Friday, May 12, 2006

"There Is No Shortage of Teachers, Just Skilled Teachers"

The following piece is a speech from the President of Northeastern University.

Opinion Pieces by Richard M. Freeland

"There Is No Shortage of Teachers, Just Skilled Teachers"

Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education

Fall 2001

We have once again experienced an annual ritual that speaks volumes about the state of our states and, indeed, our republic. As one school year ends, many public school teachers of long standing conclude that it is time to end their careers in education and move on to another profession or to retirement. By mid-summer, reports begin to appear in the local and national media about a looming teacher shortage as school districts anticipate September. By late summer, media coverage of the teacher shortage has taken on a sense of panic a la “Mass. schools scrambling to fill teacher vacancies.” The newspapers create the impression that fall will bring rooms full of 13-year-olds left to their own devices. Then comes September, as it always does, and we learn that virtually every teaching job is filled.

This annual roller-coaster ride suggests a few propositions:

First, getting the best teachers with the strongest skills in front of our students is the key not only to giving young people the chance to live full and rewarding lives, but also to improving the economy and the society.

Second, we do not face a "teacher shortage" per se, but rather something like a "skills shortage" among those who enlist to serve as teachers.

Third, without a doubt, there exists today sufficient numbers of individuals with the talent, interest, patience, intellect, character and determination to provide all students with the kind of teaching and nurturing we would want for our own children.

A further proposition: we as a society (we university presidents, we neighborhood residents, we corporate CEOs, we community activists, newspaper publishers, mayors and governors and senators and legislators) are responsible for letting our school districts down, for placing them in the unholy posture of having to "scramble" every year to find the talent they need to fulfill their responsibilities and to realize our hopes for our children and our communities.

A new study by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies offers the first statistical glimpse into the challenge faced by Massachusetts school districts each year. The Northeastern study found that, come late September, all but a few classrooms in Massachusetts were staffed by a teacher. At the same time, the study found that more than one-quarter of all secondary school teachers hired in Massachusetts last year lacked certification in their primary teaching area. The problem was particularly acute among special education, foreign language and math and science teachers.

The study also anticipates that, over the next five to seven years, this fundamental teacher skills deficit will worsen considerably. An aging teacher work force combined with new incentives for older teachers to retire means that last year’s comparatively low teacher turnover rate will rise over the next several years. The increased rate of retirement will not only boost quit rates directly but will also increase teacher turnover indirectly as school districts replace experienced teachers with new entrants in the teaching field. These freshly minted teachers are much more likely to leave the teaching profession in the first few years after entry than their older counterparts — further exacerbating the shortage of qualified teachers throughout New England.

The much-discussed teacher shortage is not a classic labor shortage in which too many jobs chase too few qualified individuals. Rather, our predicament is the result of a recruitment and compensation system designed decades ago which has not kept pace with the contemporary economy. The hidebound set of contracts, rules, customs and professional relationships that may have worked in decades past to enrich our schools are now encumbrances that keep us from placing the teachers we need in front of students.

Is there a shortage of math and science teachers? How could there not be, when most of those men and women who are trained to teach math and science can substantially increase their salaries with a short hop into the private sector where they will surely encounter far better working conditions and greater societal respect for their efforts.

New England can rest on its laurels and revel in past glories. Or we can think anew about the implications of the so-called teacher shortage. Should we take the latter course, we might begin by asking ourselves what kinds of changes in teacher compensation and working conditions it would take to put in front of a class of 13-year-olds a woman or man who has dedicated her or his career to learning and teaching and who is richly equipped to impart to students the knowledge, skills and inspiration they need to make their maximum contribution to our communities.

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