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Responding to Teacher Shortages in Rural Schools: Lessons from Australia

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj is an associate professor at Seton Hall University. She's the author of the book Unaccompanied Minors and her research has been featured in popular outlets like the New York Times and the Huffington Post. She's spending the year as a visiting researcher at Australia's University of Sydney, so she'll explore how issues of school choice, rural education, and teacher recruitment get tackled down under. Today she's joined by coauthors Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, an associate professor at Australia's Deakin University, and Matthew A.M. Thomas, an American senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Until recently, the experiences of students and teachers in rural educational settings received scant attention from researchers or policy-makers at the highest levels of government in the U.S. However, persistent disparities in rural students' access to educational opportunities and evidence of the consequences of such disparities have brought renewed focus to rural education. For example, earlier this month, the Institute of Education Sciences announced $25 million in grant funding for three new research centers dedicated to the study and improvement of rural education.

The plight of students living in remote and rural parts of Australia presents a similar cause for concern. While approximately 10 percent of the Australian population lives outside urban areas, the relatively few students who attend rural or remote schools have some of the fewest advantages at home and at school in terms of resources, course offerings, experienced teachers, and educational opportunities. Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by these educational inequities since one quarter of Australia's Indigenous population live in remote areas.

Unlike the U.S., where, aside from college enrollments, students in rural schools graduate from high school at rates above the national average and outperform students from urban areas on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), rural Australian students perform worse than their peers in urban areas on nearly every meaningful measure of progress or proficiency. For example, students in areas of Australia classified as "very remote" (based on relative access to services according to the Accessibility and Remoteness Index of Australia) are only a third as likely as urban students to score at proficiency on standardized reading assessments in 7th grade. Rural and remote students also have lower high school completion rates, lower college enrollment rates, and lower completion of any tertiary education than less geographically isolated students.

As in the United States, among the most significant challenges facing rural and remote schools are the ongoing shortage of teachers and the difficulty recruiting and retaining highly qualified school personnel. Teaching positions in rural and remote regions of Australia may be a hard sell given a higher cost of living, more limited housing stock, geographic isolation, and far (and expensive) travel "home" for teachers from other parts of the country.

The Australian government at both state and federal levels has undertaken a number of initiatives to try to attract teachers into regional, rural, and remote schools and to encourage them to stay there. For example, in the state of Western Australia, teachers can receive up to $20,000 (AUD) more each year and earn six months of "long service leave" after only four years of teaching (instead of the standard ten years). Some states also offer transfer benefits to teachers who have worked in hard-to-staff schools for a period of time, which gives those teachers priority when requesting transfers to a "preferred location" (often closer to urban areas).

There are also a number of programs—including Teach for Australia, the controversial local version of Teach for America—that places comparatively inexperienced teachers in some of the neediest schools and prioritizes sending teachers to remote areas to respond to the shortages there. The evidence to date has yet to show any noticeable or sustained positive impacts from these various incentive programs (c.f., ACER, 2013), recently leading the Australian Capital Territory (an area where the Australian capital, Canberra, is located, somewhat akin to Washington, D.C.) to cut ties with Teach For Australia. However, Australian researchers and educators are teeming with other ideas that the government and school systems here and elsewhere should explore and take seriously.

Some teacher preparation programs have already begun to pursue new avenues to invest in rural and remote education. For example, the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools (NETDS) and Deakin Alliances in Teacher Education organize extended student teacher placements in regional schools to "contribute sustainably to curriculum offerings and student learning outcomes that focus on the needs of the school and community." They do this by focusing more explicitly on preparing teacher candidates to work in rural and remote areas, providing resources and courses tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of students in those areas.

Teacher preparation programs must also emphasize the benefits of having experiences in rural and remote areas. A recent study showed that some pre-service teachers from urban areas were interested in rural teaching opportunities but had a number of concerns that were not adequately addressed. Universities must capitalize on the existing desire among new teachers to work in rural and remote settings through enhanced preparation and by targeting those pre-service teachers who show willingness to explore teaching internships in rural contexts.

State school systems could offer leadership positions to experienced teachers with strong track records of success to attract them to geographically isolated areas.

Finally, cultivating local human capital and building a pipeline from within rural and remote communities are essential ways to both invest in local communities and solve these pressing needs.

Responding to educational challenges in rural and remote areas of the world is an issue of global import that necessitates cross-border collaboration. Strategies to respond to resource disparities, including human capital ones, must move beyond deficits notions of rural education and embrace the opportunities that rural and regional contexts offer.

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, and Matthew A.M. Thomas

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