Special Report

The Teaching Challenge

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 2 min read

Finding highly qualified teachers for the students who need them most is a difficult problem. Not enough college students want to teach in big cities, and few education schools focus on preparing teachers for urban classrooms.

Urban districts have a tougher time hiring and filling teaching vacancies, especially in such sought-after fields as biology, mathematics, bilingual education, and special education. Often, the cities can’t match the salaries or attractive working conditions available in the surrounding suburbs.

Finding enough minority teachers is also a challenge. A 1997 survey by Recruiting New Teachers Inc. found that 92 percent of the largest urban districts reported an immediate need for teachers from minority races and ethnic groups.

Some studies suggest that prospective minority teachers are more interested in working in urban districts than are other teacher education students. But only 20 percent of undergraduates in teacher education are minority-group members.

Outdated and cumbersome hiring procedures compound the problem. A smaller percentage of principals in large urban bureaucracies perceive that they have substantial control over hiring than those in nonurban areas.

Many big-city districts, unsure of how many students to expect when a new school year opens, wait until the last minute to hire teachers. Of the 1,200 new teachers in Chicago this school year, more than 350 were not hired until after Labor Day.

Baltimore administrators began to fill some 300 positions at a two-day job fair held just 12 days before the school year began. Applicants were interviewed and hired on the spot, pending the outcome of background checks.

Most new teachers in New York City are assigned at random by the central board’s personnel office. They are not required to visit their schools before the school year begins or to be interviewed by the principal.

Newly hired teachers in urban schools are more likely than their counterparts in suburban and rural districts to have no teaching license or an emergency or temporary one. By last Sept. 22, the Los Angeles Unified School District had hired 2,966 K-12 teachers to fill its vacancies for this school year. Roughly 60 percent of the new hires had emergency teaching licenses.

William L. Taylor, a civil rights lawyer, summed up the problems in a speech last May at Stanford University: “In the cities where I work, some of the strongest teachers have retired, and they are being replaced largely by people who themselves are products of a deteriorating school system, who have attended teachers’ colleges with weak standards, and who bring to their teaching some of the very deficiencies they are supposed to cure.”

Teachers in high-poverty secondary schools, whether urban or rural, are the least prepared and the most likely to lack even a minor in the subject they teach. Such schools also tend to have a larger share of new, inexperienced teachers. Urban children are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools.

“Find places that are residentially segregated and that have lots of poverty, and you’ll find low-performing schools,” says Waldemar Rojas, the superintendent of the San Francisco schools, “because you’ll also find less prepared people and less professional development.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week