THREE OF US, all Ivy League grads, wanted to become public school teachers in the Washington area. Only one made it. Bureaucracy, teacher certification and often baffling hiring practices exact a toll from everyone who wants to teach these days. Too many are finding that toll too stiff to pay.
Kevin graduated from Princeton with honors in 1985. Since high school he had planned to be a teacher and had taken all the right steps to become one -- and then some. In college, he earned a New Jersey teaching certificate. Two stints as a student teacher took him to a prestigious private school and to an urban public school, where a teacher had been shot by a student the previous year. He was even on his hometown school board. After college, armed with broad experience and glowing recommendations, he moved to Washington and applied to four area school districts.
The District of Columbia Public Schools "had no openings" for social studies teachers but invited him to interview anyway. Montgomery County balked at his certification, complaining about his lack of special education and geography courses. Princeton hadn't offered either course, he explained, and offered to take them at night. The county asked him to confirm his certification credentials with the Maryland State Board of Education. The board quickly approved them, thanks to a reciprocal certification agreement with New Jersey. Kevin reported back to Montgomery County, but never heard from them again.
Fairfax County public schools apparently lost his application. Although officials there found it a month later, he never got a response from them either: no phone call, not even a rejection letter. Nor did he ever hear back from Prince Georges County, despite its much ballyhooed national campaign to attract new teachers. Kevin waited months and never got so much as an interview. And periodic calls to check on his applications achieved nothing. Finally, fed up with waiting, he got another job. Two years later, he reapplied -- with the same results. He has abandoned the idea of teaching for now.
The teacher-certification requirements confounded my own efforts. After graduating from college in 1984, I worked for a small education policy "think tank" and decided to become a teacher. But to get certified I faced more than a year of education courses and student teaching, at a cost of between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on where I took the program -- plus the loss of income from having to quit my current job. If successful, my starting salary would be $19,000 in the District.
The investment in time and money didn't bother me until I learned more about the required courses. One, offered at a local university, "focuses upon variables such as planning, scheduling, selection and use of equipment and room arrangement." To teach social studies in the District, I had to take a course in D.C. history and government -- even though I had majored in American history at Princeton and won a scholarship prize. And the description of yet another required course, Teaching History in the Secondary Schools, didn't make any sense: "Objectives of history and its relationship to the secondary school."
Teachers I worked with, including a former national teacher of the year, told me the only worthwhile part of their certification experiences had been student teaching. And my parents, both teachers, warned me that their certification courses had been mindless pablum.
"I am in favor of a meaningful certification process that determines whether a teacher has the knowledge and skills necesary for teaching," says Arthur Wise, former director of the Rand Corp.'s Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession. But "the existing certification process basically determines whether a person has taken an approved set of courses. It thus may be an irrational barrier to entry into the teaching profession."
He could have been talking about me. Squeamish about signing up for courses that hadn't exactly gotten a ringing endorsement, I tried getting a teaching job first by asking principals to hire me on a "provisional certificate," a temporary credential often given to candidates in teacher-scarce subjects. Once hired, I would still have to take the certification courses, but that seemed like a small price to pay once I had a teaching job. It didn't work. And after five months of searching, I had bills to pay.
Looking back on it now, having certification might have improved my chances, but as Kevin's experience demonstrated, there were no guarantees. And in the end, I was unwilling to gamble thousands of dollars and a year of my life for a certification that teachers, education experts and even the general public largely discredit. Another friend (who doesn't want his name used), managed to become a teacher in the D.C. Schools, but only after enduring a marathon of mistreatment. After graduating summa cum laude, he earned a master's degree in English from a prestigious university, then took his certification courses at a community college near his home. He applied to the D.C. public schools a couple of years ago in April and passed the initial screening interview in May.
In June, after waiting five or six hours in a steamy gymnasium with hundreds of other candidates, his second interview lasted five minutes. Among the questions: What would you do if you were at a cocktail party and overheard someone putting down teachers? He must have answered correctly, but it didn't matter. He was put on a waiting list. All of the vacancies had been filled by applicants interviewed earlier in the day.
It was fitting end to what had been a bewildering "hiring" experience. First, he learned that many of the candidates in the gym had not had the initial screening interview. Then it appeared that personnel specialists were interviewing people randomly and hiring them on the spot. He also discovered the interviewers sometimes weren't bothering to examine candidates' resumes, transcripts or letters of recommendation -- even those who never had the initial screening interview. It seemed that simple luck often determined who got the jobs.
His phone rang in August. A vacancy had opened and he was at the top of the waiting list. He was given the name of a school and its principal. But when he called, he found that principal had quit six months earlier. After informing the central office, he waited still longer. Later that month, another principal from another school called my friend, interviewed him and offered him a job. But still there were problems. The central office had assigned someone else to fill the position. Weeks passed. Finally, in early September, five days before school started, he learned the job was his.
I know many talented, altruistic people who would love to be teachers. Low teaching salaries, contrary to the popular perception, are not the primary deterrent. Like me, they are repelled by the prospect of making sacrifices for an empty credential. Or like Kevin, they try and are frightened or driven away by school-district bureaucracies that treat teachers like herded cattle.
New Jersey, for one, seems to recognize these roadblocks and has taken pains to remove them. Under its new Provisional Teacher Program, uncertified individuals are hired for immediate teaching assignnments and receive concurrent intensive coaching from experienced colleagues and a concentrated evening certification course. It works. And it has attracted scores of talented applicants, some of whom enter the classroom with years of experience in other professions from social work to chemical engineering.
None of the three of us harbored any arrogant notion that we were God's gift to teaching, that the job would be easy, or that we would change the world. We merely wanted a chance to join ranks with the teachers already in schools and make a difference. Something's wrong with a system that discourages us from doing that.
Jeffrey Wells, formerly a program manager for the Council for Basic Education, is now a program analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency.