Schools Pinched In Hiring

Debbie Valcour, at Sterling Middle School, is retiring. She said of when she came into the workforce: "We didn't have a lot of options back then." (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

As hundreds of thousands of baby boomers retire and the No Child Left Behind law raises standards for new teachers, school systems across the country are facing a growing scarcity of qualified recruits.

A labor force that for generations cushioned teacher shortages and kept salaries relatively low is disappearing. Three-quarters of the nation's more than 3 million public school teachers are women, a figure that has changed little over four decades. But in that time, women have become more educated, with more career choices than ever. So far, schools are not faring well on the open market.

"It's not that you don't have some terrifically talented people going into teaching. You do," said Richard J. Murnane, an economist at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "The issue is that you don't have enough. And many are the most likely to leave teaching, because they have lots of other opportunities."

A study co-written by Murnane and published this year reports that minorities and poor children are most likely to be taught by teachers with weak academic backgrounds or little preparation. Overall, the proportion of women who pursue teaching after college, as well as the caliber of recruits, has declined significantly since the 1960s.

The number of college-educated women in the United States tripled from 1964 to 2000, according to a 2004 study by University of Maryland economists, but the share of those graduates who became teachers dropped from 50 percent to 15 percent in the same time. And although in 1964 1 in 5 young female teachers graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class, the ratio was closer to 1 in 10 by 2000.

The growing paucity of talented recruits comes as federal policies are tightening requirements for teacher qualifications.

The No Child Left Behind law, recognizing widespread research that shows teacher quality helps drive student achievement, requires teachers to have college degrees, full state teaching licenses and demonstrated proficiency in their subjects. The requirement is intended to keep school systems from relying on emergency credentials or assigning teachers to subjects they are not certified to teach.

The 33-year career of Debbie Valcour, 55, a math teacher at Sterling Middle School in Loudoun County, exemplifies the path taken by many boomers. Valcour, who retired last week, hid tears behind oversize sunglasses as her last students rushed out the door. She graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., with a bachelor's degree in education and a certificate to teach fourth through seventh grades.

"We didn't have a lot of options back then," she said. "Actually, I didn't have any idea what I could do. Nobody talked about it."

She took a job in Loudoun in 1974 -- near McLean, where she had finished high school -- and there she stayed. Her salary started at $5,000 for a partial year and plateaued at $85,000 more than two decades and a master's degree later; it was augmented by her husband's larger government paycheck. They bought a house in Sterling and raised two sons, who are now pursuing business careers, and a daughter, who just got her first teaching job at a Fairfax County elementary school.

When she needed a new challenge, Valcour switched from elementary school to middle school and from language arts to math.

Along the way, the economy and the mission of public education shifted. Although her early students had a shot at good jobs right after high school, more recent graduates will probably need higher degrees to earn competitive wages. As the United States faces stiff competition in technology and engineering, solid math skills are at a premium.

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