The Competitive Disadvantage: Teacher Compensation in Rural America

Last Updated: March 01, 2003

The Competitive Disadvantage: Teacher Compensation in Rural America

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A highly qualified teacher in every classroom. Not too much to ask or expect.

While other areas in education are hotly disputed (e.g, high stakes testing, whole language, vouchers, funding formulas, etc.), the need for excellent teachers escapes debate. Bolstered by the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known as "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), legal decisions, and research evidence, we now have a national consensus—every child deserves an excellent education and "highly qualified" teachers are essential in achieving this goal.

This is the good news.

The bad news, especially for many rural schools, is that there are huge hurdles in implementing this vision.

The biggest obstacle in staffing every classroom with a skilled teacher, is that nationwide, schools are now facing an ever-increasing teacher shortage—especially of "highly qualified" teachers.

A proliferation of reports document serious teacher shortages, especially in some subject areas and in specific locales. In addition, researchers predict that this shortage will escalate dramatically over the next decade. Adding to the challenge, the No Child Left Behind Act now places an explicit premium on "highly qualified" teachers. Thus, we anticipate that the demand will increase and further intensify the shortage problem for all hard-to-staff schools.

And though teacher shortages are found in all areas—urban, suburban and rural—there are demographic differences. Available information suggests that rural areas, especially, are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain well-qualified new teachers.

The teacher shortage problem itself involves complex economic, social and demographic factors. However, any solution needs to include salaries (and benefits) that are fair and competitive. Unfortunately for rural districts, the latest data indicate that salaries in most rural districts are significantly lower than suburban and urban districts. Thus, it is not surprising that rural districts around the country report that many highly qualified new teachers are taking jobs in higher paying districts (or states)—leaving rural districts with less choice of whom to hire—or no candidates at all.

The challenge of staffing every rural classroom with a highly qualified teacher is not trivial. More than 31% of all public schools are in rural areas. And most importantly, there are more than eight million students attending schools in rural communities. Those eight million children deserve an excellent and equitable education, with access to well-qualified, professional educators. Geography should not dictate which children obtain an excellent education and which do not.

This issue brief explores the latest data and research relevant to rural teacher compensation and suggests policy directions that can help guarantee that "no rural children are left behind" in the national quest for educational excellence.