At Shelby Schools, north of Great Falls, officials have taken significant steps to recruit teachers. There's a $4,000 signing bonus. It used to be $5,000, but $1,000 now supports a two-year mentorship program for new teachers.
Both salary incentives and mentorship programs have been shown to improve teacher retention and recruitment around the country. But teacher shortage solutions often address only one piece of the puzzle, and neither salary nor mentorship have been a silver bullet for Shelby.
A major piece of Montana policy continues to chafe many local districts: teacher certification.
“That’s something we talk about all the time,” said Shelby superintendent Elliot Crump.
Montana has one of the most restrictive systems in the country when it comes to recognizing out-of-state certification, and several administrators said they’d like more options for bringing in qualified practitioners of a subject who aren’t trained teachers.
But reforming certification can be a double-edged sword, as some experts warn that sweeping reforms could open the door to unqualified applicants.
A proposal from the Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau is slated for a Nov. 9 public hearing scheduled by the Board of Public Education. It would open certification to applicants who have experience teaching in other states, but don’t have a degree from a traditional four-year teacher prep program.
Dennis Parman, who now heads the rural school advocacy group the Montana Rural Education Association, helped craft the proposal while serving as deputy superintendent of public instruction with OPI.
"This is one of those pieces of low-hanging fruit," he said. “We thought, well this is a good starting place.”
Some states have implemented remarkably aggressive measures. Utah education officials recently approved changes that doled out teaching licenses based on relevant experience and a bachelor’s degree — not teacher-specific training.
To some educators, the change represents the worst kind of swing towards expanding certification and lowering the bar for teachers; one elementary teacher called the plan “absolutely demoralizing and insulting.”
Supporters of the Utah change argue that strong measures were needed to combat the state’s teacher shortage. More than one-third of Utah teachers quit during their first year, and 42 percent quit within five years, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
Research on how effective alternative certification programs are is somewhat mixed. Students taught by teachers trained though "highly-selective" alternative pathways typically have better achievement gains than those taught by unlicensed teachers, and student achievement is somewhat comparable to traditionally licensed teachers in reading and math.
“Highly-selective” pathways aren't necessarily comparable to program’s like Utah’s.
Research also found that those teachers are more likely to teach in a high need district, but are more likely to leave their first district or school than traditionally trained teachers.
Other changes have been less sweeping. In Wisconsin, officials now allow teachers with one-year emergency licenses to renew those licenses from year to year without passing required tests. New York no longer requires teacher certified in other states to take its own certification exams.
Parman said it’s hard to determine how many people Montana’s proposed changes would be, as it’s difficult to determine the deterrent effect of more stringent regulations on potential applicants.
In Winnett, Superintendent Walt Stevens was frantically trying to find a physical education teacher as the school year approached. It’s not a positions that usually gives administrators heartburn.
“I just started calling people,” he said. “I felt like a used car salesman.”
He found himself a diamond in the wavy grass of eastern Montana. Brenda Brady, who had been working as a physical therapist in Billings and taught courses at Montana State University Billings, had moved back to the family ranch.
“I think we hit a home run,” he said of her hiring.
But Brady isn’t a trained educator, and her professional experience doesn’t match perfectly with licensure requirements for physical education. The district was still working with the state on certification options.
And, while Brady's enjoying teaching, she’s not sure if she’ll continue with the profession.
Teacher shortage fear have been a major driver of certification changes in other states.
Some studies cite recent enrollment declines in teacher preparation programs across the nation as a warning sign of teacher shortages to come, while other experts argue the labor market is more complicated and can likely handle dips in teacher production.
Juneau's proposed changes would open Montana's door to teachers who have five years of fully-licensed teaching experience in another state, even if they didn't go through a traditional four-year program, which is currently required for full licensure in Montana.
It would extend certification to teachers who may have been trained by a program like Teach For America, and then been certified in a different state.
Parman said he didn't think that the changes would "water down" Montana's certification. But there hasn't been much of a push to expand certification in the past.
“You look at the Montana standard, and it’s a high standard,” he said. “There’s just gonna be folks who look at those rules and say, well, they got us to where we are today.”