The United States has a problem of epic proportions, one that has yet to register on the national radar screen. Its impact on our global competitiveness could be swift and chilling in the years ahead if not addressed in a careful and effective manner.
Amazingly, 46 percent of the new people who enter elementary and secondary schools as teachers in America will leave the profession within five years, and 38 to 40 percent of today's teachers have more than 20 years of service, meaning many are in a long gray line and eligible to retire. At least 60 to 70 percent of teachers could leave the classroom in the next 10 years without a sustained and well-coordinated effort on the part of the public. Another such exodus is looming on the horizon for higher education in certain fields of study as well.
Many of our best young minds are dismissing, without serious thought, the possibility of teaching in the nation's schools, colleges and universities because of the profession's low pay and status. A great nation like ours cannot continue to be a social and economic force without the real and measurable strength these young people could contribute in both the classroom and the laboratory.
Challenge is huge
One needs to understand the magnitude of the challenge, remembering that education has a workforce of some 3 million public school teachers and another 450,000 in private schools. Education represents 2.7 percent of our nation's workforce.
Repeated surveys of college students point to the fact that teaching simply does not pay enough for the investment of time and energy, nor does it provide for a high quality of life. Furthermore, many of them do not see any change in attitude likely.
In the history of American education, women have carried a disproportionate load in the elementary and secondary schools and that will likely continue. Now, however, women have other attractive opportunities; the doors to business and industry, dentistry, law, medicine, the sciences and technology are open to them as never before. More than 56 percent of next fall's enrollment at colleges and universities in this country will be female, and too few of them will be seeking careers in teaching.
Alarmingly, the share of highest aptitude female college graduates who become teachers has fallen from 20 to 4 percent. In addition, not enough African-Americans and Hispanics are attracted to the classroom possibility; they see more attractive options elsewhere. Roughly 90 percent of our teachers are white, 6 percent are black, and the remainder are Hispanic, Asian and Native American.
America lags behind others
Countries that will be challenging America on the economic front have encouraged programs that attract the best students to the educational profession at all levels. Impressive examples are found in China and India, where teaching is a revered profession. In mathematics, a Chinese elementary teacher receives "better early training" and that schooling, in turn, produces good trainers. The teacher in China tends to be a specialist, one who works with like-minded and well-trained associates, and they combine to form groups of math educators who enhance "the culture of teaching."
Furthermore, math teachers who produce students scoring well in scholastic competitions are singled out and rewarded, along with the student high achievers. There is an assumed need for careful and effective teacher recruitment, sound training and attractive job conditions in both China and India.
According to Jim O'Hanlon, a long-time education dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the teacher is "one of the chosen" in a growing number of cultures, an individual who many of the young "want to emulate." He sees the United States as "a bit complacent" when it comes to the recruitment and retention of quality teachers, saying, "There is a feeling that somehow America will prevail in the world market regardless of the timing and realities of change."
The Center for Innovative Thought, a College Board-sponsored group of prominent educational and public leaders from across the country, is exploring ways to avoid this alarming national crisis and will offer detailed recommendations in the coming months. The Center will not reinvent the wheel; rather it will draw upon existing programs that hold promise and advance some new and workable ideas that will address the daunting problem of replacing an army of teachers. It hopes to bring concerned men and women together from various walks of life and organizations to advance a reasoned plan.
The problem will not go away without early and viable initiatives. Clearly, the magnitude of the challenge will require the coordinated and best thinking of many leaders from local, state and federal government, as well as the educational associations and national foundations. One leader from business in Minneapolis, Bill Hogan, a former chair of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, told me the problem is "downright scary and it will require the coordinated efforts of many enlightened and determined men and women."
Stakes are high
No one argues the importance of making the teaching profession far more attractive, as one of the nation's high priorities. No one relishes the thought of losing America's clear, but precarious social and economic edge in an ever-changing world.
It is hoped that the Center for Innovative Thought will provide an early, straightforward assessment of what has worked in the past and what might be needed in the future to come to grips with an unquestioned problem. The clock is ticking on this explosive matter, and a significant number of citizen leaders will have to become concerned and involved for the time is short and the stakes are high.