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Lots of Students, Not Enough Teachers

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1998


A pop quiz for the start of the new school year: Take the highest number of students that ever attended United States schools (52.7 million). Add the lowest unemployment rate in 27 years. Factor in new laws mandating reduced class sizes.

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Question: Where will the schools find the teachers they need to fill this fall's classrooms?

In New York City, new math and science teachers are coming from Austria and bilingual teachers from Spain. Mississippi is offering a free college education to students who commit to teaching in districts with critical shortages. Texas and California are making teachers out of ex-aerospace engineers and volunteer parents.

Teacher recruitment used to be a bland business, involving the usual prospects from local teachers colleges. To be local was good; to be known was better.

"School districts historically have not been very creative in the ways they go about recruiting teachers," says Emily Feistritzer, of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information.

But this year the annual scramble for teachers is driving many school districts out of the old routines. Schools are looking further afield and tapping into a deeper pool of applicants than ever before.

The realities of finding teachers in a tight labor market, however, could lower standards in tough-to-staff districts.

In response to such pressures, Kentucky is allowing five districts to hire substitutes who have only a high school diploma, "as a last resort," Kentucky officials say.

New York stayed ahead of the hiring game to avoid a repeat of last year's fiasco, when 3,000 teaching posts remained vacant the week before schools opened. This time, school administrators tried new recruiting strategies, including importing 24 math and science teachers from Austria and seven Spanish teachers from Spain.

"We were the first US school system to recruit in Austria," says Gary Barton, the administrator in charge of teacher hiring for the New York City Board of Education.

"We received applications from over 100 qualified applicants," says Mr. Barton. Interviews were done by teleconferencing. The new recruits are temporarily housed in dorms at Long Island University while the city scouts out apartments for them. They've also had tours of the city, crash courses in New York culture at City College, and help in setting up bank accounts.

"We didn't want 100 [people] the first time. We could have had problems with such a large group. We wanted to start small and build on this," he adds.

New York hired 7,500 teachers last year, and 5,000 this year. The city estimates it will need yet another 30,000 new teachers over the next five years. Math, science, and Spanish are the posts most difficult to fill. For next year, Barton says he already has his eye on Switzerland and Scotland, in addition to Austria. All three countries have healthy reserves of qualified teachers, a number of whom have indicated interest in working in the US.

The city is also stepping up recruiting efforts in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico. In addition, the Board of Education set up satellite recruitment offices to ease hiring in 11 of the city's poorest districts.

The long and winding road

One roadblock to a better applicant pool has been the difficulty of navigating the recruitment process. There's often a battery of tests, prescribed courses, and a formidable bureaucracy. Applications may go astray, phone calls aren't answered, and hiring decisions frequently come down to the wire.

"Districts wait until the last minute to hire, so you have schools all over the country that open with vacancies," says Ms. Feistritzer. "It's a very inefficient way and a very unprofessional way to do business, but it's been going on for years."

Marjorie Adler, the Philadelphia School District's human-resources director, says that "people experience our hiring process as frustrating and cumbersome. They get distracted and go elsewhere." She is setting up a new information system to track applicants who may be a year from a job decision, "so they don't go away feeling that no one ever cared about them," she adds.

The city's new approach is already showing results. "We have a vacancy rate of just under 1 percent on the opening day of school. By historic standards of shortage, that's small [about 100 teachers] - but not if it's your kid's kindergarten teacher," she adds.

Boston is also tackling an antiquated recruitment process. Last year, the city set up a computerized database of teacher candidates, held its first-ever teacher fair, and began offering job guarantees to top student teachers. It also expanded advertising in newspapers across the country and completely reworked its recruitment literature.