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Tackling America's Teacher Deficit

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The teachers we hire in the next decade will need to be the best prepared our nation has ever known.

At the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in July, President Clinton laid out a five-year, $350 million program to recruit and prepare a new generation of teachers for America's most disadvantaged schools. The proposal would provide forgivable loans to as many as 35,000 new teachers for high-poverty districts, and create 15 to 20 new "lighthouse" partnerships for high-quality teacher education between colleges and school districts.

The president has premised his proposal on proven models of recruitment and preparation. It is a coherent and targeted response that is likely to meet with success if enacted. But it faces some real hurdles. First, many critics may argue that given the current federal budget constraints, $350 million is too steep a price tag. But consider that:

  • Over the next decade, nearly 2 million new teachers will need to be hired to fill our classrooms because of the demographic double whammy of rising student enrollments and accelerating teacher retirements.
  • In recent years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, more than 50,000 people who lack the training required for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or provisional licenses. Nearly one-fourth of all secondary teachers do not have even a college minor in their main teaching field. This is true for more than 30 percent of mathematics teachers.
  • In urban settings with high poverty and large numbers of minority students, schools are often forced to make do with the nation's least-well-qualified teachers--a kind of affirmative action in reverse limiting educational opportunity for millions of schoolchildren.
  • Across the nation today, nearly one-third of our students are minority, but only 13 percent of our teachers come from groups historically underrepresented in the teaching profession.

The United States spends $1.2 billion a year to recruit 186,000 men and women into our armed forces--14,000 fewer than teaching will require annually through 2006. Yes, the budget deficit is real. But the nation's potential teacher deficit is scarier still. The president's $70 million annual price tag is paltry in comparison.

Congress also may be tempted to load up the bill with a range of categorical programs benefiting the myriad of interest groups that make up Washington's permanent education establishment. That would dilute the impact of the president's proposal and fail to address the nation's urgent teacher-recruitment, -development, and -diversity imperative.

President Clinton's plan simultaneously seeks to address the two most critical domestic challenges facing the nation: the need to develop its human resources to their utmost via a more qualified, diverse, and culturally skilled teaching force; and the need to come to terms with the challenges of an increasingly diverse society. It may be too little, but it is far from too late, particularly if Congress acts to bolster, not Balkanize, the proposed legislation.

If America wishes to achieve its education goals, it not only needs a larger, more talented, and more diverse teacher force than ever before--it needs new kinds of teaching and new models of teacher education. Simply put, the teachers we hire in the next decade will need to be the best prepared our nation has ever known. Demanding this isn't pie in the sky.

Teaching is the profession that shapes America's future, the essential profession, the one that makes all other professions possible. The president deserves an A for effort for his commitment to teaching. But the real test will be whether Congress will make the final grade.


David Haselkorn is the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Belmont, Mass.-based national teacher-recruitment initiative.

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