NOT enough students - particularly in math and the sciences - are choosing public school teaching as a career. Enrollments in college schools of education have been increasing over the last five years, and some retirees in other fields are now turning to teaching as a second career. But gains are unlikely to meet coming needs. It is widely estimated that as many as half of the nation's 2.5 million teachers may retire or shift jobs over the next few years.
That teachers themselves are among the sharpest critics of the public schools does not help. ``I don't know of one teacher who is encouraging his or her own children to go into teaching,'' says David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Increased violence and drug use among students and stepped-up public demands for greater accountability have admittedly made the already-tough job of teaching far tougher.
Even so, several strong currents of change are under way that could make a positive difference in recruiting and holding good teachers.
While still far from what most teachers feel they deserve, pay has improved. Salaries for beginning teachers have increased over the last few years to an average of $19,548 last year. ``That's taken some of the edge off [the task] of finding new teachers,'' says Howard Nelson, a research specialist with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The average public school teacher in the US last year earned $29,629.
A stronger voice for teachers in school decisionmaking.
Forty states have drafted regulations to allow more school-based management in everything from curriculum development and textbook choice to class size and staffing. Noting that teachers are tired of being treated ``like very tall children,'' says Mary Futrell, outgoing president of the National Education Association (NEA), the shift should improve both teacher morale and the quality of education. ``Research shows that the best schools are those where decisions are made close to the schools,'' she says.
Recent contracts between AFT affiliates and school boards in Dade County, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y., spell out several such decisionmaking rights for teachers in the process of sealing down significant salary increases. Both systems have charted clearer career paths for teachers. Newly hired teachers will start as interns, working their way up under the guidance of more experienced (and better paid) veterans.
More recognition of jobs well done.
One of the most widely supported recent proposals is an effort nurtured by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy to develop the first national system for certifying teachers.
This recognition of top performers or master teachers, who may serve as catalysts for other school structuring changes, is a voluntary add-on to required state licensing. It would likely bring extra pay and serve to inspire other teachers and boost the profession's general image.
Those with a college degree and three years' teaching experience could begin to seek the accolade in 1993. Although details are yet to be worked out, candidates would be judged on teaching effectiveness and probably would be required to pass a written exam.
The process is widely expected to force changes in the content of college courses for education majors. Mr. Imig agrees that colleges will want to claim that a high percentage of their students are nationally certified; but he contends the bulk of the effort will fall much more strongly on the post-college period of in-service training. ``The candidates' first priority in that three years is likely to be getting ready for the exam,'' he insists.
President Bush's proposals to add dollars to the government's annual verbal recognition of educational merit would largely reward schools and individual teachers. Both teachers unions have traditionally opposed merit pay for individuals, on the grounds that the selection process is likely to be subjective.
AFT president Albert Shanker proposes a competition among schools over a five-year rather than a one-year period and the awarding of $15,000 prizes to each teacher in the top 10 percent of all schools. ``The whole school wins,'' Mr. Shanker says. The sense of teamwork would be strengthened rather than weakened, he says. He concedes that he would not have proposed an award system at all a few years ago. Awareness of how poorly school reform is faring and threats by states and others who say they could do the job better were the prod.
The expected teacher shortage has prompted a number of other moves. Some states are trying to make it easier for teachers to stay in teaching by arranging pension packages that can be moved from state to state. Efforts to recruit teachers from the growing ranks of early retirees in other fields have also increased. Most new teachers in urban systems are now people who have chosen teaching as a second career. Almost half the states now offer a shortened route to certification for these late bloomers.
Shortages do not necessarily mean teacherless classes. An NEA survey a few years ago of the nation's largest school districts found that school systems in need did everything from dropping courses to raising class size. ``They were very creative in covering up the problem without admitting there was one,'' says Ms. Futrell.
``The issue is not so much numbers; it's getting the best people possible,'' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National Association of School Boards. ``We need to do as much as we can to build a climate within the profession so that bright, able young people will say, `I want to be a teacher.'''
To hit that quality issue head on, many say the teaching of teachers must be improved from the elementary-school level on up.
``If you ask what percentage of elementary school teachers really understand the science they teach, the answer would be under 50 percent,'' the AFT's Shanker says. ``The entry standard for college in most countries requires knowing science and math and the ability to write well. It's not true for American colleges, and there's no way to catch up quickly.''
Better guidance in early student years is also necessary if more minority students are to be recruited to teaching. The number of minority teachers has been declining at the very time when the black and Hispanic student population is growing rapidly.
College scholarships, a common method of tackling the problem, miss those minority students who are out of the running because they were never encouraged to take algebra and other college-track courses. ``We've got to increase the college-going rate,'' insists Barbara Holmes, who is directing a study on minority teacher supply and demand in five states for the Education Commission of the States.
Talking about the expected shortage is considered one of the best ways of warding it off. ``We need to let people know there's a need for teachers,'' the NEA's Futrell insists. ``Many students just aren't aware of the problem.''