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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Teacher Workforce, Rural

September 2018


What does the research say about differences in K12 teacher shortages and staffing by school locale (for example, rural, suburban, and urban)?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on K-12 teacher shortages and staffing by school locale (for example, rural, suburban, and urban). For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Berry, B., & Shields, P. M. (2017). Solving the teacher shortage: Revisiting the lessons we’ve learned. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(8), 8–18. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Two decades ago, at a time when much of the country faced looming teacher shortages, a number of states invested in comprehensive strategies for strengthening the teaching profession. For example, and drawing upon recommendations from the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, both California and North Carolina built statewide teacher recruitment centers, launched new mentoring and induction programs for beginning teachers, and created incentives for veteran teachers to seek national board certification. However, while such efforts were successful, they were gradually dismantled, mainly for political reasons—and it will take effective political advocacy to reinstate them.”

Brackett, A., Mundry, S., Guckenburg, S., & Bourexis, P. (2007). An analysis of state data on the distribution of teaching assignments filled by highly qualified teachers in New York schools (Issues & Answers. REL 2008–No. 047). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “New York rural schools and districts have a high percentage of core teaching assignments filled by highly qualified teachers, with only small differences across key factors such as school poverty and school need for improvement. Urban schools—particularly those in New York City—have fewer core assignments filled by highly qualified teachers. This report ascertains the patterns in teaching assignments filled by highly qualified teachers across urban, suburban, and rural districts in New York. It also examines how, in rural districts in New York, the percentage of teaching assignments filled by highly qualified teachers varies by school poverty level, school level, school need for improvement, and subject matter. The purposes of this report are to increase understanding of staffing in rural schools in New York, to inform the state whether rural students have equitable access to highly qualified teachers, and to determine whether efforts are needed to recruit highly qualified teachers to rural areas.”

Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

From the description: “This report builds on findings from a 2016 study by LPI, A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S. Using data from the latest National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Surveys, the authors detail who is leaving, why, and which students are most impacted. They also provide information on policy considerations that can address attrition.”

Goff, P. T., & Bruecker, E. M. (2017). The role of place: Labor market dynamics in rural and non-rural school districts (WCER Working Paper No. 2017-4). Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A considerable body of work has addressed teacher labor markets and the sorting of teachers within and among school districts. Many studies have focused on urban schools within teacher labor markets, but far less research has examined teacher supply and demand among rural school districts. This study examines the pool of applicants vying for teaching vacancies in 311 Wisconsin districts to determine how applicants differ across geographic categories, particularly with regard to education, experience, and geographic preferences. We find no evidence to support claims of a rural teacher shortage; however, applicants do appear to be averse to rural contexts. Some factors, such as enrollment in particular universities and rural student teaching experiences, increase applicants’ interest in rural vacancies. Similarly, districts’ proximity to educator preparation programs increases applicant pools for all locales, yet rural districts tend to be further from universities and have fewer programs within a 40-mile radius.”

Levin, J., Manship, K., Chambers, J., Johnson, J., & Blankenship, C. (2011). Do schools in rural and nonrural districts allocate resources differently? An analysis of spending and staffing patterns in the West Region states (Issues & Answers. REL 2011–No. 099). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory West. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report presents the first detailed comparison of resource allocation between rural and nonrural districts in the West Region. Three regional characteristics often associated with rural districts were chosen for the analysis: district enrollment, student population density within a district (students per square mile), and drive time from the center of a district to the nearest urban area/cluster. Two other types of factors thought to be associated with resource allocation were also investigated: student need (incidence of poverty, English language learner students, and students receiving special education services) and geographic differences in labor costs. The report first examines how average regional characteristics, student needs, and labor costs differed across rural and nonrural district locale categories in 2005/06. Next it analyzes how average measures of resource allocation (per student expenditures on instruction, administration and student support, and transportation; ratios of administrative, instructional, and student support staff to students; and ratios of district central administration and maintenance and operations spending to school-level spending) varied across district locale categories. Using regression analysis, the study then models how these measures of resource allocation varied with the three regional characteristics and whether the relationship between resource allocation and regional characteristics differed across the study states. This study finds that rural districts in the West Region spent more per student, hired more staff per 100 students, and had higher overhead ratios of district- to school-level resources than did city and suburban districts. Regional characteristics were more strongly related to resource allocation than were other cost factors studied.”

Malkus, N., Hoyer, K., Sparks, D., & Ralph, J. (2015). Teaching vacancies and difficult-to-staff teaching positions in public schools (Stats in Brief. NCES 2015-065). Jessup, MD: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief investigates teaching vacancies and difficult-to-staff teaching positions (i.e., positions for which the principals reported that it was very difficult to fill a vacancy or that they could not fill a vacancy in a specific subject area) in public schools in four school years (1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12). This Statistics in Brief uses data from the Public School Questionnaire of the 1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Surveys (SASS) to examine the percentages of public schools with teaching vacancies and the percentages of public schools with subject areas with difficult-to-staff teaching positions. This brief first presents a picture of teaching vacancies and difficult-to-staff teaching positions overall and by school level (elementary, middle, and high) and then focuses on staffing difficulties in different subjects and by selected characteristics at the high school level. The findings highlighted in these sections are an illustrative rather than exhaustive list of all statistically significant differences found in the study. Study questions include: (1) What percentages of all public schools reported teaching vacancies; What percentages of all public schools reported difficult-to-staff teaching positions; (2) What percentages of public high schools reported difficult-to-staff teaching positions in different subject areas; and (3) How did the percentages of public high schools that had difficult-to-staff teaching positions in zero, one, or two or more subject areas vary by selected school characteristics? Key findings include: (1) Compared to the 1999-2000 school year, a lower percentage of schools had at least one teaching vacancy in the 2011-12 school year (figure 1); (2) In 2011-12, the percentage of schools that had at least one difficult-to-staff teaching position was less than half the percentage in 1999-2000 (figure 1); (3) The percentages of public high schools that reported difficult-to-staff teaching positions were lower in every reportable subject area in 2011-12 than they were in 1999-2000 (table A-3); and (4) In the 1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12 school years, a larger percentage of high-minority than low-minority public high schools had two or more subject areas with difficult-to-staff teaching positions (figure 4).”

Minnesota Department of Education. (2015). Teacher supply and demand: Fiscal Year 2015 report to the legislature. Roseville, MN: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Every two years, the Educator Licensing Division of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is tasked with producing a report on the supply and demand of teachers. By statute, that report must contain data collected by surveying Minnesota public school districts, charter schools, and teacher preparation institutions. This report presents findings addressing five research questions. The data for addressing these questions were obtained from data files maintained by the Minnesota Board of Teaching (BOT), the Minnesota Center for Health Statistics (MCHS), MDE, and the U.S. Census Bureau. The data from the surveys of districts, charter schools, and teacher preparation institutions also informed findings related to the research questions. The research questions motivating this study are: (1) What are the five-year trends in teacher staffing? Do these trends vary by teacher race/ethnicity? What are the license areas of shortage and surplus? Do these trends vary by region of the state?; (2) Are there differences in the teacher shortage areas in charter schools, rural schools, and urban schools?; (3) What barriers do district staff perceive as impairing their ability to hire effective teachers?; (4) What factors do teacher preparation institutions cite as influencing their ability to prepare effective teachers now and during the next 10 years?; and (5) What K-12 public school enrollment trends are expected for particular student subgroups (e.g., racial and ethnic categories and English language learners [ELLs]) for the next three, five, and 10 years? This report summarizes the findings and highlights the perceived teacher shortage areas and trends as measured by the data collected.”

Rosenberg, L., Christianson, M. D., Angus, M. H., & Rosenthal, E. (2014). A focused look at rural schools receiving School Improvement Grants (NCEE Evaluation Brief. NCEE 2014-4013). Jessup, MD: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Study of School Turnaround is a set of case studies of the school improvement process in a purposive sample of 35 schools receiving federal funds through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program over a three-year period (school years 2010-11 to 2012-13). This evaluation brief focuses on the nine SIG schools that were in rural areas and how respondents in these schools perceived their rural context to influence specific turnaround activities. Key findings that emerged from the rural case study data collected in spring 2012 include: (1) Although rural SIG schools reported some challenges that nonrural SIG schools have also reported, such as low student motivation and staff morale, the rural schools reported additional challenges resulting from their schools’ remote locations and large catchment areas. For example, respondents reported that these rural characteristics affected the recruitment or retention of teachers and, to a lesser extent, parents’ involvement in the schools. (2) School and district administrators in eight of the nine schools suggested that long teacher commutes or isolated communities posed challenges to recruiting or retaining teachers. To counter these challenges, respondents in two schools reported offering direct support for teacher commutes (for example, gas stipends or vans), and respondents in three schools reported offering signing bonuses to incoming teachers. (3) School and district administrators and teaching staff in the nine schools mentioned multiple factors limiting parent involvement in school-based activities. Respondents from five schools perceived that a lack of access to transportation limited parent involvement, whereas respondents from three schools noted that the distance between schools and parents’ homes was a contributing factor. Four schools focused on hiring or expanding the role of parent liaisons to increase parent involvement.”

Spradlin, T. E., & Prendergast, K. A. (2006). Emerging trends in teacher recruitment and retention in the No Child Left Behind era (Education Policy Brief. Volume 4, Number 12). Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Teacher quality is one of the most important predictors of a child’s academic achievement, but schools in Indiana and across the nation are struggling to employ a full cadre of teachers who are qualified to instruct the subjects they are teaching. This policy brief explores the factors and circumstances behind the national struggle to meet the highly qualified teacher requirement under No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), focusing on recruitment and retention issues for both subject-area and geographic shortages. Factors contributing to teacher turnover are explored. The policy brief outlines several key recommendations to help schools improve teacher recruitment and retention efforts. Additionally, three policy perspectives are presented: (1) How Do We Recruit, Retain, and Reward Indiana’s Educators (Judy Briganti and Warren L. Williams); (2) Recruitment and Retention in IPS (Jane Ajabu); and (3) Recruitment and Retention in a Rural School Corporation (Robert Klitzman).”

Sutcher, L., Darling-Hammond, L., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016). A coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

From the description: “Widespread media reports of local teacher shortages have become a hot topic in education since the summer of 2015. After years of teacher layoffs, districts began hiring again as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. Many were surprised to find they had serious difficulty finding qualified teachers for their positions, especially in fields like mathematics, science, special education, and bilingual education/English language development. A number of states greatly expanded emergency permits to allow hiring of untrained teachers to meet these demands—which is the classic definition of shortage. To date, however, there has not yet been a detailed national analysis of the sources and extent of these shortages, and the prognosis for the future. This report details the outcomes of such a study, which analyzes evidence of teacher shortages, as well as national and regional trends in teacher supply and demand. Using several federal databases, the authors examine the current context and model projections of future trends under several different assumptions about factors influencing supply and demand, including new entrants, re-entrants, projected hires, and attrition rates. They also investigate policy strategies that might mitigate these effects based on research about effective approaches to recruitment and retention.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • descriptor: “teacher shortage” descriptor: “rural urban differences”

  • descriptor: “teacher shortage” descriptor: “rural schools”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.