State woos teachers with a (big) bonus

Massachusetts' $20,000 offer is latest in a heightened US effort tolure talented people to classroom.

Michael Douglas left teaching because of the money. Now, the Massachusetts resident may return - because of the money.

A $20,000 signing bonus that Massachusetts is marketing aggressively has caught the eye of thousands of would-be teachers.

The offer has the state Department of Education scrambling to answer inquiries from everyone from jazz musicians to engineers now interested in teaching teens from "Southie."

"I'm returning for the job satisfaction," Mr. Douglas says. But, he adds, "the money might be a factor. I liked teaching enough, but this gave me a nudge."

Massachusetts educators are hoping many of America's best and brightest will have the same reaction. It's all part of their bold plan to reinvent the way schools lure - and keep - good teachers. Billing education as a high-respect, high-reward profession, they're barnstorming top schools with missionary zeal to preach that the home of Horace Mann is the place to teach.

Pressed by rising enrollments, mandated smaller classes, and demands for better student performance, districts around the country are testing everything from small cash bonuses to housing allowances to enhance their classrooms' appeal. They're even looking overseas for hard-to-fill positions in science and math.

But Massachusetts is upping the ante with the country's first state-backed offer of significant financial reward, job placement, and sustained professional development for promising new teachers. It's also creating a path to the classroom that sidesteps lengthy certification and thus is more likely to attract nontraditional candidates.

In exchange, program participants will teach in one of 13 urban school districts for four years, with their bonus paid out over that time.

Although the state will take just 50 people this year, the pitch is catching the attention of everyone from top college seniors to disillusioned marketing executives.

"We are enhancing the profession of teaching," says Ann Duffy, a consultant to the Massachusetts Department of Education. "We are convincing people with lots of options to choose teaching."

Creative staffing in classroom

States are under considerable pressure to think creatively about staffing their classrooms. Experts estimate that over the next decade, schools will need to hire about 200,000 teachers per year, or significantly more than the number of newly minted teachers coming out of education schools. In subjects like science and math, they face acute shortages, something that has prompted emergency credentialing and the use of teachers who are not qualified to teach their subject. Substitute teachers are especially hard to find.

But hiring prospects are brightening. Indeed, Massachusetts is making its pitch at one of the more promising times for the profession.

The 1970s and '80s turned a cold shoulder to teaching, particularly as more options opened up to women, the traditional backbone of the profession. Low salaries and one- to two-year certification requirements exacerbated recruiting problems.

The more altruistic '90s, however, are helping to change teaching's "why would you want to do that?" reputation. Certainly the "giving back" part of a job description carries more weight than it has in decades.

At the same time, many districts have raised salaries, though the average starting pay of $27,000 in Massachusetts helps explain the interest in add-on financial incentives.

And according to a recent survey by Recruiting New Teachers, based in Belmont, Mass., Americans name teacher quality as the greatest influence on student learning, well ahead of higher academic standards and achievement tests.

More respect

"Teaching is definitely getting more respect," says Fred Frelow, director of urban initiatives at the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future in New York. He notes that more people realize they can make a decent living and also a contribution. "A lot of surveys show that people know that teaching is really important, that teachers play a critical role in people's lives."

Indeed, many visitors to two recent Massachusetts information sessions said that the prospect of making a difference was a key factor.

"It's an important field," said Dan Landesman, a computer programmer. Like several others, he added that the prospect of ongoing training was as important - if not more so - than the financial bonus.

But he doesn't discount the importance of the money. The bonus "shows how serious they are," he says. "It definitely makes it feel different."

But not everyone is convinced that the program is a breakthrough in the effort to attract a broad new group of people to the classroom.

Learn by doing?

A major concern for critics is the meager preparation Massachusetts is offering before the daunting entry into urban schools, where new teachers are often given the hardest classes and expected to perform as veterans.

Recipients of the bonuses will attend a six-week intensive summer training session where they will both teach and study. Once assigned to a district, the new educators will have the contacts they developed over the summer as well as a master teacher to turn to for advice. All the participating districts have committed to providing the ongoing support that the state says is crucial to retaining urban teachers.

Frank Tobin is one of the skeptics. The recruitment coordinator for Teachers for Chicago, which targets nontraditional teachers, says his seven-year-old program has succeeded by using a specially tailored interview that targets good candidates for urban schools.

Teachers enter a two-year special master's program at a participating university, and are assigned to a school with three other interns and a full-time mentor.

Mr. Tobin is a big fan of casting a wider net to bring new people into teaching - as long as it's done carefully.

"To walk into an urban system with just a course or two under your belt is a very draining life experience," he comments. In his training work, he says, "I lay it out that you have to be a special kind of person."

Even if you are, he says, a summer training program may not be enough to help newcomers survive the sink-or-swim urban environment.

But for now, Massachusetts is hopeful.

"We struck something, and it was a nerve that says we want to teach, we want to make a difference," says Massachusetts interim Education Commissioner David Driscoll. He's excited about people like Allison Kalish, a senior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who's planning to apply.

"It's really cool," she says. "It seems competitive, and it's a great way to jump start your way into teaching."

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