New York — Just when educational reforms are being touted from the federal to the local levels, one of the worst teacher shortages in decades has begun to hit many of the nation's school systems. The shortages are concentrated in big cities. With low pay, sometimes-unsafe schools, and onerous classroom conditions, some cities find it difficult to recruit teachers for elementary and secondary schools.
But the problem stems from broader factors -- and they spell a continuing shortfall into the 1990s that will also affect schools in suburbs and rural areas, many educators say.
As children head back to school, their parents may be expecting to see some of the reforms that have recently been talked about -- smaller classes, back-to-the-basics curriculums, and better-paid, highly qualified teachers.
``At the very time we are talking about raising the quality of [the teaching profession], we face a shortage,'' says Michael Timpane, president of Columbia University's Teachers College. ``There is a real conflict of interest out there that will test our mettle. . . . There is a temptation to lower standards to get sufficient numbers of teachers. It's a great dilemma.''
Why a shortage now? The teacher population is nearing retirement. A ``baby boomlet'' is increasing school enrollments. More immigrants -- especially from Mexico, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia -- are attending US schools. And a smaller percentage of students entering college plan to go into teaching.
Some of the education reforms have contributed to the shortage. Smaller class sizes mean more teachers. At the same time, stricter screening of future teachers has been instituted in many schools, shrinking the pool even more.
The shortfall has been building in recent years, and is estimated this year to be between 12,000 and 13,000 nationwide, says Tom Snyder of the National Center for Educational Statistics. By 1990, the center estimates that figure will rise to about 49,000, and by 1993 the shortfall could be 78,000. Mr. Snyder says these figures are ``optimistic.''
Enrollment in primary schools will continue to go up, but there is a dwindling number of high school students to put into the pool of future teachers, Mr. Snyder says. By 1990, he says, shortages are likely to be widespread.
Earlier this summer, New York City announced it needed to find 4,200 teachers by fall. In Los Angeles, the school district began to advertise to fill some 3,000 vacancies as summer vacation ended.
Many educators report a serious lack of minority teachers coming into the pipeline. This is in part because college enrollment of blacks has dropped in recent years, and in part because many gifted minority students have more opportunities available today at much better pay.
To cope with current and projected shortages, school districts throughout the country are trying alternative methods to attract more teachers.
Some are short-term solutions, such as contacting retired teachers and hiring more foreign educators.
Other programs are more farsighted. One such alternative is intensive training for college graduates who have no education credits. The New Jersey State Department of Education found that a number of talented people were routinely turned away because they did not have teaching credentials, says Leo Klagholz, director of teacher preparation and certification for the state.
Now, a candidate with a bachelor's degree in the subject he or she would like to teach is eligible for certification after passing tests and taking part in a trainee program during the first year of teaching. There are similar programs in Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City.
Some critics are concerned that such programs will turn out unqualified teachers. In Los Angeles, some teachers can receive an emergency credential with only a three-day orientation, says Catherine Carey, director of communications for United Teachers of Los Angeles. But most educators say such programs are necessary.
New Jersey also has a program where 100 college students per year can borrow up to $30,000 to prepare to become a teacher. The loan will be forgiven after four years if the student teaches in an urban New Jersey school, and after six years if he or she teaches in a suburban school. Congress has passed a similar talented teachers act, but it has not been funded.
Proposals to make teaching more attractive must include higher pay, Mr. Timpane says. The average salary of a teacher in the US is about $23,000, according to the National Education Association. Many starting slaries are less than $15,000. ``There just aren't [that many] altruists out there,'' Timpane says.
Some educators are particularly worried about the future of proposed educational reforms.
``Overall, you can't have students more outstanding than the quality of teachers,'' says Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ``No reforms can stand unless anchored in quality teaching.''
When America's first astronaut schoolteacher launches into space next spring, Mr. Boyer would like to see President Reagan do something ``to help teachers here on Earth.'' He proposes a 10-year drive to bring the best and brightest college students into teaching.
``That would mean much more for the future of the country,'' Boyer says.