It's a lazy, unseasonably sunny autumn afternoon in Fort Yeats, a two-traffic-light town in the middle of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, but few are seen outdoors enjoying it. The dusty streets are empty, the playground silent, and the main hangout - the minimarket - is doing slow business. School, notes one bored girl with long pigtails buying a soda, is the only real activity around.
But even school has been offering less activity these days.
With one of the lowest teachers' pay in the country (see chart, next page) and little by way of lifestyle incentives, North Dakota's remote schools are finding it increasingly hard to get and retain teachers. And officials here worry that with more stringent demands for higher teacher qualifications in No Child Left Behind - the new federal education law - the crisis will deepen.
The new federal guidelines, which will go into effect by the 2005-06 school year, are aimed at strengthening American education. But at least in the short term, "the devil is in the details," says Gloria Lokken, president of the North Dakota Education Association, the teachers' union. To illustrate her point, she mentions the requirement that is causing the most sleep loss here: The demand that teachers must have a major in the subjects they teach, or go back to school to get requalified.
"It seems logical," says Lokken, "but it's not realistic."
The situation is direst on the Indian reservations, where the lack of housing, social life, and money is particularly pronounced - but the problem exists at most rural schools, both in North Dakota and in other sparsely populated states.
In many such areas, academic resources are already spread too thin.
"This is a shame on America - not just on our schools," says Spencer Wilkinson, the high school principal in New Town, on the Fort Berthold Reservation west of Standing Rock. Mr. Wilkinson drives his three grandchildren 150 miles to the capital, Bismarck, three times a week for supplementary classes after school.
"I can afford to do this, but most people in my community don't have money for the gas or the time," he says.
According to a recent Bismarck Tribune study, approximately 66 percent of the state's college graduates move out of North Dakota to look for better employment opportunities. They leave behind an aging teacher population, many of them uninterested in spending the time or energy that would be required for additional training.
Estimates vary greatly as to how many North Dakota teachers currently in the system will have to requalify - some reaching as high as 27 percent. But, with such a dearth of teachers, some concerned ask, why should they about the state's schools, why scare away the ones already around?
At Standing Rock Elementary, considered one of the larger and more successful of the reservation schools, they have been advertising for a science teacher for several months - and there has not been one applicant. At Belcourt, a school in the northern Turtle Mountain reservation, five positions are open, including those of reading and math teachers.
Statewide, there are still some 200 vacant teacher positions, according to the state's job search website.
"What if we receive one applicant for the middle-school science job? What do we do? How do we ensure quality?" asks Jeff Wetsch, a student counselor at Standing Rock High School.
The lack of teachers has a domino effect on the whole system, he explains. A missing science teacher in a middle school means that high school science needs to start at a lower level. A lack of a foreign-language teacher at a high school mean graduates won't have credits needed for college.
Pay levels that demoralize
"I can understand the dilemma," says Marian Keller, a teacher at Standing Rock High School, who, under the new federal guidelines, will be allowed to teach health and family living (she has a degree in physical education), but not home economics or reading.
"I believe it's better to have someone who at least cares about the subject teaching, than to have the kids sit in study hall instead," she says.
She is considering going back to school next break to increase her qualifications, but like many teachers here, she usually spends those breaks working at other jobs for the extra money. And with retirement coming up, she is not sure it is worth the effort.
She advised her son, who has a college degree in science, to pass over the option of teaching. He ended up taking a job at a power plant with a starting salary of $52,000 - double hers. "It's demoralizing," she says.
Many in North Dakota support the long-term goal of more stringent school standards in order to lift achievement. But they wonder at times if those who made the law had any idea of the daily challenges faced by schools in a sparsely populated state like theirs.
"I am not saying we have no room for improvement in our school system," says Lokken, "but I am saying that some of this supposed solution is not based in what's really going on, on the ground."
The government needs to increase funding, she says, so that better qualified teachers can be lured to the remote locations. As that happens, she argues, the standard bar should also be raised. But, in the meantime, she wishes for more flexibility.
"We have some rural schools where teachers are teaching three or four subjects - you can't possibly expect them to have a degree in each," says Lokken. "We need some flexibility. This is not Philadelphia or Baltimore, where you have a teacher with a drama major who teaches five sections of drama and walks home."
Math and science teachers are probably the hardest to find. In the past six years, North Dakota has had one teacher graduate in physics, says Janet Welk, executive director of the Education Standards and Practice Board, an independent licensing board for North Dakota teachers.
"So what is that supposed to do to our science curriculum?" she asks. "Do we need to quit offering physics in our schools?"
The NCLB new testing requirements, including "exit testing" required for graduation - meant to ensure certain grade-appropriate standards nationwide - also worry many here.
While a majority of states have implemented or are in the course of implementing tests to meet the new requirements, many of the nation's more rural states - such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, and Montana - where age groups often mix and levels fluctuate - have not.
For some North Dakotans, the whole process is simply out of step with life in their state.
"I grew up on a farm," says Welk, "and there you learn that when you go to your cattle in the fall, you don't just weigh them. You have to do other things for them. The federal government, basically, with their testing and qualification guidelines is saying: keep weighing the students, keep weighing the teachers. That's no solution."
"This whole process might benefit us in the long run," admits Keller, as she heads out of the high school for her hour-long drive home. "But for now, it's going to be very difficult."