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Help Wanted: What is to be done about the nationwide shortage of teachers? That's the question syndicated columnist Matthew Miller asks in the February 28 issue of the New Republic ("Short Fall").

If we don't deal with the problem soon, he cautions, there's big trouble ahead. Due to rising enrollments and an impending wave of teacher retirements, we're going to need 2 million new educators over the next decade. "Replacing those who leave with top talent rather than just warm bodies is a tall order," he writes, "especially in urban districts, where half the new teachers quit within five years (depressingly, studies suggest, it's the smarter half)."

Miller offers a few solutions, some practical, some theoretical: Pay teachers more money, improve working conditions, overhaul the nation's education schools, boost teachers' prestige, and increase the number of alternative routes to the profession.

Miller would like to see more teachers like Vince Eisman, who was headed for a career as a college professor when he decided to become a 4th grade teacher at Coliseum Street Elementary, a school in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood. Thanks to a special program that crash-trains uncertified teachers, Eisman was hired within days of applying for a job. "Taught mainly by program alumni who've thrived in the city's public schools," Miller writes, "it's the kind of local effort that should be applied nationally."

Taking Measure:Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews is back with his "Challenge Index," a list of the 100 best public high schools in America, published annually in Newsweek ("The Best High Schools"). Mathews ranks schools based on a ratio of his own creation: the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. Mathews calls his formula "an indicator of a school's efforts to get students to excel." But former U.S. News and World Report editor James Fallows, writing in the "Chatterbox" section of Slate ( "These Aren't America's Best High Schools") on March 5, called the list "an embarrassment even for the hard-to-shame industry of journalistic rankings."

Specifically, Fallows objected to Mathews' formula. "Counting AP tests taken is a weirdly oblique way of getting at academic quality," he argued, though he admitted that "counting a school's total AP course offering, or its proportional enrollment in such courses, would make some limited sense." So would counting the scores a school's students receive on the AP tests, he wrote. Fallows also criticized the list for favoring "homogeneously prosperous" schools, because such schools are more likely to perform better overall.

On March 10, in the "Fray" section of the site, ("Response to High School Rankings Article"), Mathews wrote that he was delighted to have his list critiqued by Fallows.

"I had a strong impression that no one but me was much interested," he quipped. But he defended his ranking system. In his response, Mathews said he created the list "to underscore the point that getting as many students as possible to take these courses is a good idea." Too many schools, he pointed out, encourage students to take AP courses, but discourage "all but the very best" from taking the examinations. And that's wrong, in his view: "The teachers involved in many of the highest ranking schools on my list say if a student puts in an effort, even failing the test is better than not trying."

—David Hill

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Page 17

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Clippings
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