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.
Math teachers now face more pressure to engage students, to get them to really understand and enjoy scientific notation and exponents -- something Valcour worked hard to do on a recent warm afternoon in a room full of 24 chatty sixth-graders.
No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, during Valcour's 28th year in teaching, elevated the importance of standardized tests. She said that most of her class time soon was dedicated to preparing for them. As Loudoun recruiters seek to replace her, the law adds pressure to find a teacher with a college major or minor in math, a qualification that more than a third of secondary math teachers lack, according to the federal government.
To offset a shortfall of 280,000 qualified math and science teachers projected by 2015, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics advocates more competitive pay -- a controversial move away from a fixed salary structure that some teacher advocates say reflects a mentality that teaching is a second income.
Many schools are also trying to fill hard-to-staff positions by appealing to working professionals rather than relying on traditional teacher-preparation programs.
Vanessa Chang, 28, who wrapped up her first year of teaching last week at nearby Park View High, is a typical example of that new approach to recruiting. After graduating from the University of Virginia with degrees in German and economics, she tried a job in information technology that lasted less than a year, followed by a stint in public relations.
"I couldn't decide what I wanted to do," she said. Finally she got a job at a nonprofit organization, where she worked for five years. Toward the end, she took evening classes part time to become certified to teach English as a second language.
Chang said that landing her first teaching job was easy. Recruiters everywhere have been hard-pressed to fill jobs to serve the growing immigrant student population. Chang was hired in Loudoun with a provisional license before completing her coursework. Her starting salary was about $42,000 a year.
Getting up to speed has been much harder. In the first months, she would work until late at night, then lie awake "thinking, thinking, thinking" about school, she said. For most of the year, she woke up at 5 a.m. to plan lessons and prepare handouts and then stayed at school until at least 5 p.m., grading papers or helping the pep rally dance team or the ESL homework club.
In such a demanding job, the turnover rate is high.
Although the impending loss of a wave of retirees troubles school systems, the annual attrition of younger teachers is an even bigger challenge.
About a third of new teachers leave the profession after three years. After five years, the number is closer to 50 percent, the District-based Center on Education Policy reported in 2006. Recruiting and training new teachers costs the country $7 billion a year, according to an estimate by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, also based in Washington.
Richelle Patterson of the American Federation of Teachers, a union, said high mobility is a defining characteristic of the modern workforce. Schools must find innovative ways to support new teachers "for however long they are trying to be in the system," she said.
Chang is committed for five years. "It will take that long to get the hang of this," she said.
Beyond that, she's not sure. She toys with the idea of working for another nonprofit group, the State Department or a community college.
"I like the idea of moving around," she said. "I could see myself doing a lot of other things."