Education Commentary

A ‘Teacher Corps’ for Urban Schools

By Pearl R. Kane — September 27, 1989 8 min read

Current proposals designed to attract highly qualified individuals to teaching overlook a large pool of recent college graduates who, though lacking professional training in education, stand ready to work in our schools.

As a way station between undergraduate and professional schools, teaching appeals to young people with its inherent variety and with the chance to do something useful for a few years. Acknowledging that they are the recipients of an excellent education, many liberal-arts graduates of competitive colleges want to use this advantage to contribute to the greater good of society before entering more lucrative careers.

In a survey of the class of 1989 at Barnard and Columbia Colleges, 60 percent of the 818 seniors who responded indicated they would consider teaching in an elementary or secondary school following graduation. Most of these students said they would be willing to teach for two to three years.

Over half of the minority students who responded to the survey indicated a willingness to teach; this group is sorely needed in urban schools, where minority youngsters have found few positive role models.

The major appeal of teaching, as cited by the Barnard and Columbia students, was the opportunity to influence young people’s lives. With the addition of incentives, such as partial scholarships to graduate and professional schools, the number who said they would consider teaching rose to three-fourths of the respondents.

If this sample is at all representative of liberal-arts majors at other institutions, and we assume that those who did not respond to the survey would choose not to teach, then roughly 36 percent of these graduates might be willing to teach, a national pool of 115,000 students annually.

The study points to the need for and potential of a “teacher corps,’' a kind of domestic Peace Corps that would recruit able young people to work for a few years in our most troubled public schools.

The notion of a teacher corps is hardly new, and a bill to revive the concept is currently being prepared by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But Mr. Kennedy’s bill--providing scholarships for two years of undergraduate or graduate study for those who say they will teach for five years--fails to recognize that many talented liberal-arts graduates are willing to work in public schools now, before moving on to other careers.

As one of the authors of the original Teacher Corps bill in 1965, Mr. Kennedy may recall that program’s success in attracting idealistic young adults who were not necessarily committed to a career in teaching.

In fact, an informal teaching corps already operates across the nation. Estimates of the number of public-school teachers who leave the profession within their first five years run as high as 50 percent, and the most capable young people are the most likely to change careers. Many give up teaching jobs because they are discouraged by the system or because the salaries are too low. But others who leave the profession never viewed teaching as a long-term commitment in the first place. A recent study conducted in New Jersey revealed that 40 percent of those entering teaching planned to teach for less than 10 years or did not know how long they would teach.

Young people who want to teach for only a few years before beginning graduate or professional school have always found private schools receptive to employing them. Since most states do not require certification for private-school teaching, these institutions have been longstanding beneficiaries of a pool of talented, temporary teachers. Many independent schools, in particular, depend on these liberal-arts graduates to bring energy and enthusiasm to their classrooms, playing fields, and dormitories--at low cost.

The young college graduates, school officials admit, are often unprepared for the demanding responsibilities they are assigned, and they receive meager compensation. Through internships and mentoring, schools are making efforts to provide a more equitable arrangement--but even with the prospect of being overworked and underpaid, plenty of young people remain interested in teaching jobs. According to William Baeckler, executive director of Independent Educational Services in Princeton, N.J., the largest teacher-placement agency for independent schools, there are always many more “rookie inquiries” than there are places. “With the exception of the fields of mathematics and foreign languages,” says Mr. Baeckler, “there were approximately four applicants for each available teaching job this fall.”

We should capitalize and improve on this system of temporary employment that has been operating unofficially on a small scale for decades. Rather than look down upon young people who see teaching as temporary work, we should seize the opportunity to increase their ranks and direct them to our inner-city schools, where we need them most.

Since liberal-arts graduates lack sufficient professional training in education to work as full-fledged teachers, we should think of teacher-corps participants as coaches or interns whose jobs would be to work directly with students, individually or in small groups, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Because these potential teachers are motivated to teach by a desire to work with young people, schools would not be permitted to assign them to administrative tasks, such as paperwork or guard duty. They could, however, be included in any aspect of school life that involved direct interaction with youngsters. Since many disadvantaged children require personalized learning experiences, corps teachers optimally employed would provide an invaluable educational resource.

Rather than leave training to local agencies, we should tap the nation’s leading pedagogical experts to design programs at major universities. Intensive workshops held during the summer months following graduation could equip participants with basic teaching skills and prepare them to understand cultural differences among their students.

To make it feasible for all capable college graduates, not just the privileged, to participate, financial assistance must be available. Low compensation would not discourage young people from teaching, as the Columbia-Barnard study indicated, if meaningful inducements were provided for the future. Many college graduates are confronted with payments on undergraduate loans immediately following graduation, and they face increased debts for graduate study. Forty-seven percent of this year’s graduates from the Columbia School of Law, for example, had begun their legal studies with accumulated undergraduate loans averaging over $7,000. One out of three students completing graduate studies at Yale University in 1988 entered with undergraduate debts averaging over $6,000. James Milligan, dean of admissions and financial aid at the Columbia School of Law, advises deferring interest payments on federal loans during years of teacher-corps service as an incentive to join.

The Congress could promote involvement and address recent graduates’ financial needs by offering partial scholarships to graduate school. Endorsement of teacher-corps experience from the deans of the most competitive graduate and professional schools would add further incentive.

Businesses seeking entry-level candidates with increased maturity and social awareness might reserve slots for teacher-corps veterans--thereby creating opportunities that a third of the Barnard-Columbia students who would consider teaching said they would find appealing. Parents who might otherwise discourage their sons and daughters from entering teaching would perhaps look favorably on a three-year commitment with attached career opportunities and financial inducements.

A minimum term of three years would be necessary to make the program worthwhile for schools. Although most of those who entered the corps would not contemplate a career in teaching beyond a few years, some who tried teaching on a provisional basis might discover that the rewards of teaching outweighed the appeal of more profitable careers.

As reforms begin to take hold in schools, as teachers are granted more authority and better compensation, and as the status of teaching increases, perhaps more would decide to stay. For those who demonstrated exceptional promise as educators and chose to continue, generous fellowships for full-time graduate study should be made available. Schools of education would welcome these well-educated young people with experience in urban schools.

Those who left after three years of teaching--whether with feelings of accomplishment or of discouragement--would do so with a profound respect for the complexities of educating children and for the value of quality and equity in education. Having gained an understanding of the educational enterprise, corps teachers would in many cases become vocal advocates of educational improvement.

It makes sense to target the nation’s most valuable human resource--well-educated young people--where we need it the most, in improving the quality of urban schools. Given the predisposition of the 101st Congress to endorse various civilian-volunteer efforts, the time is ripe to gain support for a teacher corps that capitalizes on those who are ready to work in schools now, not just on those who say they may serve them.

Policymakers must act to influence the type of legislation that will draw recent college graduates into educational service. In the past, the nation has never succeeded in upgrading teaching during times of shortage; by tapping the large pool of qualified potential teachers, we have the opportunity to alter history.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as A ‘Teacher Corps’ for Urban Schools