America's widening teacher gap

Schools try signing bonuses, recruiting abroad, and even the controversial step of easing certification standards.

American public schools are facing one of the most severe teacher shortages in history.

While the problem has existed for several years, it is suddenly becoming more acute as a surge in the number of retiring teachers collides with rapid growth in student enrollments in many parts of the country.

The result: a huge gap in classroom rosters for this fall - as high as 10 percent of the teaching force in some cities - and rising concern that the shortage will stall the education-reform movement.

The problem is severe enough that some school districts are relaxing certification standards to lure everyone from postal clerks to nuclear engineers into the classroom. While some analysts say the fresh faces will benefit the teaching corps, others warn that the quality of instruction will be jeopardized - at a time when accountability is the watchword in American education.

"It's ludicrous [to rely on crash training programs] at the same time everyone is clamoring for higher standards for students," says Jamie Horwitz of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers' union.

Overall, experts estimate that public schools will need to recruit 2.2 million to 2.5 million teachers over the next decade. But in some parts of the country - particularly urban areas and rapidly growing parts of the Sunbelt - the crunch is already pronounced.

* New York City needs to hire 8,000 new teachers this summer - one-tenth of its workforce.

* North Carolina has 10,000 vacancies to fill statewide by fall. It graduates only 3,400 new teachers each year.

* Chicago public schools face a shortfall of 3,500 teachers. The district is recruiting classroom personnel in 35 countries.

"There was no reason not to know that this was coming," says David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers in Belmont, Mass. "But many people were looking the other way."

Behind the shortage is a convergence of several forces. Demographics are playing a significant role. In the next four years, 20 million kids are expected to enter high school - a one-third increase from the current enrollment, according to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.

Many schools have not been able to retain the teachers they do hire. Teachers are often reluctant to live in remote areas, while others are unwilling to work in neighborhoods they think are dangerous. After three years, 20 percent of new teachers leave the field, while that number leaps to 50 percent for those in the field for five years.

Pay also remains a key issue. Teachers' relative standard of living is the lowest it's been in 40 years, unions say. The average teacher salary nationwide now stands at $42,000. Salary increases the past two years were among the smallest in 40 years.

To overcome some of these problems, districts are taking steps both subtle and significant. Like Chicago, many districts are hanging out "Help Wanted" signs overseas. New York City is recruiting teachers from Spain, Italy, Austria, and India. North Carolina's Wake County has sent administrators as far away as New Zealand. Los Angeles, too, is looking aggressively abroad.

Others are trying to lure teachers back out of retirement. New York state is considering a "returnment" policy that would allow instructors to come back without losing their pension benefits. Arizona has been recruiting retirees of all kinds.

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature has just dropped the requirement that all teachers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia be residents of those cities in order to stand in the classroom.

Offering more money is a popular approach. Mississippi has just ordered a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for all teachers next year. South Carolina is offering $2,500 signing bonuses, while, in Massachusetts, the bonuses can be $20,000.

Many of these efforts do have their critics, however. Some argue that offering platinum bonuses to new teachers can alienate the people who have toiled in the classroom for years. "It hurts the collegial atmosphere among teachers," says Paul Gagnon, a senior researcher at the Boston University School of Education.

Even more controversial is the movement to relax teacher qualifications. Some 44 states now have put into place alternative routes to teacher certification.

"Whenever we have a large teacher shortage as we do right now you will see that licensing and credentials are thrown out the window and warm bodies are simply placed in classrooms," says Kathleen Lyons of the Washington-based National Education Association, a union.

A growing number of classroom personnel are also teaching out of their fields - or never went to school to become a teacher to begin with. Louisiana, for instance, is now allowing noneducation majors to teach. Mississippi is considering it as well.

Still, not everyone agrees that using fresh recruits without teaching credentials is necessarily bad. It can bring new energy and fresh perspectives into the classroom. "We've already discovered in this country that certification is no guarantee of teacher quality," says Kathy Christie, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

In Georgia, when the state set up an e-mail address hoping to make contact with non-teachers who might like to switch fields, the early response was so overwhelming that it shut down the e-mail server.

The shortage has forced school systems across the country to address problems that have gone unattended - such as better communication and efforts to improve teacher retention.

"I actually feel optimistic," says Mr. Haselkorn.

Patrik Jonsson, Stacy A. Teicher, and Mary Wiltenburg contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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