Perhaps what America needs is another Paul Revere, a patriot with intellect and a booming voice to warn us that a mounting crisis is about to threaten the nation's economic viability and, in turn, our way of life. For some unexplainable reason, the stunning loss of elementary and secondary school teachers is a mere blip on the radar screen of concerns in the United States.
Mindful of the dwindling number of teachers to educate our increasing population, the College Board's Center for Innovative Thought assessed the matter for over a year and came up with a series of sweeping recommendations. Members of the Center include prominent academic and business leaders, and their suggestions now need to be considered with urgency by the nation's leaders.
Among the troubling findings were these:
¢ America employs about 2.9 million teachers, and schools will have to hire at least two million new teachers in the next decade to accommodate enrollment increases, teacher retirements, turnover and career changes.
¢ Nearly half of the new elementary and secondary teachers will leave the profession within five years.
¢ Teaching in America's elementary and secondary schools is one of the country's lowest paid, entry-level professions, and it is common for teachers with five or 10 years of experience to earn less than recent graduates in other career fields.
¢ In the nation's middle schools, more than 20 percent of the math teachers and more than 40 percent of the physical science teachers are teaching "out of field," or without the needed qualifications.
¢ Inner-city communities and rural areas are experiencing the greatest challenges in recruiting quality teachers for their classrooms.
¢ Certain countries, like China and India, who are principal threats to our economic supremacy, accord teachers far greater respect, recognition and encouragement than does the United States, and yet renowned economists agree that America must retain an intellectual edge to be globally competitive in the immediate years ahead.
Members of the Center for Innovative Thought and a supporting staff of nationally respected educational professionals reviewed each of the major studies of the past decade, debated countless directions and possible options, and determined the following:
¢ Schools must provide teacher salaries for the real world. What that means is increasing salary expenditures for teachers by an average of 15 to 20 percent now, and by 50 percent within the foreseeable future. The study calls for the creation of a Teachers' Trust, one that would hold funds for a general salary increase and targeted increases to support teachers in shortage disciplines, teachers in challenging schools, and teachers who are making exemplary contributions to the profession.
It would be an historic reaffirmation of the importance of education in America, and it would hold funds from the federal government, as well as matching monies from state and local government, and it would be supported by the private sector, perhaps through an assessment on windfall profits. Clearly, the recommendations would require legislation.
It would be naÃive and dangerous for America to think it can attract the best young minds for teaching on the cheap.
¢ Teaching must become a preferred profession. The standing of teachers ranks second only to justices of the Supreme Court, and polls rate teaching as the profession of greatest benefit to society and the career that, next to medicine, people would recommend to a family member. And yet another poll found that a majority of the college students who pass on the teaching profession do so because they do not see teachers being given proper respect and appreciation.
Not only should teaching become a preferred profession, but it also should be a revered one, by improving working conditions, implementing career ladders and creating communities of learning within schools and school districts. Every state, for example, should develop and fund mentoring programs that would provide novice teachers with access to experienced peers. Such an initiative would have an early impact on the quality of instruction and retention of teachers.
The Center dropped a heavy oar in rough waters when it called for the creation of multiple pathways into teaching. The group recommended a cease-fire in the war between traditional and alternative preparation programs so that quality preparation around substance and practice becomes the norm in preparation programs, whether located in colleges and universities, school districts or nonprofit organizations.
Students deserve teachers who know their subjects, understand students and their learning needs and have developed the skills essential to making learning come alive. The current teacher preparation system, despite significant improvements, does not meet all of the nation's well- documented needs. The chronic use of out-of-field teachers and the difficulties of staffing at some schools underscore the complexity of the challenge.
The Center report calls for an immediate closing of the diversity gap, recommending abandoning the expectation that teacher-diversity will take care of itself. Institutions of higher learning must mount intense and targeted recruitment programs for minority students, programs that emphasize attractive financial aid, along with loan forgiveness tied to years of service.
The Center also called for an early fix to the crisis in mathematics and science, recommending incentive programs to increase the number of young people entering careers in math, science and engineering (and into mathematics and science teaching) by 50 percent. America must increase its talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education; there are no inexpensive solutions here. The United States must sustain strength and commitment to long-term basic research, while developing, recruiting and retaining top students, scientists and engineers from America and abroad.
The bottom line: The United States of America needs to ensure that it retains a premier place for innovation in the world. Only then will it continue as a force for good internationally. America must invest for success now, rather than pay for failure later.
- Gene A. Budig is a member of the College Board's Center for Innovative Thought. He is a former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and Kansas University and past president of Major League Baseball's American League.