A WAVE of students, the largest since baby boomers showed up at the schoolhouse door in the 1960s and '70s, is poised to crest across America - and some experts are asking whether the nation will have enough teachers.
The surge in students coincides with a teaching force that is marching toward retirement. As a result, nearly 1 million teachers will need to be hired over the next five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
As the hiring progresses, some districts appear to be better situated than others to attract new teachers. Rural schools, as well as schools that need bilingual and special-education teachers, are among those that may be hard-pressed to find enough people to stand at the head of the class.
Experts vary widely, however, about the extent of a teacher shortage - with some questioning whether one exists at all.
"The whole issue is overblown," says Michael Podgursky, an economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. His research shows only a limited number of districts having difficulty hiring special-education teachers. He actually sees a surplus of elementary teachers.
"They are a dime a dozen, and there's a glut as far as the eye can see," Mr. Podgursky argues.
But others definitely see a crisis looming on the horizon.
"This problem has been on the radar screen for a number of years," says David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit group in Belmont, Mass. "The dynamics of demography will increase the challenge as this decade wanes and the new decade begins."
Mr. Haselkorn points to serious shortages in certain specialties, such as bilingual and special education, and specific subject areas, such as math and science.
Inner-city schools, which employ more bilingual and special-education teachers, and rural schools, which often pay teachers less than do cities and suburbs, may be hardest hit.
For David Anctil, superintendent of a one-school district in tiny Clearfield, Iowa, the shortage is already apparent. He struggles to hire teachers for Clear-field Community School when they can make nearly double the salary in Des Moines schools, 100 miles away.
"The larger districts are more attractive," he says. "It's particularly hard in the specialty fields. There are plenty of teachers in other fields, and the big school districts can't hire them all. It's easier to pick up an elementary teacher than any kind of special teacher."
It's true that some urban and rural districts have a tough time competing for specialty teachers, Podgursky says. "But any employer is going to have periodic problems in recruiting. One of the problems in this sector is how the schools respond." Rigid pay structures in teaching need to be adjusted to the market, Podgursky says. "It's very simple. If schools have trouble hiring special-education teachers, then they should raise the pay of special-education teachers."
Another solution is to ease the certification requirements for teachers, he says. "We've created a barrier to entry in the market in terms of certification."
In fact, many states already have alternative-certification programs in place. Through the Teach for America program started in the late '80s, thousands of recent liberal-arts-college graduates have taken up teaching positions in needy urban or rural districts across the country.
Many districts are also creating "grow-your-own" teacher programs to help teacher aides become fully licensed teachers, Haselkorn says. A report released yesterday by Recruiting New Teachers looks at nearly 150 "paraeducator-to-teacher" programs in more than 30 states.
These programs are "a new ladder into the teaching profession and a promising source of highly qualified minority teachers," Haselkorn says. Many minority teacher aides are already working in classrooms where shortages are most likely, such as special education and bilingual education. "Many of these aides have been working in bilingual or special-education classrooms for years," he adds. "Some had been serving as de facto instructors."
Teacher unions are showing support for the idea of helping teacher aides become licensed teachers. Marian Ceasor was a teacher aide in Cleveland for nearly 30 years before taking a job with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington. She now works with AFT affiliates to promote "career ladder" programs for teacher aides. These programs make more sense than many of the alternatives, she says.
"In years past, Cleveland had gone to Puerto Rico and different places to recruit bilingual teachers," Ms. Ceasor says. "They would come to Cleveland but many soon left. We already had bilingual paraprofessionals in the classroom who lived in the neighborhood and had already bought into the school system."