June 19, 2001

Taking the Cure


Just before the Civil War, a schoolteacher named Mary Waterbury went to a resort in Elmira, N.Y., for a "water cure". This involved being wrapped in a lot of wet sheets, and it was the sort of thing 19th-century Americans regarded as relaxing.

At any rate, when she arrived Ms. Waterbury was greeted with knowing smirks when she declared her profession. "We have the most trouble with teachers of any class of patients," said the resort doctor. "They are worn out. They wear out faster than any other class of people."

Things have changed a lot since then — for one thing, these days people in need of a pick-me-up do not generally look toward Elmira. But schoolteachers still wear out fast. "Within the first three to five years, roughly 50 percent of urban teachers leave the classroom," said Mildred Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit information clearinghouse. Across the nation, nearly 10 percent of new teachers walk into the job and walk out again before they've had time to memorize the seating chart.

The nation will need two million new teachers over the next decade, and nobody has any clear idea of where they're going to come from. The passage of the big education initiative in Washington last week marked the federal government's greatest leap yet into establishing standards and requiring testing in the public schools. This is swell, but unfortunately it's also the easiest part of the package. The toughest part is finding qualified people to do the teaching that raises the scores and meets the standards. Neither Congress nor the Bush administration has had nearly as many helpful suggestions on that subject.

So Massachusetts is off recruiting teachers in California, which already has a whopping shortage of its own. California has been sending people to hire its faculty from New Mexico, waving signing bonuses of up to $20,000. American school districts have headhunters wandering around Europe, Australia, India and South Africa. As they return bearing their human cargo, they cross paths with the recruiters from Britain, who are beating the bushes for teachers here in America. Earlier this year in the State of the State speeches, virtually every governor promised that this year, he/she would corral a whole passel of instructors from elsewhere and bring them back in time for the next school year.

Is it possible the world actually has only a couple dozen sixth-grade math instructors, who are being perpetually shuffled from one education job fair to the next? Really, you could change jobs every semester. I am thinking of a TV series in which a restless special education teacher fights evil and protects the innocent while wandering from one scenic vacation spot to another. James Bond meets "Welcome Back, Kotter."

From the earliest days of the public school system, America kept its classrooms staffed by relying on the fact that there was a huge pool of educated women who had no other options. Boards of education could not only get away with paying the teachers next to nothing, they could make them live in the superintendent of schools' mother's back bedroom.

Now the last generation that thought there was no alternative to teaching is getting ready to retire. Everybody is racing to fill the gap. Some school districts are offering moving expenses or free rent, others are eyeing Army veterans and Peace Corps returnees. At least one state has invited people with only high school diplomas to substitute teach.

Almost everybody's appealing to the midlife-career-change crowd, offering burned-out lawyers and accountants a crash course in how to run a classroom. New York City, which is scouring for about 10,000 new teachers, graduated about 400 people from this sort of program last year. Most are still in the classroom, and I have been assured that every one of them is planning a tell-all book.

Meanwhile in Paris, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has released a report that shows teachers in the United States spend far more time in the classroom and get less pay than teachers in many other developed countries.

Has all this flailing around and body-snatching just been an effort to avoid the fact that the salaries are too low? One cannot fail to notice that the American school districts that aren't troubled by shortages have adopted the below-the-belt tactic of paying more money.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company