Recruitment Pinch Fuels Global Trade In K-12 Teachers

By Jeff Archer — February 14, 2001 7 min read
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On a hurried trip to Moscow in December, Jo Nell Drayden managed to squeeze in a visit to Red Square and a play by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. But most of the time, she was holed up in a resort outside the capital, where she interviewed scores of educators who had come from across Russia for the chance to work at a school in the United States.

Ms. Drayden, the manager of employment for the Houston Independent School District, wound up hiring 12 of the teachers, who are slated to begin work in Texas later this year. It might seem a long way to go for a dozen recruits, but Ms. Drayden says the 210,000-student Houston district is so starved for teachers in such subjects as math and science that she practically has to go to the ends of the Earth to find them. “We saw more physics teachers in one week in Moscow,” said the recruiter, “than we see here in two or three years.”

The dearth of U.S. educators in some specialty areas—and a shortage of those willing to work in urban schools—is helping to create a growing global market for teachers. In just the past two years, recruiters from Maryland schools have traveled to India, New York City has targeted Austria, and several California districts have begun to tap the Philippines to fill vacant teaching posts.

As with other trends toward globalization, though, this new development is raising its share of concerns—especially among some teachers’ groups, which see it as a diversion from attempts to improve the pay and working conditions of American educators.

Still, the worldwide trade in teachers is likely to expand even more. Last fall, Congress approved measures making it easier for foreign teachers to get temporary visas. And a handful of private firms have cropped up recently to help school systems screen potential candidates from overseas.

For instance, Ms. Drayden’s recent trip was arranged by Ru Tex Inc. Based in both Houston and Moscow, the company was founded to export instructional supplies to Russia, but has recently entered the international teacher-recruitment business.

“Teachers are understanding that they’ve got an internationally transferable skill,” said Ian Penman, the chairmen of the London-based TimePlan Education Group Ltd. “I am absolutely convinced that over the next decade, you will see a big growth in the movement of teachers around the world.”

Mr. Penman’s company already has recruited educators for the United Kingdom from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, and in the next 12 months, it plans to begin a pilot program seeking teachers from the United States.

Opening Up the Market

For decades, American districts have participated in exchange programs meant to give students here exposure to teachers from overseas. But now the pursuit of potential hires from beyond the borders of the United States is also being driven by the difficulty in finding enough recruits from more traditional sources.

“We just didn’t see the numbers of candidates coming out of the schools of education that we really needed,” said Carlos Ponce, the chief human-resources officer for the 432,000- student Chicago public schools. “So we decided to take a page out of the private sector, and we noted that when the aerospace industry or the pharmaceutical industry has a shortage, they go to the Department of Labor and petition to hire from overseas.”

Which is exactly what the Windy City did. District officials there worked out a deal last year with federal immigration officials to help shepherd through applications for temporary workers’ visas for people hired from overseas to work as teachers in Chicago. So far, the effort has yielded 46 teachers from more than 25 countries. Although the initiative was not advertised, news of it has elicited more than 4,500 inquiries from candidates outside the country, the district reports.

Chicago’s unusual agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service helped smooth some of the possible hitches that other districts have run into when trying to hire from abroad.

Teachers from overseas generally work under what are known as J-1 visas or H1-B visas. But while the J-1 permit is for exchange programs and not meant as a vehicle toward permanent residency, school systems have faced stiff competition from other fields for the limited number of the more desirable H1-B visas that the government gives out each year. Often, by the time many districts have made job offers in the spring or summer, most of those visas have been snatched up by high-tech workers.

Occasionally, teachers get caught in the middle. Last summer, Jodi Schribar was recruited from Canada to take part in Massachusetts’ high-profile signing-bonus program for new teachers. Though the venture offers participants $20,000 paid out over four years, Ms. Schribar has yet to earn either a salary or a bonus because her visa still hasn’t come through. A graduate of the University of Alberta’s school of education, she’s been trained in the high-demand specialty of special education.

She tried working on an unpaid basis for the Lowell, Mass., schools while waiting for her papers. But she stopped in October after a student bit her and she began worrying about her lack of health insurance. Said Ms. Schribar: “If this happens when there’s a possibility of getting someone with a background in special ed, who’s ready to go, and if there’s a shortage here, then something’s not connecting.”

Such cases likely will become more rare. Last fall, Congress revised the regulations for the H1-B visas so that teachers no longer count against the overall cap on the number of permits that can be issued in a given year. The lawmakers also waived a $1,000 filing fee that must accompany visa applications for most other classes of employees.

While Chicago set up its overseas-recruitment program without the help of a private firm, many other districts are contracting with the small, but growing, number of for-profit companies that help school systems find teachers in faraway lands. Generally, those firms gather a pool of candidates by advertising in overseas newspapers, and then they administer skills tests to applicants and carry out criminal-background checks. Often, they also charge a teacher who lands a job a fee of as much as $6,000.

Even before contracting with Ru Tex to find applicants in Russia this school year, Ms. Drayden’s district started working with a Houston company called Multicultural Professionals LLC, which recruits teachers from the Philippines. Founded in 1988 to bring Filipino nurses to the United States, Multicultural Professionals has recruited about 370 teachers to work in schools in Texas and California.

Another recruitment agency is the Teachers Placement Group, in Plainview, N.Y. The year-old firm has helped bring educators from India to districts in Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Culture Shock

Not everyone is pleased with this emerging market.

“It sounds like a lose-lose proposition,” said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. “Not only are kids being taught by teachers who are not qualified, but these people are being victimized if they have to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of coming to the United States to be placed in a job where they’re not going to be successful.”

Some union officials balk at the arrangements sometimes made between districts and the recruitment companies. Teachers brought to the United States through Teachers Placement Group, for example, remain employees of TPG while working on a contract basis for a district here, meaning they lack union-guaranteed job protections.

Company and district officials say, however, that the recruits are paid district-level wages. What’s more, they say, they only accept applicants who possess at least undergraduate degrees in both education and a subject area, and who have at least five years’ teaching experience in an English-speaking school.

“Our teachers are earning anywhere between $34,000 and $42,000—we’re not paying them $10,000 a year or making this like slave labor,” said TPG founder Michael Vanjani. “We have told a lot of schools that if they are able, they should hire American teachers first, because there is a learning process of assimilation that foreign teachers must go through.”

That transition can be jarring. Before coming here from India last fall, Karen Jason had an image of American schools as progressive places where teachers engaged students in hands-on activities and individualized instruction. But what struck her most when she first walked into the high school outside Philadelphia where she now works were the locked gates, metal detectors, and guards.

“For someone with such an idealistic idea of American education, it was a shock,” said Ms. Jason, who is teaching students at Chester High School whose English proficiency is limited. She is one of five teachers hired by the 7,000-student Chester-Upland, Pa., district through TPG this school year.

Having taught in two elite international schools in India, she also was taken aback when the questions she asked her students were at first met with blank stares. But within two weeks, she says, they started getting more involved in the classwork. Recently, for example, she had them draw pictures illustrating a Langston Hughes poem, and without asking them to, they began adding captions to explain their interpretations.

“Kids are the same wherever you are,” Ms. Jason said. “And if you can just get a rapport with them, you can teach them.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Recruitment Pinch Fuels Global Trade In K-12 Teachers


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