WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
"We've redone the entire process," says Karen Cahill, director of recruitment for the Boston Public Schools. "Before, nobody knew if there was a rhyme or reason to whether we called someone back for an interview. Now we have a strong process."
With an eye to the future, state lawmakers in July approved $20,000 bonuses, over four years, to recruit top teachers. About 40 percent of the state's 70,000 teachers will turn over in the next decade.
Big states, smaller classes
But it's the big states that have already passed class-size reduction legislation, such as California and Texas, that are on the front lines of the drive for new teachers. They've already rejigged the system, purchased the ads, and boosted the incentives. Now, the push is to attract new people.
Since California passed class-size reduction legislation three years ago, the number of teachers teaching on emergency permits has jumped to more than 18,000. Often, these teachers wind up teaching the toughest classes in the poorest schools, with little support.
"About two-thirds of those who began teaching on an emergency permit never got a permanent credential. It's a revolving door and a waste of resources," says Michael McKibbin, who directs an $11 million alternative-certification program for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
"But we found that if we provide them with a solid program that makes sense, if we give them a teacher to serve as a mentor and help them, and not just put them in the coldest classroom in the corner with no supplies, they stay. We save money and help kids," he adds.
Some 6,000 teaching interns have gone through this program in the last three years. Most came into the program from a second career.
This year, California is expanding its program to include those who need even more training and course work to achieve full certification. These "pre-interns" will also be provided training and mentoring as they teach full time in California classrooms.
"We've got architects, lawyers, doctors, and even a missionary," says Joan Sellers, who directs the intern program for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, in Richmond, Calif. "The first question we ask these candidates is why they decided to go back into teaching at this point in their life. Many tell us that they chose their first profession for the money, but found that what you look for at 20 is not so satisfying at 40," she adds.
In Texas, the teacher crunch has set off a frenzy of incentives and alternative-training programs to attract and keep qualified teachers, especially in inner-city districts.
Dallas is offering prospects a $1,500 signing incentive. "I've been here 22 years, and we've never been fully staffed," says Loretta Simon, spokeswoman for the Dallas Independent School District. For the most part, the city has matched the growing student population - 2,500 new students each year - with more teachers and schools. But this year, the district is still about 185 teachers short of its full 9,800-teacher quota, she adds.
In most big cities in Texas, Hispanics make up the majority of the student population, but more than 2 of 3 teachers are Anglo. "The greatest need is in the lower grades," says Jo Nell Drayden, manager of staffing and recruitment for the Houston Independent School District. "When the language in the home is Spanish, then the child grows up speaking Spanish, and they won't get much English until they get to school. We need to be prepared to meet the needs of those kids."
In addition to raising teacher salaries, Houston has created what Mrs. Drayden calls a "grow-your-own" teacher-certification program to bring educated Hispanics and other professionals into the teaching profession.
More than 26 Texas school districts have set up alternative-teacher-training programs that are bringing more minorities and mid-career professionals into teaching.
"These are not quick-and-dirty programs; data show that these people are as good as or better than people coming through traditional programs," says Feistritzer, who conducts annual surveys of alternative-certification programs.
In both California and Texas, officials hope that this new strategy will provide a steady source of qualified new teachers. "We see these people as naturals to be teachers if we provide them the career ladder to get there," says Mr. McKibbin.
* Staff writers Scott Baldauf, Marjorie Coeyman, and Mark Clayton contributed to this report. Send e-mail comments to: email@example.com