Recession Dampens Job prospects for Teachers

By Ann Bradley — October 16, 1991 13 min read

Two years ago when Wendy Carlson decided to go back to school to get her teaching credentials, the future looked bright for people who wanted to teach mathematics and science.

But during the time Ms. Carlson was enrolled at the University of California at Davis, the nation dipped into a recession, and California politicians were forced to raise taxes and cut spending to deal with the nation’s largest state budget deficit.

Now, she considers herself lucky to have a job teaching junior-high-school science--even if it is only for five months.

“Hopefully,’' she said in an interview, “I’ll get to keep it.’'

Across the nation, the economic downturn is making it difficult for many newly trained teachers to find jobs.

Not only are fiscal concerns forcing school districts to cut back on course offerings and lay off teachers, but some states are finding it necessary to abandon school-reform programs that had increased the demand for teachers. Opportunities are also being thwarted, it appears, by the fact that experienced teachers are waiting longer to retire.

“it seems to be an extremely tight market,” observed Charles A. Marshall, executive director of the Association for School, College, and University Staffing. “It puts a lot of pressure on teacher candidates, who do a lot of legwork in trying to find positions.”

Unfortunately, several experts noted, the recession’s effects are being felt at the same time that policies designed to improve the quality and supply of teachers are beginning to bear fruit.

They point out that the nation still needs teachers, particularly in those specialty areas that continue to experience shortages and in some geographic areas. Teachers are needed to replace those who will retire and to serve the growing student population, they note.

Nonetheless, they say they worry that bleak job prospects may dampen the resurgence of interest in teaching.

“We had reached a point where some of the best-qualified students at the university were giving serious consideration to teacher education,” said Carlton H. Stedman, dean of the college of education at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.

“Now we are coming up against a market situation that I’m afraid is going to interfere with attitudes about coming into the profession.”

‘High Level of Anxiety’

North Carolina’s budget woes, for example, have not escaped the notice of the aspiring teachers now attending college under the state’s “teaching fellows” loan-forgiveness program.

“The anxiety level of our seniors and our juniors with regard to “Am I going to find placement?’ is very high,” said Jo Ann Norris, associate executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which sponsors the program.

If the fellows do not teach, they will be obliged to repay the $20,000 in loans they have received for their educations.

In Connecticut, one of the first states to experience the economic cooldown, students who cannot find teaching jobs have already been saddled with loans they cannot repay. (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

The first group of 224 North Carolina teaching fellows graduated last spring. Initial reports indicate that 118 of the 145 fellows who responded to a follow-up survey had landed teaching jobs, said Ms. Norris, who added that she was pleased by the figures.

“I’m sure we’re going to have some wringing hands over it, but I’m not ready to say we don’t have them all placed yet,” she said.

What worries Ms. Norris more, she added, is that the budget cuts that already have severely affected education-reform programs in the state will undo the emphasis on “creativity, innovation, and leadership” that would make teaching a more attractive profession.

“We have said that things are changing in North Carolina and you will have more input as to the conditions under which you work,” Ms. Norris said. ‘If the funding crisis diminishes those initiatives to any great degree, I think the signal that it sends is of more serious concern than whether there will there be jobs.”

‘Holding Pattern’

As always, the job market for teachers depends on a variety of state and local factors that makes it difficult to generalize about the current demand for new teachers.

But in recent interviews, placement directors, teacher educators, state and district officials, and national teacher-recruitment experts said there is no doubt that the current outlook in many places is gloomy.

One organization in a unique position to gauge teacher demand nationally is Recruiting New Teachers, formed in 1986 to encourage people to enter teaching and to raise the esteem for the profession through public-service advertisements.

Andrew Calkins, the organization’s executive director, said the “partner” groups that receive information about prospective teachers from Recruiting New Teachers “are in a kind of a holding pattern.”

“They’re waiting to see what happens next year and the year after” with the national economy and state budgets, Mr. Calkins explained. “They continue to value our services, but right now many are facing budget cutbacks so severe they don’t even have the postage to mail out recruitment letters.”

In the meantime, the organization has unveiled a new television advertising campaign that Mr. Calkins said is geared as much toward rallying public support for schools as it is toward encouraging people to consider becoming teachers.

“We’re afraid that all of the bad press about teacher layoffs and poor classroom conditions now may be persuading some good people to look elsewhere,” he said. “That’s something we have to fight pretty directly.”

Good Teachers, No Jobs

Most education schools have not finished surveying their spring graduates to find out whether they landed jobs. Several placement officials said, however, that recruiting was down at spring job fairs on campuses and that fewer school districts are advertising open positions.

Richard Hearin, director of placement for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, called the market “considerably tighter” for 1991 graduates than it was for those who finished school in 1990.

Part of the reason, Mr. Hearin said, is voters’ continued resistance to passing tax levies for their schools. In Ohio, for instance, he said, the cutbacks districts have been forced to make have increased the number of experienced teachers in the job market.

“There are more and more candidates chasing fewer jobs,” he noted.

Barbara Horsly, 27, who graduated from Miami University last spring with a master’s of arts in teaching, never anticipated that she would be faced with such a discouraging job hunt. After all, she had heard about how the nation needed smarter, better-prepared teachers, and she earned a 3.9 grade-point average in her graduate program.

She chose teaching after spending time soul-searching and figured it was a better bet than communications, which was her undergraduate major.

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got two useless degrees now,” she complained.

Instead of teaching high-school social studies, Ms. Horsly is working as a part-time teaching assistant in an adult-education program in Harrison, Ohio, and considering taking a job outside of teaching.

“I was given the impression that it’s a lot easier to get a job teaching than it is,” she said. “You always hear how hard it is to get good teachers, but then when you have good teachers, they can’t get jobs. I know so many people who can’t get jobs. It seems like you hear it more and more.”

Inflexible Candidates

While Ms. Horsly said she would prefer to teach in a rural area and would gladly relocate to take a teaching job, many newly licensed teachers continue to be less flexible, placement officials say.

At the University of Tennessee, for example, 12 of the 50 school districts that had planned to interview students last spring canceled their trips because no one signed up to interview with district officials, said Robert Greenberg, director of career services for the university.

“Our students tend to be very parochial in terms of where they choose to interview,” he said. “They would rather wait tables and substitute teach when the opportunity comes up, rather than move 150 miles. You’d hope that teachers would want to see other parts of the country, or even the state.”

The shortage of jobs in some fields and in some school districts is also forcing some officials to counsel students to make themselves more marketable.

Janice Poda, director of the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment, said high-school students participating in the state’s “teacher cadet” recruitment program are now urged to make themselves more attractive by double-majoring in such shortage areas as foreign language or special education.

“We say to them the jobs in the future may not be in the school, the district, and the city you want to live in at first,” Ms. Poda said. “But you have to be mobile and go where the jobs are, and then move when you get experience.”

Most of the teacher cadets who have graduated from college have landed teaching jobs, Ms. Poda said, partly because the teacher-recruitment center heavily promoted the program.

South Carolina launched its recruitment program because policymakers wanted to reduce the state’s heavy reliance on hiring out-of-state teachers. The center’s June job fair attracted 850 teachers from 41 states, Ms. Poda said three times the number of job-seekers who attended the fair a year earlier. Most of the approximately 175 teachers who were hired were licensed to teach in shortage areas, she added.

She and other recruiters noted that the buyer’s market means that school districts now have the luxury of picking from any number of qualified candidates for most jobs and are in a good position to strengthen their teaching staffs with wise hires.

“This is really a chance in a lifetime ,” Ms. Poda said. “In past times, they did not have choices and had to take whoever was available.”

Less Money, More Students

The recession has taken a particularly heavy toll in New England and in Sunbelt states like Florida and California where, recession or not, school enrollments are booming.

When Ms. Carlson began calling districts near her home outside Sacramento, Calif. she recalled, “A lot of school districts laughed when I said I was looking for a job.” “They said, ‘Have you not heard we’re letting teachers go?’”

Persistence landed Ms. Carlson her current five-month job at Andrew Carnegie Intermediate School in Orangevale. She was hired the day before school started.

Like several of his colleagues nationwide, John Hansen, president of the California Educational Placement Association, said he is saddened by the lack of job opportunities in teaching and angered because it bears so little relation to students’ actual needs.

“They are stacking classes up to very large numbers of students all the way up from elementary to high school,” he said.

While new teacher candidates are having trouble finding jobs this fall, Mr. Hansen said, first-year teachers who were successful the year before are losing their jobs.

In addition, laid-off school administrators and teachers who lost music, art, and driver’s-education jobs are now filling positions that would normally have gone to newly trained teachers, he said.

The anemic economy has also prompted many highly paid veteran teachers to delay their retirements, Mr. Hansen and other recruiters noted, which means that districts are not hiring as many less expensive new teachers.

“There is nowhere for the general education majors to go this year,” he said. “The only demands are in the areas of bilingual, math, science, and special education.”

Although Dade County, Fla., expects its enrollment to grow this year by more than 12,000 students, the school district was forced to hire all of its more than 1,000 new teachers as one-year permanent substitutes.

Continuing uncertainty over Florida’s budget, which is heavily influenced by fluctuations in the state sales tax, made it impossible for the district to make a commitment to the teachers, said Terence Garner, Dade County’s assistant superintendent for personnel.

The number of new teachers hired in the district also dipped, because officials had to find new teaching positions for 600 veteran teachers who were displaced when the district cut $130 million from its budget and increased class size.

Reform Programs Dropped

Florida also no longer provides extra money for school districts to offer small writing classes and has dropped a requirement that districts offer seven class periods in the upper grades. Both changes mean that districts throughout the state will need fewer teachers, noted Martha Miller, an education policy analyst for the deputy education commissioner.

Such reconfigurations complicate Ms. Miller’s projections of the number of teachers Florida will need.

Even special education, where teachers are always in demand, has been affected by the cuts. Some school districts have reassigned displaced teachers with minors in special education to teach in that field instead, she said, while others are trying to place elementary art and music teachers whose jobs have been cut in special-education classrooms under out-of-field licensure procedures.

The surplus of secondary teachers caused by the elimination of the seven-period day also forced Dade County to scrap its plans to hire Teach For America corps members, Mr. Garner said.

Dade County is not the first place that Teach For America has had trouble placing some of its 730 corps members.

Thirty people who were to be hired by a Los Angeles-area school district had to be reassigned because of budget cuts, according to Wendy Kopp, president of the organization. And a central-office reorganization in Houston that sent administrators into the classrooms has held up permanent placements for some of the 200 corps members sent to work in that city’s schools.

While they await permanent jobs, the corps members are working with students but do not have their own classrooms.

“Certainly, it has led us to want to be extraordinarily cautious in our placements for next year,” Ms. Kopp said of this year’s job climate. “We want to meet their needs, but the program has to operate, and it can’t if people don’t get full teaching jobs.”

Salary Gains Threatened

In Connecticut, about 25 of the 104 people in the state’s summer-long alternative-licensure program have been hired to teach, according to Frank Salamon, director of the program.

Compared with the placement rates for traditionally certified teachers, the numbers are not bad, he said. But two years ago, more than half of the newly licensed alternate-route teachers were hired.

The diminished job prospects in Connecticut, where highly paid veteran teachers continue to hold onto their jobs, have not killed the interest in the program, however.

“I have 100 requests for application forms on my desk right now,” Mr. Salamon said. “As bad as the economy is, I’m getting letters from a lot of people contemplating retirement or getting laid off who want to take a chance on getting a job in teaching.”

For the two national teachers’ unions, the challenge of the 1990’s will be to preserve the salary gains teachers made during the 1980’s.

Policymakers’ decisions to make beginning wages for teachers more competitive with those paid to people in other professions helped to attract people to teaching during the last decade, noted John Dunlop, the National Education Association’s director of collective bargaining and compensation. At the same time, teachers’ real wages have been rising since 1985.

But spiraling Medicaid costs and other social programs are competing with education for scarce budget dollars in most states, he warned.

“The question is, can we maintain that?” Mr. Dunlop said. “Teacher pay tends to ride a roller coaster in good times and in bad times, and we need to try te even that out.”

Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, said school districts have been asking A.F.T. affiliates to forgo both raises and longevity payments for advancing on the salary schedule.

But he said that asking teachers to skip an $1,800 or $2,000 raise by freezing the salary schedule would adversely affect their earnings for the rest of their careers.

“The correct thing to do is to lay off employees and cut back on services,” Mr. Gould said. “You hope to keep the layoffs away from the classroom.”

“If the public isn’t going to support the schools,” he added, “you ought not to see circumstances that are going to drive teachers out of the workforce into other occupations.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Recession Dampens Job prospects for Teachers