Teaching Profession Opinion

The Teacher Shortage: Wrong Diagnosis, Phony Cures

By John Merrow — October 06, 1999 10 min read

On a warm spring afternoon in Texas, about 25 education majors, all young white women, are waving plastic toys in the air, giggling and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” They’re pretending to be 5-year-olds as part of their teacher training.

Education’s real problems lie within the system that is already in place, and no influx of idealistic men and women will change that.

In rural Georgia, 850 miles to the east, a young man is leading his 9th grade English class through the day’s vocabulary. One of the words is “strenuous,” which he has written on the board “strenous.” During the lesson he reviews the definition, the spelling, and the syllabification, never catching his mistake. His students dutifully copy his spelling mistake into their workbooks.

And in Oakland, Calif., an 11th grade biology class is having its 163rd consecutive class meeting without a certified science teacher ... a parade of substitute teachers for an entire year.

Taken together, these three anecdotes would seem to support President Clinton’s contention that we are facing a major crisis in teaching, that we need more teachers, and we need better-trained teachers. The administration and many others are saying that our schools will have to hire more than 2 million teachers over the next decade. (“Help Wanted: 2 Million Teachers,” March 10-April 7, 1999.) Washington has pumped $100 million into recruiting and training, but the Clinton administration wants to increase that amount tenfold.

I would make a different argument. I believe these vignettes, and the circumstances behind them, demonstrate that our education system has an unacceptably high tolerance for mediocrity. What’s more, our current national, state, and local policies merely reinforce the status quo.

Although some regions of the country are having difficulty finding teachers, and shortages exist in a few fields (science, math, and special education), we now produce more teachers than we need, at least 30,000 a year by some estimates. Where shortages exist, these are often what should be labeled “self-inflicted wounds.” They fall into three categories: Schools underpay and mistreat teachers and eventually drive them from the profession; inept school districts cannot find the qualified teachers living under their noses; and substandard training ill prepares young men and women for the realities of classroom life.

Consider this metaphor: A swimming pool with a serious leak. You wouldn’t expect that pouring more and more water into the pool would in time fix the leak, but that’s precisely the approach we are taking toward the so-called teacher shortage. Everyone’s noticed that the teaching “pool” is low ... and getting lower. Impending retirements, increasing student enrollments, and legislation mandating smaller classes, particularly in the lower grades, are the reasons, we’re told.

The response has been to recruit more people into teaching, using a variety of strategies including public-service-announcement campaigns, $100 million in federal money, hiring bonuses, help with mortgages, and recruitment trips to Spain and other distant lands.

The pool keeps losing water because no one is paying attention to the leak. We’re misdiagnosing the problem as “recruitment” when it’s really “retention.”

Dire warnings are not new, and neither are these strategies. Almost every U.S. president since Harry Truman has warned of teacher shortages, and large-scale recruitment efforts have followed.

Yet the pool keeps losing water because no one is paying attention to the leak. That is, we’re misdiagnosing the problem as “recruitment” when it’s really “retention.” Simply put, we train teachers poorly and then treat them badly--and so they leave in droves.

As it happens, new evidence indicates increased interest in teaching among our nation’s university students. A 1998 survey of over 300,000 entering college freshmen reveals that more than 10 percent of them say they want to teach after they graduate. The recent results are the best showing for the teaching profession since the early 1970s and almost twice what they were in 1982, the lowest point of interest in teaching.

On the surface, the news is encouraging, but just because 22 Princeton undergraduates want to teach (up from three a few years ago), no one should assume we’re out of the woods. We aren’t.

The fact remains that our nation’s 1,300 schools and colleges of education already produce more than enough teachers. But about 30 percent of those newly minted teachers don’t go into classrooms. Some never intended to; they were majoring in education because it’s an easy way to get a degree or to have a “fallback” option. Others found they couldn’t get teaching jobs in their hometowns, and so they found other work; that is, staying home was the goal, not becoming a teacher.

Many who become teachers don’t stay long. An estimated 30 percent leave the field within five years; in cities, the exit rate is an astonishing 50 percent.

Of every 100 new graduates with licenses to teach, 30 do not. Of the remaining 70, at least 21 will have left teaching within five years. At the very least, that is an inefficient use of human and material resources.

Education’s real problems lie within the system that is already in place, and no influx of idealistic men and women will change that. Our recent investigation into the teacher shortage for a PBS documentary found a systemwide pattern of mediocrity and incompetence that begins in schools of education and infects the entire system.

In Georgia, we found that school administrators frequently assign teachers to teach subjects regardless of whether they had majored or even minored in those subjects in college. For example, the young man who couldn’t spell “strenuous” is a middle school physical education teacher and coach, but he’d been assigned to teach English, history, and math at the local high school. He knew he was in over his head, but he had no choice. In that particular high school, at least 20 percent of the faculty were teaching classes in subjects they hadn’t themselves studied.

This is standard operating procedure in many districts, not just in Georgia, because lax state accreditation rules metaphorically look the other way. Georgia’s particular loophole allows a teacher to teach two of five classes “out of field” without being counted as “out of field.” Imagine the uproar if podiatrists spent 40 percent of their time performing brain surgery!

In other places, we found qualified, certified teachers who simply couldn’t penetrate incompetent school bureaucracies. Katherine Scheuermann, who has a California license to teach science, applied for a teaching position in Oakland in June of 1997 and again in June of 1998. She finally got a response--nearly two years later--in the form of a letter inviting her to apply for a position in bilingual education! Without much difficulty, we found two other certified teachers who told essentially the same story: Oakland’s bureaucracy was impenetrable, so they looked elsewhere.

Oakland is not an anomaly, according to those who have studied the issue. City school systems tend to be run by overstuffed bureaucracies. And, as mentioned, cities lose teachers at an alarming rate. For example, Oakland has to replace up to 30 percent of its teachers every year, even though it pays well for a school district. Why do science teachers leave? Ask veteran Nancy Caruso:

“I had no water, and I was supposed to teach science. I was toting water from a decaying toilet, basically little gallon containers, one at a time, and it was just very frustrating for me. And if you look around, I’m in a decaying building. It’s graffiti-ridden, trash everywhere, and it seems like nothing that could get done gets done.”

New teachers seem to be treated even worse. As Ms. Caruso, who just left after 10 years at Oakland High School, observed wryly: “Administrators give new teachers the hardest, most challenging classes and the most preparations, so they have maybe four different classes to prepare for every day, and then administrators expect that that’s going to make them excited about teaching. It’s just not conducive to retaining young, enthusiastic people. They get burnt out, and so they go to the suburbs or they leave teaching completely.”

Recruiting teachers is an appealingly simple solution to a complex problem. It’s also the wrong approach.

But mediocrity and incompetence begin earlier, at most of the 1,300 institutions that train teachers. Their parent universities tend to treat education programs as “cash cows” for their overall needs, diverting tuition paid by education majors into law, medicine, engineering, and nursing programs, for example. As Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond notes, “If you are preparing to be a teacher, you can expect about half of the tuition money you put into the till to come back to support your preparation.”

Training teachers on the cheap means large classes on campus, rather than intensive (and more expensive) work in real schools with real children. So, for example, we found those would-be teachers at Texas A&M earnestly pretending to be 5-year-olds for 50 minutes at a stretch. “It’s as close as we can get to the real thing,” one student told us, apparently unaware of the existence of a dozen elementary schools within a few miles of campus.

Training on the cheap means more part-time faculty and lower salaries for those with full-time jobs. It’s no secret that schools of education are at the bottom of the university pecking order. On the bottom rung of the education school’s own ladder of prestige are those who actually train teachers.

It’s likely that unimaginative training has an unintended consequence: It breeds contempt for the profession these students are supposed to be getting ready for. We asked a class of seniors, on the verge of graduating and moving into classrooms, whether they were having doubts about their career choice. Virtually every hand went up.

Texas A&M’s and every other school of education actually know how to train teachers well, but that requires more time and money. About 30 percent of A&M’s education students are enrolled in a separate and much more rigorous program, one that requires them to spend 40 hours a week in a public school, working with a mentor teacher. Throughout the year, these students take most of their university classes in the public school, often taught by experienced public school teachers.

Where are the university’s education professors? Most are back on campus, lecturing, writing, and doing research--and for good reason: They will not get tenure for doing a good job of training teachers. Tenure is awarded to those who do research and publish.

Competition from “alternative certification” programs could force education schools to shape up. These programs, designed to attract and train older professionals looking to change careers, generally provide an intensive summer of training and a year of weekend meetings, a far cry from the four- or five-year programs at education school. Some of the nation’s 120 alternative-certification programs are suspect, but others seem rigorous. For example, graduates of the state’s alternative program in Austin routinely outperform graduates of nearly every education school in Texas on the state test for teachers. And districts rush to hire graduates of alternative programs.

Recruiting teachers is an appealingly simple solution to a complex problem. It’s also the wrong approach. It not only lets education schools and public school systems off the hook, it actually rewards them. After all, those federal training dollars are going to be spent at education schools, for example. And it treats these institutions as part of the solution--which seems akin to asking the polluters to clean up the river.

Most of all, however, current national policy seems to be a waste of money and a strategy that’s destined to fail. As University of Georgia professor Richard Ingersoll notes: “We can recruit all kinds of qualified people and persuade them to go into teaching, but if they get into jobs that aren’t well-paid and don’t have particularly good working conditions in which they’re given little say in the way schools operate, it’s not going to really solve the problem because a lot of these people will leave.”

Mr. Ingersoll is correct. If teacher training were rigorous and demanding, and if teaching were a well-paid occupation in which expertise was respected, and if out-of-field teaching were simply unacceptable, there’d be no teacher shortage. That would fix the leak.

John Merrow produces and anchors “The Merrow Report,” a television documentary series on education that airs on PBS stations nationwide.

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