They call it the "baby boom echo," but this one just gets stronger. A record 53 million students are surging into the nation's classrooms - and will keep on surging well into the next century.
For many schools, it's meant figuring out how to shoehorn yet another cluster of portable classroom trailers onto the lot. Or how to come up with a few dozen new bus drivers, fast.
But the toughest challenge for American education will be finding qualified teachers. Shortages are so severe in some areas that they're forcing lawmakers and educators to rethink the terms of the teaching profession.
Twenty-seven states recently passed laws to improve teacher recruitment. And the bidding war for teachers is hitting new peaks as another school year begins:
*New hiring bonuses for teachers that range from $1,000 in Maryland to a record $20,000 in Massachusetts.
*Texas gave all its teachers a $3,000 across-the-board raise. Individual districts are sweetening offers with moving expenses and stipends for teachers in shortage fields.
*South Carolina changed its state laws to allow schools to offer full-time jobs and top salaries to retired teachers.
*Many states forgive the loans of students who agree to teach in the state (Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Pennsylvania) or scholarships for those who teach in critical shortage areas, such as math, science, special education, and bilingual education (Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi).
But wooing teachers away from neighboring districts or states won't solve the deeper problem - how to develop and retain better teachers.
Here's the problem: Some 2.2 million new teachers will be needed in the next decade to keep up with expected enrollment increases and retirements, estimates the US Department of Education. At the same time, about 40 percent of those who graduate from college qualified to teach will never set foot in a classroom - and a third of those who do will leave within the first five years.
Mentoring for teachers
It's a set of numbers that worries lawmakers, because the teacher shortage can't be solved just by churning out more majors who trumpet education. The high dropout rate worries teachers because it says something about the quality of life in their profession.
An emerging solution to both issues is to focus resources on the quality of learning once teachers get into the classroom.
Instead of looking to the nation's teaching colleges to make up the shortfall, many states are prospecting new ways to grow their own through intensive on-the-job mentoring. And experienced teachers are beginning to insist on the opportunities for mentoring and professional development that their counterparts in Japan and Germany enjoy.
"We've had to realize that our current procedures for credentialing and training teachers essentially keep good people out," says William Moloney, Colorado's commissioner of education. "If you want to hire your mailman to teach physics, that should be OK, if the mailman delivers the results in the classroom."
New Jersey launched the nation's first alternative certification program in 1984 as a bid to attract strong liberal-arts graduates into the teaching profession. A key feature of the program was assigning candidates to a mentor teacher.
Soon after, Texas and California launched similar programs to head off expected teacher shortages. By 1998, 41 states and the District of Columbia provided alternative routes into teaching. "Recently, I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm in states that were once resistant to the idea of alternative certification," says C. Emily Feistritzer of the National Center for Education Information, a Washington group that tracks such programs.
This year, Texas will find about 25 percent of the 40,000 new teachers it needs through alternative certification. California is expanding its alternative program to offset a severe teacher shortfall, which stems in part from the state's move four years ago to reduce class sizes.
"Without class reduction, California would need to replace about 17,000 teachers a year," says Michael McKibbin, project officer for Alternative Certification at the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. "Now it's double that, and funding for alternative certification [$11 million] is likely to significantly increase next year."
Moreover, the state's mentoring program is bringing new groups of teachers into the profession and keeping them longer. "We're retaining about 85 percent of these people after five years, and 45 percent of those attracted into alternative programs are ethnic and racial minorities - about 2.5 times the number that are coming through traditional teachers colleges," he adds.
Kentucky, New Mexico, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are also stepping up alternative recruiting.
Such programs have drawn fire from parts of the education establishment. Last month, two teacher associations filed a suit against Pennsylvania's alternative certification program - the first legal challenge in the country.
Is certification even needed?
A statistical slugfest is also developing over whether there's evidence to support the need for standard teacher certification and education-school training.
Last month, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation released a report that found no difference in the performance of math and science students taught by teachers who are fully certified and those who aren't.
"Our whole approach to teachers has been curiously divorced from our approach to standards for kids in schools," says foundation president Chester Finn.
But others defend the value of traditional education school training. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a private group, issued a study criticizing states that create "back-door routes" into teaching.
Still, a consensus is emerging among educators about the importance of mentoring and professional development.
"Getting people in the door is just half the battle. Keeping them is a bigger challenge," says Kathleen Lyons of the National Education Association, the teacher's union.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society