For more than a decade, America's education system turned out more teachers than it could handle. Now, quietly, a new problem is looming on the horizon that could have a profound effect on the nation's schools: a shortage of teachers.
Already a math and science teacher shortage is adversely affecting schools from coast to coast, but it may be only the first stage in an across-the-board teacher shortage reminiscent of the one that beset schools in the mid-1960s.
''By 1986 we will be experiencing some significant shortages in fields other than math and science if nothing is done to alter the situation,'' says James Chudomel, co-author of a recent report on teacher shortages and associate director of academic services at the National Association of Independent Schools.
The report, issued last week by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, says the current situation ''appears to foreshadow a more general shortage of qualified . . . teachers in all disciplines and at all levels'' and may be ''the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.''
Already there is evidence of the emerging trend. After laying off teachers during the 1981-82 school year, Memphis plans to hire about 200 teachers for this fall. Atlanta plans to add 50 teachers to its payroll, while Dade County, Fla., will hire up to 1,000 new teachers this year.
With the possibility of a shortage only now beginning to be recognized, few if any solutions to the problem are being implemented yet.
But some educators suggest that steps now being taken to alleviate the science and math teacher shortage could be broadened to include all teachers. Those remedies include incentive scholarships that provide financial aid for college students going into the teaching profession, and corporate sabbatical leaves that would put private industry professionals in the classroom for one or two years.
The probability of a shortage is made likely by the convergence of several factors:
The mini baby boom. Student enrollment, which has been declining, will begin to rise in 1985 and continue into the 1990s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Total enrollment is expected to increase by about 2 percent (400,000 children) annually for about 15 years, according to the center. As a result, teacher layoffs, which were massive in some places just a few years ago, will come to an abrupt halt, followed by a sharp upturn in demand.
The projected job growth for elementary-school teachers is among the highest of any job category for college graduates. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for new elementary-school teachers will approach 251,000 by 1990, compared with 112,000 for computer programmers and 26,000 for architects.
Declining teacher salaries. The Carnegie report found that teacher salaries had slipped from 49 percent of the total spent on public elementary and secondary schools in 1972-73 to 38 percent in 1982-83. Teachers are now among the nation's lowest-paid professionals, with an average salary of $20,000. The average starting salary is about $12,000.
Low esteem. The declining status of teachers has led many to abandon the profession or discard plans to enter it. Women especially, who still constitute the overwhelming majority of elementary and high-school teachers, are leaving teaching as new fields open to them.
''You talk to college seniors who are thinking about the big money to be made in business and try to convince them to consider teaching as a profession, and they look at you and guffaw,'' Mr. Chudomel says.
The Carnegie Foundation study makes note of such attitudes. It reports that the nation's best and brightest students are choosing professions other than teaching because of poor salaries and low pay.
Upon release of the Carnegie study, Ernest Boyer, president of the foundation , said: ''The teaching profession is in crisis. Poor students are going into teaching. . . . Credentialing is a mess, and teachers do not receive recognition and reward.''
Ironically, moves to upgrade the standard of education may collide with the expected teacher shortage. In a speech earlier this year, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell said that if high schools raised their curriculum requirements to include only one more year of math and science, 68,000 more teachers would be required to handle the extra coursework.