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Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Teacher-Recruitment Group Branches Out, Asserts Itself

Teacher-Recruitment Group Branches Out, Asserts Itself

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A phone rings in the basement of a two-story office building here on the outskirts of Boston. The caller, from Southern California, is responding to a television commercial promoting teaching as a career.

Answering the phone, veteran educator James Raynor learns the caller is a naturalized citizen, works as a musician, and speaks four languages. He's interested in teaching, but doesn't know how his college coursework from a European university stacks up against California's requirements for prospective teachers.

Mr. Raynor gives him the World Wide Web address of a service that translates foreign college transcripts into U.S. equivalents. Punching the caller's area code into a database, he then produces a list of local teacher-preparation programs. "The most impressive thing for him," Mr. Raynor says after hanging up, "was that I found a midcareer program that was just down the street from him."

Though it's become more sophisticated over time, the essence of Recruiting New Teachers Inc. has long been the inspiring and mobilizing of individuals--like Mr. Raynor's recent caller--to pursue careers in education. Founded in 1986, the nonprofit organization has fielded more than 1 million queries since airing its first public-service advertisement two years later.

Recently, however, RNT has branched out well beyond such direct efforts at enlistment. While holding conferences and generating widely read reports, the group also has begun helping to map out state and district strategies for training, recruiting, and retaining qualified teachers. Given the forecast that the United States will need 2 million new teachers in the next 10 years, the organization won't likely become obsolete any time soon.

"They are the only national entity that really focuses exclusively on teacher recruitment, and they bring to it a good mix of research and practical application," Sue Burr, California's undersecretary for education, said in a recent interview. "They know what works."

'Alert the Nation'

Now recognized as a national authority on teacher-quality and teacher-hiring issues, the organization was launched by an educational community whose schools serve less than 1 percent of the country's students.

When A Nation at Risk offered its alarming assessment of American education in 1983, officials at the National Association of Independent Schools believed that the report had neglected the role teachers needed to play in realizing improvement, recalled John C. Esty, the NAIS president from 1978 to 1991. Just as troubling were opinion polls at the time showing that young people's interest in teaching was on the wane.

In response, the board of the NAIS--which represents most of the nation's top private schools--approved a resolution directing Mr. Esty to mobilize an effort "to alert the nation to the dwindling pool of qualified teacher-applicants and to provide direction for addressing the problem."

The private school leader pulled together an impressive list of backers, including the philanthropist David Rockefeller Jr., the pollster Louis Harris, and J. Richard Munro, then the head of Time Inc.--all three of whom remain on RNT's board, as does Mr. Esty.

Given such a combination of public opinion and media savvy, the group quickly settled on the idea of a public-service campaign. After incorporating as Recruiting Young Teachers in 1986, its founders sought out the assistance of the Advertising Council, an organization through which advertising agencies donate their creative talents to nonprofit ventures.

"Our goal was to find out why there was a shortage," Mr. Esty said. "And it came down to two things: low salaries and lack of esteem. So our purpose in starting the ad campaign was to raise the esteem of the profession."

The enterprise generated some controversy at first. Some educators argued it was unseemly for professionals to recruit via the airwaves, Mr. Esty said. A few minority teachers, he added, also objected to the use of a white actor shown teaching in a mostly African-American school in the first commercial. (With the exception of Edward James Olmos, who portrayed a teacher in the film "Stand and Deliver," those featured in subsequent ads were actual educators.)

But the inaugural spot wound up generating 188,000 phone calls in its first year, three times the Ad Council's prediction.

"Obviously, you don't make a career choice because of an ad," said David Haselkorn, who has been the group's executive director for the past 10 years. But, he added, the commercials gave people "cultural permission" to pursue teaching at a time when the profession was unpopular.

Though callers at first were merely sent generic brochures on becoming a teacher, many were moved to action. According to Mr. Harris' research, about 40,000 of the roughly 540,000 teachers hired in the United States between 1988 and 1992 had responded to the organization's campaigns. About one-fourth of those were members of minority groups.

Unclogging Pipelines

Realizing many callers were not recent college graduates, the organization adopted its current name--referring to "new" teachers, not "young" teachers--in 1989.

More important, the ads' overwhelming response led RNT officials to conjecture that lack of interest alone couldn't explain the paucity of potential teachers.

"Lou Harris began to see a major problem with teacher recruitment," Mr. Esty said. "The systems for recruiting teachers did not reach far and wide enough. They were exclusionary, antiquated, and they were bureaucratic."

So Recruiting New Teachers began acting more like an education reform group. In 1993, it released its first two reports: "State Policies To Improve the Teacher Workforce" and "Teaching's Next Generation." The latter showed that programs encouraging middle and high school students to become teachers were particularly effective at bringing more young minority people into the profession.

That same year, the organization hosted its first Pathways to Teaching Careers conference, a gathering of policymakers, district officials, and others concerned with improving recruitment strategies. Several more conferences and high-profile studies have followed.

"We try to help inform the reform discourse and nudge it toward what we think is important," Mr. Haselkorn said. "Absent strengthening the way teachers are recruited, prepared, and supported, all other reforms are worthless."

Recruiting New Teachers played one its most active roles in California, where the Commission on Teacher Credentialing contracted with RNT to plan a statewide teacher-recruitment strategy. Completed two years ago, the plan offered dozens of recommendations, including expanding support programs for new teachers, increasing financial aid for education students, and making it easier for out-of-state teachers to work in California.

"It turned out to be the road map for what the legislature and the governor went on to do," said Linda Bond, the commission's director of governmental relations. "They enacted virtually all the recommendations."

California even passed legislation calling for a state-level version of Recruiting New Teachers, called CalTeach. In fact, RNT now runs CalTeach's phone counseling out of its own offices in Massachusetts. The organization spent five months creating databases specific to California so that callers from the Golden State can access more detailed information, including which teaching specialities are in the highest demand in specific districts.

Turning its expertise more toward local recruitment needs, RNT has just embarked on an undertaking to design a districtwide strategy for the 32,500-student San Jose, Calif., schools.

Establishment Slant?

While few find reason to criticize the group's goal of improving the nation's supply of teachers, the organization has risked becoming more controversial by taking a stronger stand on reform issues. For example, it waded into a thorny area of public policy last fall with the release of poll results about Americans' preferences between sending children to public schools with fully qualified teachers or receiving vouchers.

C. Emily Feistritzer, who directs the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, a private research organization, believes "Recruiting New Teachers is very much a part of the educational establishment now."

As such, she suggests, the organization may not be doing enough to encourage the hiring of nontraditional teaching candidates, even though it has published reports on recruiting "paraeducators"--such as teachers' assistants and library aides--to become full-fledged teachers.

"Here they are generating this pool of people that represents every conceivable kind of person interested in teaching," Ms. Feistritzer said. "And yet, they seem to be zeroing in on taking a position on how a person should be entering teaching, and also zeroing in more on the people already in the schools as being the best source of potential teachers."

Mr. Haselkorn counters that, although his board now includes Linda Darling-Hammond of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, RNT's phone counselors don't hesitate to refer callers to Teach for America. Ms. Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor, has been an outspoken critic of Teach for America, which helps place recent college graduates--usually liberal arts majors who lack formal education training--in schools whose students are predominantly disadvantaged.

But, Mr. Haselkorn said, "I'll cop to the plea that we want to see teaching strengthened and become a more diverse profession, and we want to see the profession honored the way it ought to be."

That may finally be happening, he added, if RNT's opinion poll from last fall is any indication. When the survey asked respondents which of eight different professions contributed the most to society, 62 percent chose teaching. The second-highest rating went to physicians, chosen by just 17 percent.

"The battle has shifted," Mr. Haselkorn said. "We don't need to focus as much on raising the esteem of teaching as on showing that quality teaching counts."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 6-7

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