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The Real Teacher Crisis

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It has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality

Is there a teacher shortage or isn't there? The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a back-to-school report on rising enrollments and bulging schools. High-status commissions plead for billions more dollars for teacher training. Headlines scream that there aren't enough teachers to go around. David Hasselkorn, the head of a group called Recruiting New Teachers, warns of a "teacher deficit."

Yet when the new school year opened, few U.S. classrooms lacked a warm adult body at the front of the room. Though some schools in troubled urban neighborhoods and remote rural areas had difficulty finding enough teachers, by far the more common pattern was dozens or hundreds of eager candidates queued up for every available position. New York's Connetquot district on Long Island, for example, found itself with 2,500 applicants for 35 vacancies. At most of the nation's 700 new charter schools, people keen to teach in them are all but tearing down the doors.

To be sure, enrollments are still rising--in the middle and upper grades, not the primary years--as the "baby boom echo" works its way through the schools. Granted, some buildings are crowded, especially in the Sun Belt. And yes, the current teaching force is aging. Retirements over the next few years will escalate. We may even find ourselves, as Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley forecasts, replacing as many as 2 million of the country's 2.7 million teachers within a decade.

But there is no looming quantity crisis. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that teacher attrition--people leaving the field altogether--has been holding steady at about 7 percent a year, and that fewer than 1 percent of teaching jobs go unfilled (or are held by substitutes). What's more, a huge reserve pool of one-time teachers--women and men who left to have kids, start businesses, attend law school, or retire early--is full of people who may be lured back by the right jobs. Though the teachers' unions strive to keep out part-timers and retirees, these veterans are often superb choices to handle a couple of physics or French courses. Charter schools--less vulnerable to union demands--have been finding lots of grand teachers in that pool. Surely teaching is the only U.S. profession with as many nonpracticing members as active participants.

Teaching is also a field where demand and supply are powerfully affected by budget and policy decisions. When California decided to use a recent budget windfall to reduce class size in the primary grades, it abruptly found itself seeking tens of thousands more teachers (and lacking classrooms to put many of them in). Juicy retirement packages, such as the one the United Federation of Teachers recently shoved through the New York state legislature--Gov. George E. Pataki apologetically vetoed it--understandably tempt people to exit the schools. Since the New York State United Teachers, the state counterpart of the same union, simultaneously pushed through a costly and labor-intensive reduced-class-size bill, it can fairly be said that these American Federation of Teachers affiliates, in collaboration with docile legislators, are doing their best to create a teacher shortage in the Empire State. No doubt they expect salaries to rise in response.

More than a third of our kids are expected to absorb the content of vital subjects from people who never studied those fields.

Of course, well-compensated jobs are more attractive to experienced teachers, particularly when they're in safe suburban classrooms, while ill-paid posts in dusty towns and dangerous inner-city schools are more apt to discourage applications from people with other options. Teachers, after all, are rational beings. They respond to opportunities, incentives, and working conditions. Since 87 percent of them are public employees, it follows that policymakers' decisions have great impact. A policy decision to employ more teachers (such as by reducing pupil-teacher ratios, which have fallen from 27-to-1 to 17-to-1 over the past 40 years) is obviously different from a decision to hold class size constant but pay teachers more--or invest more in technology.

Other than yesterday's birthrate, governors and legislators are the main shapers of today's demand for teachers. They're also the people who make the rules for who can teach, thus profoundly shaping the supply as well. Within the education profession, there's a (self-interested) conviction that only properly credentialed individuals should be allowed into classrooms. By properly credentialed, educators nearly always mean graduates of approved (and accredited) teacher education programs. They scoff at "alternative" entry programs even though a recent study found that people who enter that way are "more likely to be minorities, specialize in science and mathematics, and teach in hard-to-staff inner-city districts than traditionally certified teachers." ("Study Finds Alternative Teachers Less Qualified, But Meeting Needs," Sept. 10, 1997.)

Through their potent influence on both the demand for and the supply of teachers, policymakers could eradicate all threat of teacher shortages in the years ahead. But that means breaking some crockery in the education china shop: recognizing that ever-smaller classes are a costly and ineffectual recipe for improved student performance, unlocking more classroom doors to unconventionally prepared people, allowing for more charter schools and other attractive education workplaces, and cracking the education school monopoly.

That's why President Clinton's recent proposal to ease the "teacher shortage"--and solve the problems of urban schools--with a new $350 million federal scholarship program is so wrongheaded. Unveiled during a "race relations" speech to the NAACP in July, this program would pump all that money into colleges of education to underwrite the costs of recruiting and training additional teachers for "needy" school systems. (Those aided would be obliged to commit three years to impoverished urban and rural classrooms.)

This scheme calls to mind Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's comment about government programs that "feed the sparrows by feeding the horses": purporting to get more qualified teachers into South-Central Los Angeles by subsidizing the elite education schools of UCLA and Stanford.

And just how qualified would they be? Here we come to the real teaching crisis in America, the one the colleges of education, the teachers' unions, and the high-status commissions don't want us to dwell on. It has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. With intellectual preparedness, to be precise. For the same federal study that says we have enough teachers also reports that 36 percent of those now teaching core subjects (English, math, science, social studies, foreign languages) neither majored nor minored in those subjects. That means more than a third of our kids are ostensibly absorbing the content of vital subjects from people who themselves never seriously studied those fields.

The real crisis lies in education schools and the watered-down courses they offer. And it's these schools that Mr. Clinton wants to pump millions more federal dollars into.

Visualize someone who never learned much science trying to impart it to others. Yet that's the case with nearly two out of five of those now purportedly "teaching" science in U.S. schools. The situation is even worse in social studies, where three-fifths of the teachers neither majored nor minored in any of the disciplines that constitute the field. No wonder U.S. kids don't know much history or geography.

The main reason their instructors did not study the subjects they are supposed to impart to youngsters is that they studied "education" instead: teaching methods, psychology, the history and philosophy of education, audiovisual devices, child development, multiculturalism, self-esteem training, and so forth. And the reason they studied these things--rather than chemistry, history, calculus, English literature, and so on--is that state law required them to obtain a "teaching certificate," which, in nearly all cases, is obtainable only by enrolling in a college of education rather than a college of arts and sciences.

Statutes giving education schools this stranglehold on entry into teaching jobs are what cause many future teachers to take primarily education courses--and to learn little about much else. And little indeed is what many of them have learned. The same Connetquot, N.Y., district that welcomed so many applicants for its teaching jobs asked them--as a sort of rudimentary literacy screening--to take an old edition of the New York state regents' test in English, part of the exam that the state now proposes to require all youngsters to pass before graduating from high school. Barely a quarter of the prospective teachers could pass it. (That meant correctly answering at least 40 out of 50 multiple-choice reading-comprehension questions.) "We didn't think it was an outrageous standard for the teachers," dryly remarked a school system official. "[A]fter all, these are people that have baccalaureate degrees and state certification to teach, and some have a master's."

How does one garner all those credentials and still not even know how to read very well? Begin with a weak primary and secondary education for future teachers themselves. Then make the victims jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops and attend a school of education instead of a real college. And bar graduates of real colleges from teaching in public schools (except in special circumstances, such as charter schools). The result--visible throughout today's U.S. education system--is an artificial, policy-induced teaching-quality crisis, perhaps the gravest problem facing our children and grandchildren. Yet solemn commissions still opine that more time in education schools is what future (and current) teachers need, and that the education schools themselves should be made to jump over yet more regulatory and accreditation hurdles. It's the schools of education that Mr. Clinton wants to pump millions more federal dollars into. And he's a piker compared with the sponsors of some bills recently introduced in Congress.

The forthcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is where the federal policy issues will be thrashed out. If recent experience is any guide, the horses will end up well-fed. The sparrows will be lucky to get a few crumbs. And the real crisis of American teachers will continue.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education.

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