Luring new talent

Incentives to attract teachers are popping up everywhere. But will they fundamentally change who is drawn to the profession?

A $20,000 signing bonus in Massachusetts. A home mortgage with no down payment in New York. Forgiveness of student loans in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

Financial incentives are being parceled out like crayons as school systems across the United States face the need to find 2.2 million new teachers over the course of the next several years.

And these efforts are just to get the teachers in the door. Once they cross the threshold, further financial incentives may await. Cincinnati and Denver are experimenting with teacher merit pay tied to student performance. Iowa is moving forward with legislation to create a career ladder for teachers featuring graded pay levels and the chance to earn bonuses for performance - the kind of compensation package once reserved for board rooms, not classrooms.

But while these incentives may be tantalizing, no one is certain if they're fundamentally changing who considers teaching as a profession - or whether the greater numbers include the right candidates.

"Incentives are good to keep people who are already in teaching," says Gregg Fleisher, president of Dallas-based Advanced Placement Strategies Inc., who works at persuading talented teachers to relocate to needy districts for a higher salary. "But they won't take people away from industry."

To some, the current recruitment efforts smack of an Omaha Beach approach. David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers in Belmont, Mass., says the thinking behind incentives often seems to be based on a poorly thought out desire to create a human wave to fill empty slots.

Much of the rhetoric in US education today is borrowed from the business world. So it is perhaps not too surprising that the corporate assumption that better salaries attract more effective workers is gaining favor. But many involved with the world of education question whether the best teachers - the ones most likely to succeed and to stay in the classroom - are not perhaps a different breed from entrepreneurial types, and less susceptible to the lure of extra dollars.

"Money doesn't motivate teachers," says Mr. Fleisher. "Passion and altruism do."

Fleisher - who left a career as an actuary to become a high school algebra teacher -says when he recruits star teachers, he's learned to mention the higher salary as an afterthought, and to focus instead on the chance to help kids in need.

That's not to say most teachers - and especially those struggling to support families - wouldn't love to earn more than they currently do.

But, Fleisher points out, even the most handsome incentives school districts can offer are still likely to pale compared with opportunities available in the private sector.

Some of the early results of teacher recruitment through financial incentives are already raising red flags.

In Massachusetts, 18 percent of the teachers brought in through the bonus program dropped out after one year, compared with a normal attrition rate for new teachers of only 9 percent.

In South Carolina, offers of nearly a 50 percent raise to teach in underperforming schools brought meager response.

Money is important, but...

Critics as well as supporters of such programs agree that most of the financially based recruitment programs are still too new to be meaningfully evaluated. But what may be most effective in tapping new pools of talent are the smaller scale, boutique projects.

The federally funded Troops to Teachers, for instance, has drawn almost 4,000 retired military personnel into public schools since 1994. A similar program encourages former Peace Corps workers to become classroom teachers.

In New York City, the Teaching Fellows Program expects to bring 3,000 career changers, many of whom have little or no direct experience in the field, into teaching positions this year.

Alternate certification programs have also been popular in a number of states as a means of bringing professionals with content knowledge but no teaching degree into the classroom. All of these lure candidates through appeals to the heart and spirit, and not the wallet.

"Financial incentives don't get you the kind of people who are naturally drawn to teaching," says C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information in Washington. "The No. 1 reason people go into teaching is because they perceive the value of education and want to help young people."

Encouraging response

The influx of talent into schools through alternate certification has been highly gratifying, she adds.

"I'm more encouraged than I probably ever have been," she says. "We've never had as many older people of high-quality backgrounds coming into this field."

In California, New Jersey, and Texas - the three states with the largest alternate-certification programs - 80 to 85 percent of the teachers who came into the field through that route are still teaching five years later. As to their effectiveness, little evaluation has yet been done, but Ms. Feistritzer says there is "a lot of anecdotal data" to suggest that these new teachers have had a positive impact.

One consideration that tempers the enthusiasm of some education policymakers for such programs, however, is that the numbers of participants are relatively small. They are not likely to have a far-reaching effect on schools, as much as individual students may benefit from the experience.

"Are we getting more high-quality professional types from other fields?" asks Mr. Haselkorn. "Yes. But are we getting critical masses? I don't think so. It's just enough to have an impact at the margins."

Proceed with caution

Another cautionary note is the assumption that those who succeed in business will be assets in teaching. Fredricka Reisman, director of the school of education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, worked with a program at her school to help retired General Electric engineers become math and science teachers.

Most of the retirees went on to become excellent teachers, Dr. Reisman says. But a small number - despite their knowledge and credentials - did not have the skills to function well in a classroom setting. "They just couldn't communicate what they knew to young people," she says. Knowledge itself, she adds, will not promote success, and teacher quality will not be lifted by valuing accomplishments in other fields over good teaching skills.

Tapping an existing pool

One of those skills is learning to function comfortably with children from a different cultural background. That's one reason some educators praise programs like the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund's Pathways to Teaching Careers Program, which eases paraprofessionals who are already working within a school into certification programs.

Pathways to Teaching has produced more than 3,000 teachers nationwide since its inception in 1989. Evaluations show that teachers who entered the profession through the program have a low attrition rate.

Some speculate that's because those educators already worked in a school setting, knew the children involved, and were well prepared for the day-to-day reality of teaching lots of children.

That familiarity, backed up with proper training, is an important but often overlooked element in efforts to retain teachers.

There are actually many people who are drawn to teaching, Haselkorn says. Public-service ads promoting the profession prompt huge numbers of responses, he says. "That tells us that teaching is still an attractive calling."

But the idealism that draws people to teaching may not stand up in the face of experience.

A recent Public Agenda survey showed that 96 percent of new public school teachers love their work. Yet when it came to the morale in their schools, only 28 percent of public school teachers were able to describe it as being "high."

Without proper support and preparation, Haselkorn says, new teachers may "suffer teacher shock, and they don't last long."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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