January 10, 2000
IN AMERICA / By BOB HERBERT
The Teacher Crisis
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t used to be fairly easy to get large
numbers of decent teachers for the
In the 1930's and 40's, young people
shaped by the harsh lessons of the
Depression were happy to have a
steady job that was respectable, even
though the pay was low. In the 1950's
and 60's, when the baby boomers
flooded the schools, women moved en
masse into teaching. Few other professional options existed. Women who
wanted a career became, for the
most part, teachers or nurses.
In the late 60's and early 70's, a
wave of men went into teaching.
These were young, draft-eligible guys
anxious for a deferment that would
keep them out of Vietnam. Only one
out of five remained in the profession
for the long haul, but that 20 percent
was a significant boost to the ranks of
Those more or less natural sources
of teachers have long since vanished,
and the U.S. now finds itself in the
midst of a teacher shortage that is
threatening the viability of school
systems from coast to coast.
"This shortage of competent teachers is one of the most glaring problems we face right now," said Senator Charles Schumer, who plans to
introduce federal legislation that is
designed to encourage more young
people to become teachers.
"We've entered a whole new type
of economy in which ideas are the
generators of wealth, of jobs and
growth," Mr. Schumer said in an
interview last week. "But the No. 1
storm cloud on the horizon is the lack
of a young, high-quality, dedicated
group of professionals to teach our
Referring to the teacher shortage
in a speech yesterday, the U.S. secretary of education, Richard Riley,
said, "It's gotten so bad that some
schools have been forced to put any
warm body in front of a classroom."
The shortage will only grow worse
over the next decade as tens of thousands of teachers reach retirement
age. It is estimated that two million
new teachers will have to be hired
during that period. But how many
first-rate teachers can reasonably be recruited when the
average starting salary is roughly
$25,000 a year?
Senator Schumer noted that the
greatest need for new teachers is in
the areas of math and science. School
systems find it particularly difficult
to recruit competent men and women
in those disciplines because they can
so easily command much higher salaries and much better working conditions elsewhere.
"The shortages in math and science are desperate in all but the
wealthiest districts," said Mr. Schumer. "So of the 40,000 math or science teachers we needed last year,
only 3,000 had the necessary math or
The shortage over all is so acute
that many school districts are hiring
just about anybody with a college
degree. "They get into a classroom,"
said Mr. Schumer, "and they don't
know what to do. They don't know
how to teach."
A number of states and local districts are offering enticements to
young people to go into teaching. Gov.
George Pataki of New York has put
together a tuition subsidy plan, and
Gov. Gray Davis of California is proposing, among other things, cash bonuses and low-interest home loans.
Senator Schumer's proposal, which
he is calling "The Marshall Plan for
Public School Teachers," would offer
a variety of federal incentives to potential teachers across the country.
The key elements are as follows:
All undergraduate student loans
would be forgiven for anyone who
becomes certified and teaches for
The federal government would
provide a $5,000-a-year salary supplement for teachers who pass a special
test in math and science given by the
National Academy of Sciences.
The federal government would
cover 75 percent of the cost of a cadre
of master teachers who would serve
as trainers and mentors for new
Federal employees who retire
and go into teaching would be permitted to begin receiving their pensions
as soon as they left their federal post.
Mr. Schumer said he would encourage local governments and private
businesses to adopt a similar policy.
The senator said his program
would cost about $15 billion over 10
"People are beginning to see education as an important issue," he
said, "but they don't yet see this
teacher shortage as a real crisis. It