Maryland's top education official said yesterday the state must relieve its growing teacher shortage by opening the classroom door to more young college graduates and midlife career-switchers with subject knowledge but no formal background in education.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said public schools can no longer rely on education schools to produce enough teachers. She called for the expansion of alternative licensing programs that substitute on-the-job training for years of education course work.

In her budget proposal to be presented to the Board of Education next week--which also will include $15 million to hire mentors for struggling new teachers--Grasmick said she outlines an extensive marketing campaign to promote teaching to people currently outside the field. As principals across the state go begging for instructors--especially in such subjects as math and science--she said they are becoming more willing to hire teachers from nontraditional backgrounds.

The move to expand alternate routes to a teaching career may appear counter to Maryland's effort to raise standards in the profession. State officials this year set high cutoff scores on the test given to prospective teachers, and they are trying to reduce the number of teachers working without full state certification. Teachers union officials are skeptical of efforts to expand the number of alternatively licensed colleagues and suggest that they aren't prepared to handle the demands of today's classrooms.

But Grasmick emphasized that Maryland's alternative-licensing programs still ask a lot of their candidates, who will be fully certified if they meet the following requirements: Applicants must have a bachelor's degree and a "B" average in the subject they will teach; they must pass a nationally recognized teaching exam before they set foot in the classroom; and they must take education courses once they're on the job.

"We're requiring a high level of performance expectation," she said. "We're not going to reduce the standards."

Grasmick's proposal is part of a much larger statewide effort to recruit and retain teachers in the midst of a looming shortage triggered by a growing student population and a wave of baby-boomer teacher retirements.

Principals across the region have scrambled to fill hundreds of vacancies this summer. Although most have closed the gap in the final two weeks before classes start, they expect the hiring crunch to worsen in coming years.

Maryland officials anticipate having to hire 11,000 new teachers by 2001. Maryland teacher colleges produce only about 2,500 new teachers a year.

Last spring, Grasmick won legislative approval of a $25 million package of signing bonuses, stipends and mentoring programs for new hires. The General Assembly approved a scholarship for students who promise to teach in Maryland. But Grasmick said more is needed to ensure that enough teachers fill the classroom in coming years.

Next year, Grasmick said, she is seeking funding for more bonuses and stipends, as well as $15 million to provide almost all new teachers with a mentor to help them during the crucial first years when many newcomers quit.

She also said she plans to work with neighboring states to align licensing requirements, so that it's easier to hire teachers from across state lines, and to develop an electronic job bank to publicize openings throughout the mid-Atlantic.

Yet the number of projected teacher vacancies--and the shortfall in the number of teacher college graduates--will force Maryland to look elsewhere, she said.

The idea of alternative teacher certification has recently gained political popularity nationwide. President Clinton touted the development of programs to bring retired military personnel into the classroom, and the nine-year-old Teach for America has won praise for recruiting hundreds of top liberal-arts graduates into jobs at inner-city and rural schools. Virginia officials last week said they are trying to develop an alternative-licensing program.

Many states already have such a licensing system on the books, though few so far have used them extensively. Of nearly 6,000 teachers hired in Maryland every year, only about 70 arrive through the "resident teacher" program.

Many educators believe such programs should be tapped to draft more high-caliber candidates.

"There are many bright, idealistic young students out there who could be attracted to teaching," said Patte Barth of the D.C.-based Education Trust. "These are people who are not going to sit four years in an undergraduate program to become a teacher."

While Grasmick and others tout the subject expertise of these nontraditional teachers, union officials fear they are unprepared to manage a classroom.

"A lot of people from the private sector imagine that these things are easy," said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, "and they're not."