A recent report to the Legislature offers important data about Minnesota teachers — information that can drive decisions about how best to serve state students, narrow learning disparities and improve instruction.

The Minnesota Department of Education study found that school leaders and policy setters should boost efforts to recruit more diverse teaching staffs and either encourage more people to enter certain teaching fields or develop their own. The hope is that high school counselors and schools of education will use the data to advise those who may be interested in teaching careers.

One of the report's primary findings documented the lack of racial diversity in the state's teaching force. Though it may not seem apparent in the largest metro-area districts, where many educators of color are on the job, teachers statewide are far from representative of Minnesota student enrollments.

Out of a teaching force of about 58,000 in Minnesota, 96 percent are white and about 4 percent are people of color. That's in a state where about 25 percent of 830,000 students are of color.

The population of minority students is growing at a rate of at least 1 percent per year. It is predicted that within the next couple of decades, minority students will become the majority. That's already the case in some metro-area school districts.

While there has been a slight increase in the number of Hispanic and Asian teachers statewide, 900 are Asian, 600 are black, 500 are Hispanic and 250 are American Indian, according to the Education Department, which does the study every two years.

The report also shows the teaching areas that have surpluses vs. those where shortages exist. That's valuable information for young people who aspire to teach. It may have always been your dream to work with kindergarten kids — but that might not be the best option for you in terms of where the jobs are.

The data can also help high school counselors and schools of education assist students who want to pursue careers in education and stay in Minnesota. The state, for example, has more than enough educators in K-6 elementary, physical education, social studies, and communications arts and literature. But there are shortages in about a dozen other areas. The greatest needs are for educators certified to teach kids with emotional, learning or development of speech and language disabilities. And there are not enough school psychologists and well-qualified teachers in English as a second language, math, chemistry and physics.

As a result, state school leaders sought special permission from the state to hire 3,500 teachers who lacked the necessary license for the subject and the grade levels taught. That amounts to only about 6 percent of the entire workforce — down from 7 percent the previous year. Still, it is not best for students to have so many school staff members teaching outside their subject areas.

District officials say that in some subjects, it is difficult or impossible to hire qualified teachers, the survey results noted. In addition, more schools are having trouble finding short-term and long-term substitute teachers.

That has prompted some metro-area school districts to launch "grow your own'' efforts like the one recently initiated by the University of Minnesota and Intermediate District 916, a consortium of 11 districts in the northeast suburbs. In that program, teaching assistants and other paraprofessionals can earn their advanced degrees and become licensed to work with students who have emotional and behavioral disorders. Participants get on-the-job training and don't have to quit work while they earn the degree.

The study pointed out another trend that should concern policymakers. District leaders reported that state testing requirements for teachers can be a barrier to recruiting, preparing and hiring educators.

State researchers suggest that further study is needed to determine whether the issue applies to all three subject areas (basic skills, pedagogy and content) and which portions of the test are most difficult.

It makes sense to review where the issues are, but the requirements should not be diluted as a result. The requirements, as well as a better system for teacher evaluations, were put in place in Minnesota because teacher quality and instruction are critical to narrowing achievement gaps — especially among those students who are struggling the most in school.