July 6, 2001

How to Train – and Retain – Teachers


For some time now, the nation has been warned that our schools will need up to 2.5 million new teachers over the next decade. Indeed, school officials from New York, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities are actively seeking teachers from India, the West Indies, South Africa, Europe and anywhere else where good teachers can be found.

But America has no shortage of idealistic and competent people who want to teach. Far from it: the nation's 1,300 schools of education have more than enough teachers in training to meet the need. So why should this be an issue at all? Because 30 percent of all our teachers and up to 50 percent of teachers in urban schools leave their jobs within five years. Out of every 600 students entering four-year teaching programs, only 180 complete them, only 72 become teachers and only about 40 are still teaching several years later.

The problem is not only recruiting teachers; it's retaining them – and that problem points to some very real shortages.

To begin with, there is a shortage of public and official support for the profession of teaching and for professional teachers. Many of us would readily testify to the pivotal role teachers have played in our lives. In public opinion surveys and scholarly studies, we continually say that good teaching is key to school reform. And yet the teachers to whom we entrust our children and our future are not given professional respect, recognition and compensation.

The public rightly demands quality teaching and accountability but has been unwilling to acknowledge that quality comes with a price. The misconception that anyone can teach exists throughout the education system. Hence, many states routinely issue "emergency" teaching licenses to unprepared applicants – a practice that would not be tolerated in any other profession.

The true crisis in the teaching profession cannot be solved with simple answers, like raids on other nations' teachers. It demands a comprehensive response.

We lack a critical mass of very good schools of education. Many colleges and universities marginalized their schools of education, treating them as revenue generators. Survival for many of these schools has often meant increasing enrollments and reducing educational quality.

The governing boards and faculties of universities, both public and private, have an obligation to insist that universities annually provide more information about the quality of their schools of education, including data about the quality of their faculties, entering students and graduates and about the graduates' professional placement. More disclosure would help prospective students find higher– quality programs before going into debt for tuition at mediocre ones. This would create competition among schools for good students and would put political pressure on substandard schools to either improve or close down.

There is a shortage of meaningful professional advocacy on behalf of teachers. Teachers' unions devote most of their energies to improving the working conditions and pay for their members. But by and large they have failed to secure the professional prerogatives of teachers – namely, autonomy, flexibility and freedom to innovate.

To uphold the standards of teaching as a profession, unions need to push for more rigorous intellectual content in teacher education and professional development programs. Unions might even explore the cost and practicality of giving teachers sabbatical semesters for professional development after a decade of teaching.

Unions must also press for reforms in the existing teacher certification system. The patchwork quilt of weak teacher certification requirements needs to be replaced with a national certification program. Not only would this increase teachers' mobility from state to state, but it could provide research-based standards for what all teachers need to know and be able to do. One approach is to create a national commission to develop standards and national exams for teachers. Such a commission should also be able to develop a model system for measuring teachers' skills and performance. Accountability is essential, and only when teachers themselves push to eliminate mediocrity in their ranks will the standing of the profession itself improve in the public's eyes.

We must find better ways to help people entering the profession. Instead of giving them the toughest assignments, as is often done in our seniority-based system, we should give them a choice of schools, along with mentors and a reduced teaching schedule to ease the adjustment in the first year. Unions and management must also confront market realities: there is considerable competition for teachers in certain academic specialties, like math, and teachers in these fields have to be paid more.

But most important, we must change the perception that teaching is a dead-end job. We must provide young men and women, who are often burdened by college debts, with compensation on a professional level – as it is, teaching school in most states pays less than any other occupation requiring a bachelor's or master's degree. It is a measure of the profession's weakness that the only way most teachers can earn a good salary and grow professionally is by becoming administrators.

We are told that ours is the era of the "knowledge economy," that our nation needs well-educated "knowledge workers" and that our schools need to be transformed. But we can't achieve these goals without a stronger, more professionalized teaching corps, and we as a nation have not begun to make the longer-term investments that would bring that about.

Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University and former president of the New York Public Library, is president of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company