Where have all the teachers gone?

Posted: Mar 05, 2002 12:00 AM
When it comes to education reform, especially in American cities, no issue is more important than getting good teachers into the classroom.

Why is this proving so hard? In New York City, the Board of Education believes one of every seven teachers it now employs is incompetent, unable to pass basic teaching tests of in subject knowledge. The New York Post points out that, looking only at teachers who actually teach in the classroom, the number is closer to one out of five. Meanwhile older teachers are retiring in droves and teacher training programs appear unable to produce consistent quality. According to New York state data, 12,887 of 32,000 city teachers who took the test flunked.

So what to do? In New York City, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy is spending millions to help career-changers get a master's degree in teaching (plus roaming the globe for foreign-born teachers to help). Yet the problem of unqualified teachers continues to grow. Nor is New York City the only urban school district facing a shortage of qualified teachers.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, claims higher pay for teachers is the only solution. "We don't provide every kid with a qualified teacher. It's unfair for a teacher who does not know math to teach math."

True, New York City teachers get 20 percent to 30 percent less than teachers in surrounding, mostly affluent suburbs. Most NYC teachers would flock to Scarsdale if they could, no doubt.

Maybe I am biased. My husband is a New York City math teacher (with an M.S. in mathematics) who just decided to look for a suburban job. I have to admit I encouraged him. Why? Yes, higher pay, and shorter commute. Then, from the wifely point of view, there are the exquisite joys of dealing with New York City bureaucracy: getting the kids and me on his health plan (something that in any other job takes one quick phone call to the personnel department) took literally six months of repeated efforts.

But competition from the suburbs cannot explain the problem that New York and other cities face. Precisely because teaching salaries are higher and teaching conditions good, turnover is low and openings are few in suburban schools. A 1997 study found that only 302 out of 72,000 New York City teachers left city schools to teach in the suburbs. Meanwhile 12,000 teachers retire each year -- many to another, less taxing second career.

How to recruit qualified teachers? Better salary and teaching conditions would help. But the biggest roadblocks are the artificial barriers to entry created by the requirement that teachers take expensive, time-consuming courses from education schools. I have known many college-educated women who briefly considered becoming teachers after their children were born. In every case, it was the idea of taking two years and paying thousands of dollars to go to graduate school that proved prohibitive.

Yes, teachers need to learn classroom management and other teaching skills, but there is no evidence at all that boring, irrelevant grad school education courses help. Cutting the link to education grad schools would have educational side-benefits as well. Education grad schools are responsible for some of the doofiest, untested, destructive education fads of the last 20 years, such as the idea that not teaching kids the sounds of the alphabet (aka phonics) would help them to learn to read.

Here is a truly radical idea: Allow anyone who has graduated from an accredited four-year college with a major in his or her subject area, and who has passed the teacher certification test, to teach. Is that so hard?