News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The teacher shortage is matter of climate

And the effects are probably irreversible at this point.  

South Dakota is experiencing a teacher shortage.  It shares what is a nationwide problem.   However, South Dakota has peculiar aspects that affect the education climate in the state.  Its prevailing attitude toward education has a history of long entrenchment, and it is a political one that has been enforced by the state legislature.  Like other states, such as Indiana, the legislature has been  called upon to do something about the shortage.  It has instituted a "blue ribbon" panel to examine the issue of funding, as the state has distinguished itself for having the lowest pay for teachers in the nation for decades.  

The national press has taken up the examination of teacher shortages and why people are leaving the profession and declining to enter it.  A Washington Post story about Indiana's problem summarizes what is actually the national situation:

What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.
However, the same press was until very  recently running stories about the deplorable state of American schools,  how impossible it was to fire bad teachers,  the overreaching power of the teacher unions, and the need to hold teachers accountable.  The attacks on education started 30 years ago with a critical examination called "A Nation at Risk," and have become a staple of pseudo-journalism ever since.  In 1995, a book was published which examined what it found the criticism of education to be:  The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America's Public Schools.  The issues that the book and subsequent studies brought up never received the attention that the attacks on education did. It is easier and more popular to incite the ire of a media-conditioned public by maligning education.  That is not to say that education, as it evolves in a changing world, does not have challenges to meet, but the popular, usually misinformed harangues impede and discourage genuine examinations and proposals to meet those challenges.  

I have often noted from my time when I reported on school districts that an essential change in education was when school boards stopped thinking of themselves as conduits of information between the public and the professional teaching staffs and began to conceive of themselves as corporate boards of directors.  Rather than consult the teachers through the principals and superintendents about educational matters,  school boards pre-empted teachers as professionals and regarded them as low-level laborers who had to be told what to do and monitored.  The cliche that schools had to be run like businesses became the law, and the climate for education changed.  Teaching became a  lousy job.  

At one point while I taught at Northern State University, the institution supplied half of the teachers working in South Dakota.  Until 1964,  Northern was Northern State Teachers College, and while it expanded its curriculum, it maintained a strong teacher education program as part of its mission.  However, some presidents gave the teacher education program diminished attention and support as they focused on other aspects of the college, and the Department of Education weakened in effect and reputation.  It hit bottom under the presidency of John Hutchinson when it lost accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (now called CAEP).  Northern went through a series of presidents who were mere surrogates for the Board of Regents, not practicing scholars who presided over the integrity and quality of  academic programs.  

Northern's teacher education program was eventually re-accredited but ran for a time  on its past reputation.  Our strongest English majors were in teacher education, some of whom I had as advisees, and I saw a change taking place among graduates and recent graduates who were teaching.  I received requests for letters of recommendation from all over the US, and my files contain letters to California, Nevada, New York, Iowa, Florida, and Massachusetts for people who were the strongest students.  They were looking for jobs outside of South Dakota, and those who had  teaching jobs in the state were looking to move.  

The motives behind the moves were not only for better pay.  The lowest teacher pay in the nation is an expression of the value placed on education and the low regard in which the ruling party of the state holds teachers.  The low pay has been accompanied by an aggressive disparagement of teaching and education that has created a climate of disrespect and insult and abuse as a working condition for teachers.  This climate was apparent to students.  The most t talented students chose not to go into teaching and those who did seldom stay  in the profession past five years. 

Cory Heidlelberger at the Dakota Free Press has taken up the matter of teacher pay and states, as many do, that the teacher shortage can be solved by offering better pay.  The nation has worked hard in the last 30 years to castigate, discredit, and debase the teaching profession.  South Dakota has effectively claimed itself as winner of the teacher degradation festival with its lowest pay in the nation.  And, as I stress, that pay is an expression of an overall attitude that creates the climate for education in the state.

Teachers, like all professionals, want to work where they are allowed to  practice their profession and fulfill their potential by working where hard successful work is appreciated and life is not a daily battle with those who would discredit them.  Low salaries is not the only problem South Dakota.  It has a long and virulent record of anti-intellectualism and mean ignorance that defines its educational climate   

A major factor in the teaching staff that exists is that the teachers are South Dakotans who want to be near their families.  But why would a young person with potential choose South Dakota?  Especially when promising teacher candidates are told to identify those school districts which will allow them to work and grow and provide compensation commensurate with the job.  Such districts are devoted to educating children to continue the advances for the nation that public education has made possible.  They concentrate their job hunts on those places.  That pretty much eliminates South Dakota from consideration.  

It's not just the pay; it's the climate.  And South Dakota has worked hard to create a bad climate for education.  And the social and political conditions of the state make a change in the climate for education almost impossible.

Good teachers will not work where they are not allowed to practice their profession or where their profession is defamed.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States