Teacher recruiters pick up the pace

They're searching nationally, and well beyond ed schools

It's no longer enough to wait until August 15 each year and then hire the coach's children and any other local education majors who apply to teach.

For student achievement to improve, schools are going to have to start early, reach well beyond the traditional teaching pool, and insist on strong content knowledge in the fields teachers will be assigned to teach.

That's the message many American states and school districts are picking up loud and clear, as a nationwide drive to raise student achievement takes hold. It's reshaping how schools recruit - and could transform the profession of teaching.

About three-quarters of the US teaching force majored in education. But that may no longer be enough to qualify as the head of the class. The new nationwide recruitment drive is reaching beyond schools of education - and local Zip Codes. The quest for new teachers is also moving into a yearlong cycle, instead of an end-of-summer hiring frenzy.

Some 27 states now offer scholarships or loan-forgiveness programs to attract top people to teach. Some districts are opening Web sites to nationalize their search and streamline the process. Others are developing alternative programs to train promising mid-career candidates.

The most glamorous of these new recruiting drives is the $20,000 signing bonus that Massachusetts now offers new teachers. Last year, 800 applications came in from 36 states and four countries; 59 candidates were awarded bonuses. This year, recruiters plan to give out 125.

At the Massachusetts recruiting sessions in Washington, D.C., this month, many who came were surprised to learn that their education coursework didn't count for much.

"We're looking for people who are exemplary in their field, whatever that may be," recruiter Mieka Freund told students at American University. Once accepted, prospects will complete a seven-week training program, then work with mentor teachers.

"We'll give you the skills you need to teach the content knowledge you have," she adds.

That formula is a problem for students like Kim Hill, who is well into a master's program in education at George Washington University in Washington.

"Knowing how much we've poured into this graduate program, the $20,000 is a big thing," she says. She and others at the session said they were disappointed that this investment wouldn't boost their prospects for selection.

"We've already taken education courses. Why should we have to go to a summer institute?" asked one prospective candidate.

"Everyone goes through the summer training program, regardless. Our purpose is to develop a corps of teachers who will support each other," responds Ms. Freund.

In effect, the signing bonus is only the most visible face of a deeper strategy to develop a statewide training and recruiting network for high-quality teachers.

Backed by a $60 million endowment, Massachusetts has launched its own program for preparing new teachers, patterned after Teach for America, a 10-year-old effort that recruits top undergraduates for poor urban and rural schools.

Candidates who don't make the cut for a $20,000 signing bonus can be sponsored for the summer training institute by school districts, which also commit to hiring them in the fall. Some 35 districts are working with this program this year.

By next year, the state will train about 1,000 of its new teachers a year through the institute, as well as circulate rsums of a larger pool of prospective teachers to districts that can't fund a national search.

"What's important about the Massachusetts bonus isn't the money. It's the fact that the word gets out that the state is reaching out beyond the traditional teaching pool," says Emily Feistritzer, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information.

"There are people all over the country eager to get into teaching, but they have no idea how to get from A to B. We don't do a very good job of educating them, because historically we've looked to education majors for our teachers," she says. "But the supply [of potential teachers] is huge, far greater than the demand. And the supply steps forward anytime the message gets beyond the boundaries of the school district."

Washington public schools are casting their net earlier and wider. They started recruiting this month. In addition to more national advertising and travel outside the district, recruiters are offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000, help with moving expenses, and a $250 voucher for teacher supplies.

D.C. schools are also reviving a mentoring program to help retain promising new teachers.

"We're putting more emphasis on getting highly qualified education leaders to help us make a dramatic improvement in student achievement," says Doris Barnes, D.C. recruitment coordinator.

In Chicago, public schools are advertising for "fierce crusaders" committed to helping poor and disadvantaged students make rapid achievement gains.

The state's teacher-certification board initially opposed a proposal to bring mid-career professionals with math and science expertise into classrooms without the prescribed education courses. As a result, the state legislature passed a law in 1997 authorizing nonprofit groups to partner with colleges and universities to create alternative routes to teaching.

Chicago's alternative-certification program now attracts about 1,000 applicants a year. Some 100 candidates start a summer training program, then work with a full-time mentor in teams of four per school in the fall.

During the school year, they take courses in a master's program. Candidates are paid $110 a day, plus tuition and medical bills.

"We're looking for strong, sensitive, committed people. We like people already in the workforce because they bring stamina, a good work ethic, and an understanding of the relationship of education to life," says Frank Tobin, recruitment coordinator for Chicago public schools.

"We're finding that they bring real life and energy to a school," he adds.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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