Current Events

March 01, 1992 9 min read

Teacher Shortage Appears Unlikely

Despite widespread predictions to the contrary, the nation is unlikely to experience a general shortage of public school teachers in the 1990s; that, at least, is the conclusion of two new studies from the RAND Corp.

Researchers from the think tank--which in 1984 issued a report predicting a shortage--examined data on Indiana teachers only. But they say their findings are applicable to the nation as a whole because they hinge on trends affecting the entire teacher work force.

Some of the patterns that the studies uncovered contradict several popular notions that have led to the fears about a teacher shortage. For example, the studies paint a picture of far less turnover in the teaching profession, far less reliance on new education school graduates to fill jobs, and a far greater number of women choosing to teach than had been assumed.

The researchers--Sheila Nataraj Kirby, David Grissmer, and Lisa Hudson--found, among other things, that the overall attrition rate for Indiana teachers has fallen steadily since the late 1960s, from 11 percent in 1969 to 3 percent or 4 percent in 1987. They also discovered that attrition among teachers who have been in the classroom for five years or less--those who leave the classroom in the greatest numbers--has dropped to about onethird, a 25-year low.

A main reason, say the authors, is that most teachers are between 35 and 55 years of age, a stable age-group in all professions. Also, women--who make up two-thirds of the teaching force--are less prone than in the past to take prolonged absences from their jobs to raise families. And when they do leave work, women today are more likely to go back, and they return faster than they once did. Finally, the researchers conclude, the attrition rate has fallen because higher salary levels have kept more people in the profession.

“Overall,’' the researchers write, “the teacher labor market has been strongly influenced by general demographics and laborforce trends.’'

New Findings Fuel Old Debate

Three recently published studies raise questions about the effectiveness of whole language as a method for teaching reading and suggest that direct instruction in phonics can be effective.

The three studies, submitted separately but published together in the December issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, represent the latest salvo in one of the most hotly contested disputes in education. The reading field is sharply divided between those who advocate teaching reading by emphasizing the relationship between letters and sounds-- phonics--and those in a rapidly expanding camp who believe that children should be taught to read using whole texts.

One of the new studies--which replicated a landmark 1965 study that has become a foundation of the whole language movement-- concluded that the earlier work had overstated the benefits of reading words in context. The other two studies found that direct instruction in letter-sound relationships improved children’s ability to identify words.

“The fact is, the research supports the utility of both codeoriented [phonics] and meaningoriented strategies,’' says Frank Velluntino, a psychology professor who wrote an introductory paper on the studies for the journal. “But in a system based on an alphabet, code-oriented strategies carry a little more weight.’'

Kenneth Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona and the author of the 1965 study, denied that the new studies refute his analysis. Decades of research--including teachers’ observations of their own students--have borne out the validity of teaching reading through the use of whole texts, he says.

“Teachers aren’t relying on what I said in 1965,’' he asserts. “They are relying on what their kids are doing now.’'

N.Y. Teachers Charge Sex Bias

A group of nearly 1,200 New York teachers has filed a complaint with the state’s equal employment commission asking it to investigate whether the state’s retirement system discriminates against women.

New York’s four-tiered pension plan reduces benefits for teachers who leave their positions temporarily to care for children or aging parents or to follow their spouses out of state. Upon their return, the teachers are placed in a lower tier of the pension plan, causing them to lose an estimated $8,000 to $11,000 annually in retirement benefits, according to Lisa Maurer, a lawyer for the coalition of complainants, all of whom are currently teaching.

“In a system where the overwhelming majority are women,’' the affidavit reads, “this pension plan conforms to and rewards the male pattern’’ of uninterrupted long-term service.

The teachers seek to recover prior contributions they made to the retirement system, which are estimated at more than $14 million, and another $3.5 million annually until their retirement to bring them to the level of top-tier benefits.

A New Advocate For National Standards

In January, the United States moved one step closer to adopting a national system of standards and assessments for students when a congressionally mandated panel concluded that creating both is highly desirable and feasible.

Asserting that the current education system’s expectations for student performance are “simply too low,’' the National Council on Education Standards and Testing proposed setting standards for schools and school systems as well as for students and recommended developing new student assessments that would measure performance against the new standards.

The release of the report is the latest step in a process that began with the 1989 “summit’’ between President Bush and the nation’s governors that led to the adoption of the six national education goals. To monitor progress toward goal number three, which calls for students to demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter, the National Education Goals Panel began to consider developing high national standards for students and a way of assessing them. The panel and Congress created the council on standards and testing to explore the desirability and feasibility of such a scheme.

Although the council endorsed the standards setting and assessment ideas, it warned against turning them into a national curriculum and a single national test, which many educators strongly oppose. “Rather,’' the report states, the standards “should serve as a basic core of important understandings that all students need to acquire, but certainly not everything that a student should learn.’'

Still, many believe that the council faces a battle in trying to persuade the goals panel and Congress to adopt its recommendations. The same day the document was released, four dozen prominent educators and scholars released a statement expressing serious reservations about national assessments.

But Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, co-chairman of the standards council, quickly predicted that the report would be widely accepted. The fact that the diverse membership of the council was able to agree on the report, he said, indicates that it has widespread support throughout the country. The group, he added, “organized itself into a battalion against the enemy--the enemy is low performance, not each other.’'

A Penalty That Pays?

A flurry of sizable teachercontract settlements has some Minnesota officials contending that a state law--one that penalizes school districts not settling contract negotiations by a certain date--may be benefiting teachers unfairly and leading districts into financial ruin.

The settlements will raise the cost of salary and benefits packages by an average of 8.4 percent over the two years covered by the contracts, but over the same period, state aid to districts will increase by only 3 percent, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. This disparity between expenses and revenue has given rise to concerns that the contracts will prompt budget cuts or layoffs. Others have complained that the settlements are out of line with those offered to other state employees.

“It is really a question of what’s affordable during a recession,’' says Minnesota Commissioner of Finance John Gunyou. “The process we have in Minnesota is delivering contracts that are double those of the other public bargaining unions.’'

Teachers’ contracts in Minnesota expire in July of every oddnumbered year and correspond with the state’s biennial budget. Before 1989, it was not unusual for half of the state’s school districts to be without contracts six months into the biennium. But in that year, lawmakers approved a law that forces districts to pay $25 per pupil if they fail to reach agreements with their teachers’ unions by Jan. 15. This year, 10 of the state’s 402 districts missed the deadline and will be penalized a total of $237,960; two years ago, four districts were penalized a total of $380,000.

Since only a small fraction of all districts have missed the deadline, there is little debate over whether the law has succeeded in bringing an end to lengthy negotiations. But some people argue that it has increased the pressure on school boards to increase teachers’ wages and benefits. Because forgoing state money for education is a politically unattractive option, they say, some boards agree to contracts that cost more than they might have without the deadline. “We think it has been used by the teacher bargaining unions as a lever,’' says John Sylvester, director of management services for the state school boards association.

But Robert Astrup, president of the Minnesota Education Association, calls that assertion “a bunch of poppycock.’' He says there is no evidence that the deadline, already six months after the expiration of the previous contract, has led to better settlements for teachers.

Censors Target School Libraries

More than one-third of the nation’s school libraries were targets of censorship between 1987 and 1990, and one-quarter of those attempts were successful, according to the results of a national survey published in the January issue of the American Library Association’s Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom.

The study was conducted by Dianne McAfee, a University of Wisconsin professor of library and information sciences, who distributed a series of questionnaires to more than 6,550 school libraries nationwide. Of those responding, just under 36 percent reported one or more complaints about reading materials for students. Two-thirds of the challenges were initiated by parents, and nearly 20 percent came from principals and teachers.

Most of the complaints focused on works of fiction. Among the titles most often contested were Forever, by Judy Blume, and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. Of the disputed materials, 52 percent were retained in the library, 22 percent were put on restricted access, and 26 percent were removed. The study concludes that attempts at censorship were more successful at small schools with few library employees and no policy governing the selection of materials.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Current Events