Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


Concern about the inability to fully staff Minnesota's schools was made public Monday by the state School Boards Association. The Star Tribune gave it prominent coverage: "Help wanted: Teachers, classroom aides, as new school year approaches."

And as usual, the response to "the shortage" appeared as an effort to "fill the vacancies" and to "grow our education workforce."

Curious about this, I called Richard Ingersoll, whose career has focused on understanding the many problems besetting America's elementary and secondary teaching force.

A self-described "data guy," he has been with the school of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Interestingly, his Ph.D. is in sociology. Earlier he was a teacher in the public schools in this country and in Canada.

The conventional discussion about the teacher shortage is seriously mistaken, he says. The "shortage problem" exists because so many teachers leave teaching. So long as this continues — and he expects it to continue — working to improve "recruitment" is "trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom."

The numbers show a system badly mishandling its valuable human talent.

Nationally, as Ingersoll has documented, and even in Minnesota, almost half of those who come into teaching leave within five years. In this "unstable system" an additional dimension of turnover exists as teachers leave their current school for another.

In high-poverty districts the annual turnover is about 25%, roughly twice the level in prosperous districts. Low-income rural districts are most stressed and have the greatest difficulty staffing schools.

In recent years, Ingersoll has documented what he calls the "greening" of the teacher force, as veterans retire and new teachers are hired. The workforce is growing faster than student enrollment, particularly as more students are moved into special education.

The result is striking: In 1987 the "modal" (most common) teacher was one in the 15th year of a career. In 2021 the modal teacher was in the first year of a career.

It is not clear a less-experienced, high-turnover workforce is good for public education. This might mean lower costs for districts. It sustains Minnesota's 32 colleges of education. (Finland, Minnesota's size, has five. All operate lab schools for teachers in training. Minnesota's mostly do not.)

Districts and states, Ingersoll has long been saying, should be dealing with what causes teachers to leave.

Their dissatisfaction is not primarily about salary. Mainly, he finds, teachers leave because they're disappointed with their work life, with the lack of opportunity to develop and to have meaningful input into decisions and school leadership.

Ingersoll wrote about this in a well-received book published in 2003 by Harvard University Press: "Who Controls Teachers' Work?"

Whoever it is, the book concludes, it isn't teachers.

That reality is built into the bargaining legislation the teacher unions won in Minnesota in the 1970s. Bargaining is limited to economic issues: wages, hours and working conditions. It gives teachers no say in "professional issues."

Periodically unions have tried to win some role in decisions about the way school works. They have not succeeded either in negotiation or in legislation.

In 2002, in a membership meeting of the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), candidates seeking the DFL nomination for governor were asked whether they favored teachers having a right to bargain professional issues. Only Mike Freeman said he did.

When the five left the stage, the MSBA executive said to members: The control of professional issues is the last real authority we have. If we lose that we have nothing.

It is this desire for top-down control on the part of boards, superintendents and principals — telling teachers what to do and how to do it — that gives public education its "retention" problem. Teachers, like others, want a job and career in which they feel rewarded and can grow personally and professionally.

This is beginning to change.

There are now schools in Minnesota in which teachers do fully control their work. That innovation, the application of the professional-partnership arrangement to a public school, appeared early after the Legislature in 1991 enlarged the opportunity for innovation with its program for chartering new schools.

Providing the professional autonomy that lets teachers personalize learning improves engagement and equity for students while making teaching a better job and career. Schools that do this retain teachers better, as a recent study by Education Evolving shows (tinyurl.com/evolving-education). An ingenious variation in the Farmington and Spring Lake Park districts provides autonomy for individual teachers.

There is a way to close the hole in the bottom of the bucket.

Ted Kolderie is a longtime public-policy analyst in Minnesota.