A `GI Bill' to recruit America's teachers

WHAT would happen if, over the next five years, we had to replace nearly half the nation's lawyers? Or doctors? Or police? We would begin a major campaign to recruit those with ability and commitment. We do not have the replacement problem in any of these occupations, but we do in teaching. With no reduction in class size, we will need to recruit about a million public school teachers, or about half the current public school teaching force. We must induct more people into teaching annually than into all of the armed forces.

The success of the current push for education excellence depends on the ability of school systems to attract the people we want teaching our children.

We already have a national shortage of mathematics and science teachers. School systems report that half the new teachers in these areas are not qualified in those subjects. This is also true for many foreign-language and special-education teachers. Cities too often staff classrooms with people who have no previous experience in or preparation for teaching.

Major sources of teaching talent, able women and minorities, now have fewer barriers to entering other occupations. There are no ``captive'' pools of academically able people. School systems will have to compete in the open market for college graduates.

Current recruitment strategies do not hold much promise in light of an annual need for 200,000 teachers. Retraining current teachers for shortage areas; scholarships and student loan forgiveness for college students who will go into teacher education; and recruiting private-sector employees with mathematics and science abilities to make a second career of teaching -- these are worthwhile, but will attract a relatively small number of new teachers. The most common local strategy runs in opposition to edu cation excellence reforms. When threatened with a teacher shortage, local school boards often hire any warm body with an undergraduate degree -- the ``breath test'': If it breathes, hire it. Schools try using English and gym teachers for math and science classes.

Raising teacher salaries is the policy most likely to attract talented individuals. Teachers' salaries have declined relative to all other professions over the last decade. No other industrialized nation pays -- or treats -- its teachers so poorly. Salaries, benefits, and working conditions must improve substantially if schools are to recruit mathematics and science majors and other top liberal arts graduates who have many career choices.

Schools must find powerful new incentives to attract and retain able teachers. While we work for reforms to upgrade the status and the intrinsic and financial rewards for teachers, we could borrow a military recruit- ment strategy -- a ``GI Bill'' for teachers.

An academically talented liberal arts or science graduate, able to get a high score on a subject-matter test (several for elementary teaching), would be recruited to teach in an area of acute shortage. The secretary of education or state governors would determine areas of shortage -- mathematics, science, urban elementary schools -- based on local documentation of the problem.

In return for their willingness to ``try'' teaching, the recruits would be given three important benefits: (1) an internship and seminars to assist in the first, difficult year that is too often a test of ``sink or swim'' teaching survival; (2) ``graduate fellowship credits'' of about $2,500 a year, collectible at the end of three years of experience or the ``teaching service requirement'' (those who chose to leave teaching could use the fellowships for any advanced degree so long as they were enrolled in an accredited graduate or professional program); and (3) a reenlistment incentive for those who are highly rated as teachers after the three years; it would be a forgivable loan of up to $10,000. The loan would be repaid through additional years of teaching, at a rate of $2,500 a year, when the teacher returned from graduate school.

The basic fellowships would be paid for on a ``shared cost'' basis by the federal and state governments -- or by states and localities if they wanted to try it on their own. State and local supplements for the forgivable loans could be paid for with funds saved from salary differentials between retiring and the ``intern/fellow'' teachers. These recruits would not enjoy the full status and benefits received by certified professional teachers.

The plan has several virtues:

People with human service interests and successful academic records are encouraged to try teaching without making a lifelong commitment or spending their undergraduate years in a teacher education program.

The incentive to enter teaching is timed to match the period when college graduates make initial career choices.

The program also assures recruits that they will be given substantial assistance during the tough first year, when many teachers are discouraged from continuing with the profession.

Financial incentives are provided in acute shortage areas without the potentially demoralizing effects of differential pay among the current schoolteachers.

The additional incentives to stay in teaching are offered the recruits with the most promise of becoming effective career professionals.

No recruitment plan will result in the retention of good teachers unless there are other education improvements. No reforms will provide lasting excellence, however, unless American schools can attract able teachers.

David H. Florio is special representative for education policy at the American Federation of Teachers; Willis D. Hawley is the dean of George Peabody College for Teachers, Vanderbilt University.

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