Opinion
Education Commentary

Recruiting the ‘Best and Brightest’ For Teaching: One State’s Model

By Bruce Babbitt — July 21, 2016 5 min read

States and local communities have responded with their best efforts to calls for upgrading the quality of American schools. But it doesn’t take a national commission to know that you can’t improve the schools when you don’t have, and can’t find, enough qualified teachers.

When the current school year began, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities engaged in a last-minute talent search, particularly for science and mathematics teachers. At first glance, that seems like a shocking turnaround in a profession that a decade ago was overflowing with applicants. But it shouldn’t.

Without offering rewards for creative ideas and exceptional results, schools can’t possibly attract as much new talent as they need to improve or stay even with today’s standards. And as America’s technological edge in the workplace comes under increasing challenge, this deficit in quality and number becomes ever more ominous.

What are we to do? Certainly not look to the federal government for answers. Instead, it is time to experiment locally with new approaches to attracting talent. In Arizona, we think we recently uncovered a model for bringing the best and the brightest back into the classroom.

The principle is partnership--cooperation between school districts, state government, and the private sector. The result in a test run here--with just seven months’ planning--was 21 talented new science, math, and computer teachers in Arizona classrooms.

These teachers will spend three school years in the classroom and two summers (plus one six-month midyear stint) in high-tech jobs--getting practical experience and earning above-average salaries. After three years, they’ll choose teaching or industry as a permanent career.

A little background:

Last spring, Theresa Boland, an Ohio computer whiz, graduated from Wittenberg University. Her mother wanted her to find a job in industry, and that’s what she planned to do in September. Brad Bates graduated with a master’s degree in physiology from Arizona State University and was already working as an exercise therapist. Connie McMahan received a degree in information systems from A.S.U. and had taken a job running the computer-directed production line at an Arizona cheese producer.

Each of the three graduates had once had notions of becoming a teacher, and all had dropped the idea when they saw the wall of requirements and limited upward mobility in the field.

But by taking a sledgehammer to conventional notions of the teacher-education curriculum, we brought them and 18 others into the schools. We offered them a dual “fast track” into the classroom and the state’s growing high-tech workplace. So when school began in September, Ms. Boland and Ms. McMahan were teaching computer programming, and Mr. Bates was teaching math.

Actually, an innovation-minded school district and 13 good corporate citizens get the credit for putting this program together. They call it the ''Partners Project.”

After the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report three years ago, the Glendale Union High School District in metropolitan Phoenix decided to get serious about the quality gap in education. While many teachers, teachers’ unions, and administrators responded defensively to the report, Glendale moved without delay to see-locally-what it meant. They revised an antiquated course catalog and pushed through reforms that included advanced- placement math, science, and computer classes throughout the system’s nine high schools. But as it turned out, the primary obstacle to offering these classes was the lack of qualified teachers.

A few numbers illustrate why. In math and science, about one in ten teachers leaves each year for outside work. One in three is underqualified, and another one out of every three will retire within the next decade.

Part of the problem in replacing these teachers is that the private sector has absorbed the most qualified prospects, particularly women. Between 1970 and 1980 the proportion of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in education decreased by half, from 36 percent to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of degrees granted to women in biological sciences, computer science, engineering, and law increased tenfold--but few of these bright people brought their talents back into the schools.

Another part of the problem is that education curricula have such rigid requirements that a Mary Montessori probably would have picked another profession had she been forced to follow them.

The 21 Arizona “partners” (chosen from 100 applicants to the program) followed a summer ''boot camp” for provisional certification, then continued in night school during the year. Their college specialization, combined with a high motivation for teaching, substituted for a grounding in educational theory. The state wrote $3,000 forgivable loans for the partners and waived their tuition for portions of the certification curriculum. Finally--the crucial lure--the new teachers were matched with area advanced-technology corporations.

Thus, Arizona gained 21 new teachers, and the 21 teachers got jobs that, combined, earn them an average starting salary of more than $21,000 a year.

Digital Equipment Corporation, which sponsored a similar project on a smaller scale in Boston, led the way for 12 other companies in guaranteeing summer work. As William Siler, director of corporate relations at Honeywell Inc., another participating company, put it: ''The purpose and thrust of this whole thing--and we are single-minded about it--is to give the educational process the very best in manpower that is available. That’s the proposition we’re dedicated to.”

From conception to execution, the Partners Project has been a local search for excellence. And cooperation from area companies has laid the groundwork for expanding the program into other disciplines. Why not, for instance, summer public-relations work or newspaper reporting for English teachers? We are already well into the search for next year’s teachers and sponsors.

There is no time to lose. To rediscover quality in the schools, local government, parents, school systems, and the private sector must unite. To stop shortchanging our children, we must stop shortchanging their mentors. We should expect more from teachers and give more in return--better salaries and creative partnerships. Arizona’s Partners Project is a start.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week

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