Education Opinion

Better Teacher Training

By Edward M. Kennedy — February 01, 1990 5 min read

Teachers face one of the most important and difficult jobs in the nation--the education of the next generation of Americans. They often confront directly the grim world of crime, drugs, abuse, and neglect that students bring into the classroom. For all that they do, teachers endure unacceptably low salaries and low status. The result is hardly surprising: Teaching is a profession in crisis.

It is becoming harder to recruit teachers, and harder to retain them. The U.S. Department of Education has estimated that between 1988 and 1995 the schools will need to hire 2 million new teachers. But college and university departments of education, the primary source of new teachers, are currently graduating only about half the number needed to fill this gap. In fact, their enrollments have fallen 55 percent since 1972, although the long decline appears to have bottomed out. Finding teachers, however, isn’t our only problem--we must also find ways to keep the ones we have. Approximately 20 percent of the men and women who enter teaching quit during their first year on the job, and more than half leave before their sixth year.

Dangerous shortfalls already exist in many important areas. The shortage of qualified teachers in urban districts, for example, is roughly two and one-half times greater than in non-urban districts, and urban systems are twice as likely to hire an uncertified teacher. In 45 of the nation’s largest cities, 70 percent of the students are minority, but only 30 percent of the teachers are. Nationally, only 9 to 10 percent of those entering the profession are minority. Our students need to be skilled in math and science to compete in the world marketplace, but for every math and science teacher entering the profession, we are losing 13.

These trends can only be reversed by making the profession more attractive to young people, finding new sources of potential teachers, and giving those already teaching the professional support they need. State governments, universities, and private groups have important roles to play, but only a much greater involvement by the federal government will end the crisis in teaching.

With this in mind, I recently introduced the “excellence in teaching act’’ in the U.S. Senate. Its passage would improve teacher recruitment, training, and retention. The legislation, for example, would establish a new national Teacher Corps to recruit new teachers, support them, encourage them to work in areas where teachers are most badly needed, and provide them with a mentor teacher during their first year on the job. Undergraduate and graduate students who sign up would be eligible to receive scholarships of up to $8,000 a year for two years. Teachers without a master’s degree would be eligible for $2,000 in scholarship funds for graduate study during their first three years of employment. And similar support would be available to people currently working in another profession who are interested in switching to teaching. Scholarships would be available to help these people pay for any additional training needed to become certified.

In exchange, Teacher Corps members would agree to work either five years in any area facing a teacher shortage, four years in an inner city, or four years as a math or science teacher. Members would also agree to become fully certified and to participate in an induction program for new teachers during their last year in the program.

Information about the availability of Teacher Corps scholarships would be disseminated widely, especially at colleges and universities with large minority populations, historically black colleges and universities, and secondary schools with minority enrollments above the average in their state.

Other pieces of the proposed legislation are designed to get the Federal government more involved in recruiting teachers. These include Federally funded “summer institutes’’ for disadvantaged high school students considering a career in teaching, funds for secondary “magnet schools’’ for future teachers, and funding for school, college, and education-agency efforts to increase the interest of high school and college students in the profession. The proposed legislation would also encourage colleges with high minority enrollments to strengthen their teacher-education programs and fund a study of alternative approaches to increasing minority participation in teaching.

But recruiting new teachers is only part of the challenge. There is also an urgent need for effective inservice training to ensure that practicing teachers are skilled, knowledgeable, and sensitive to students’ individual needs. Today, twothirds of the teachers who have limited-English-proficient students in their classes have had no training in bilingual or English-as-a-second-language teaching methods. Twothirds of the nation’s children with disabilities are in regular education classes taught where few teachers have had any special education training. And in 1986, nearly one-third of the students enrolled in a math or science course were taught by teachers who were not qualified to teach the course.

Under the measure I am proposing, inservice training in all of these areas would be enhanced through the establishment of “Professional-Development Academies’’ operated by school districts in partnership with institutions of higher education.

Finally, the proposal would improve the retention of highly qualified experienced teachers. A Senior Teacher Corps would be established. This corps would provide veteran teachers with half-year sabbaticals with full pay-- much like those offered college professors--for professional development. The act also would encourage school districts to experiment with school-based management and shared decisionmaking, which many believe will give teachers greater autonomy and enhance their work and improve their professional lives.

For too long, the Federal government has neglected the needs of teachers. It must now play a greater role in the areas of teacher recruitment and professional development. The United States is slipping; we are losing our competitive edge to other nations. Schools have to improve if we are to regain our position. To do that, we must attract a larger number of qualified people to teaching, and give them reasons to stay in the profession.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Better Teacher Training