When students across the United States head back to school this fall, many will find teachers from places like the Philippines, India - even Russia - standing in front of the blackboard.
US school districts are confronting a severe shortage of qualified teachers. A booming economy, along with relatively low teacher salaries and sometimes difficult working conditions, is making recruitment ever more challenging.
At the same time, schools are under increasing pressure to meet higher standards and keep classes small. So recruiters staring at thousands of unfilled slots - largely in math, science, and bilingual classes - are turning their focus abroad, mostly to countries that have a surplus of educators.
Supporters of such programs say they're a viable solution to finding qualified instructors. They add that the diversity foreigners bring to the classroom can only benefit students.
But critics say recruiting abroad is a short-term fix that could harm learning and result in wasted effort. Educators unaccustomed to inner-city challenges - or to American students and teaching styles - may be ineffective or get homesick and leave.
"I think that the practice ... is at best a temporary solution to a long-term problem," says Segun Eubanks, spokesman for the National Education Association in Washington. "There is no shortage of people who, if given the right [incentives], would be happy to teach in our schools."
Many schools are already offering US educators signing bonuses or housing discounts, and have reached beyond local markets to advertise nationally.
But recruiters in large districts in California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Chicago are also offering visas under temporary exchange programs, as well as "emergency" H1-B visas like those issued to ease shortages of high-tech workers. These later offer an option for citizenship.
"We need math teachers, and we can't wait. We have students that are losing out because we don't have these individuals," says Carlos Ponce, director of human resources for Chicago Public Schools. "I'm sure that there will be some cultural differences and adjustments made. But what's the alternative - not having anybody in those children's class?"
The district hired 43 teachers from overseas. Because Chicago has a "critical shortage" of educators, the INS agreed to provide 50 H1-B visas each year. After about six years, the district can sponsor teachers permanently. Mr. Ponce notes that instructors must pass a skills test and speak fluent English. "They are coming from some of the best schools," he says.
For Michele Dupont, who came to Chicago from France in June, teaching here means improving her English and learning about American culture.
"I don't miss France. I'm eager to start my job," she says. With five years of education experience, she was offered a position as a high school French teacher.
Though incentives offered to foreign instructors are the same as those offered to domestic ones, districts usually also cover immigration costs, which can run about $1,000 a teacher over a few years. Ms. Dupont notes that higher salaries in the US are an added bonus. "I love this country. I would very much like to stay," she says.
Dupont's sense of ease is not always characteristic of teachers who, often, move from small towns to large cities. In Dallas, educators from Mexico and the Philippines left because they didn't feel comfortable, says Linda Davis of Dallas public schools.
They were well-qualified, she says, but many were used to managing classrooms differently and found US students disrespectful. They also had trouble passing a mandatory state test. The district would now rather spend its money to retain teachers and recruit locally.
"Regardless of how experienced a teacher is, it takes them at least six months to adjust to American culture ... [Foreign recruits] are trying to find a house, rent an apartment, ... buy a car," says Edda Caraballo of the California Department of Education, which has hired more than 400 instructors temporarily over the past three years. Los Angeles also plans to hire Filipino and Canadian teachers this fall.
Critics also worry that because these educators don't yet have a full certificate, the rush to issue temporary certificates hurts students. "Fully credentialed teachers have a much stronger impact on student learning," Eubanks says. "[Foreign teachers] may be very qualified, but the experience overseas doesn't [always] translate."
But at the Houston Independent School District - where the city is struggling to hire close to 400 teachers even as classes start - recruiting abroad is at an all-time high. Their need has been partially met by more than 50 math and science teachers from the Philippines, says Jo Nell Drayden, manager of employment at the Houston Independent School District. She's pleased with the Filipinos' high work ethic, English skills, and training that is equivalent to US standards.
"I see a person coming from a different culture offering special talents, different insights," she says. The district plans to interview math and science teachers in Russia for next year.
As educators move into their retirement years and immigrants push enrollments up, urban school districts will likely continue to tap into teacher surpluses overseas, recruiters say.
In addition, they're devising attractive Web sites and turning to sites like SchoolJobs.com, where teachers worldwide can post rsums for free and members can access them from anywhere.
"We are moving toward a world economy," Ponce says. "How wonderful [for students] to [learn from] someone from Russia, Africa, India, China...."
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