reporting this story on how universities, non-profits and rural school districts are turning to programs that nurture homegrown talent. Yet those were the only useful numbers I found attempting to paint a precise statistical picture of what people with “boots on the ground” characterize as an acute need for teachers and principals in rural schools.

When that statistical picture could not be found, it intrigued me. It also made me wonder: Can you effectively pinpoint and advocate solutions in this day of data-driven decisions when you can’t quantify the problem?

Jerry D. Johnson, research and policy director of the Rural School and Community Trust, said existing research leans primarily on the Student and Staffing Survey done by the National Center for Education Statistics. It has serious limitations when depicting rural needs, he said:

  • National numbers don’t account for how much rural communities vary across the nation.
  • Most data-gathering hasn’t been done in a way that allows statistically accurate state-level and local-level comparisons and conclusions.
  • Or, in the case of regional analyses, the research just hasn’t been done.

Here’s how Johnson further describes it (warning: this is technical):
“The datasets that are available for analysis don’t readily lend themselves to state-specific comparisons of rural versus non-rural because the sampling structure lacks an appropriately sized rural and or non-rural sample drawn from each state to allow for generalizing to the respective rural and non-rural state populations.
“You could perhaps do the kinds of regional analyses you describe that would highlight rural versus non-rural differences in a multi-state region like the Mississippi Delta or Central Appalachia with that data, but it has not been done as far as I know,” he said.

The bottom line: “You have (more staffing needs in) high poverty schools that serve concentrated areas of poverty and you have a whole lot more of that in certain rural regions,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, back to the headlines about small schools having the highest rates of attrition and turnover. Here are some reliable -- by Johnson’s standards -- numbers I did find that hint at those hot spots. (I included the overall national and rural figures as a reference point so you could glimpse what Johnson said about national numbers not meaning much.)
The latest NCES teacher mobility/attrition report shows high turnover in small schools, most of which are in rural areas. :

  • Overall 8.1 percent of the nation’s public school teachers moved to another school and 8.4 percent left the profession.
  • In rural areas and small towns, the study found 7.3 percent of teachers moved while 7.7 percent left teaching.
  • But, rates in the nation’s smallest schools, where less than 200 students are enrolled, were highest. Ten percent of teachers in those schools moved, while 9.7 percent left teaching.

Here’s a similar snapshot from the latest NCES Principal Attrition and Mobility report, which represents 2008-2009 and was released in June:
Overall 6.9 percent of principals in public schools moved and 11.9 either left the profession or left for other jobs in education.

  • In rural schools, 7.9 percent of principals moved and 12.3 percent left either the profession or for other jobs in education.
  • But, in the smallest schools, those with fewer than 100 students, 10.5 percent of principals moved and 12.5 left either the profession or for other jobs in education.
  • That pattern continued in schools where 100 to 199 students were enrolled: 6.5 percent moved and 11.7 percent left either the profession or for other jobs in education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.