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Lack of resources in rural CA counties leads to teacher shortages, according to new study

Kai Mathews is the director of the California Educator Diversity Project at UCLA and the lead author of this report.
Charles Abernathy
Kai Mathews
Kai Mathews is the director of the California Educator Diversity Project at UCLA and the lead author of this report.

Many school districts are struggling with teacher shortages, especially in rural areas. A recent study in California explored why.

The study showed that nine rural counties throughout the state are considered teacher education deserts. That includes Del Norte, Modoc and Siskiyou Counties. JPR’s Jane Vaughan recently spoke with Kai Mathews, the director of the California Educator Diversity Project at UCLA and the lead author of this report, about her research.

Jane Vaughan: First off, what is a teacher education desert?

Kai Mathews: We started looking at where we were getting reports in California of some of the more severe teacher shortages. And so we decided to look at, well, what are some of the physical barriers that might actually prevent people from entering into the pipeline or becoming teachers? And one important structure in that pipeline is teacher preparation programs. And so a teacher education desert is a county that doesn't have a teacher education program within 60 miles of its county office of education.

JV: I've heard a lot about teacher shortages. But I haven't heard anybody look into why that is. What might a teacher education program look like? Give me an example.

KM: So, this is where they're getting all of their coursework on appropriate developmental strategies for learning. This is where they're also doing their teacher assessments. This is how they're getting their essential credential, and their student teaching a lot of times also are through these programs, which place them in local school districts that are near those teacher education programs as well.

JV: Okay. So if you've got a teacher education desert, what impacts does that have on teachers, students, communities? What does that actually mean on the ground?

KM: Well, we found that it actually means a lot. Number one, that teacher education program deserts actually have limited post secondary options all around. So it's not just the fact that they don't have a teacher education program. Oftentimes, in order to find any type of post secondary, higher education institution, they have to leave the county. What that causes is that when local candidates or people who might even be potentially interested in education have to leave, the longer that they're away, the less likely they're going to be able to come back or that they'll want to come back. We also see that it impacts the quality of teachers, the experience level of teachers. Teacher education deserts also have higher numbers of teachers who are on temporary permits and waivers, emergency credentials, because they can't find a fully credentialed teacher to take those vacancy spots.

JV: At the risk of asking an obvious question, why are all of these desert counties rural?

KM: We know that these particular deserts are also resource deserts, meaning there's a higher poverty rate, there's a higher student transient rate. They are also dealing with a higher rate of foster students and a lack of monetary support that's flowing into those schools. We also don't know if there are better opportunities just across the border. In addition to all of these deserts being rural, they're also all border counties. So they're all bordering either Oregon or Nevada and even Mexico. And so the flow of teachers or the flow of potential candidates who are moving between borders is really unknown to us.

JV: What solutions would you recommend to address this problem of teacher education deserts?

KM: Recognizing that the type of education that teachers who are going into rural contexts require is not, I wouldn't say vastly different, but there needs to be some type of curriculum and pedagogical specialty around teaching in rural places. I think one of the bigger recommendations is really leaning into our community college system. Currently, we don't tap into them enough.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.