When Hazel Creppy’s husband was transferred to Los Angeles from Washington, the veteran teacher as sumed it would be difficult for her to find a new job.
“It was the exact opposite,” Creppy says with a deep chuckle. “It was so easy. When the people at the Los Angeles school district discovered I had nine years of teaching experience, they fell over themselves to hire me.”
To school districts across the country, an experienced job-seeker such as Creppy is a suddenly precious commodity, because for the first time in almost two decades there is a shortage of teachers.
An increase in the birthrate combined with large numbers of immigrants entering the public school systems have helped whittle down a chronic oversupply of teachers locally and nationwide. The stepped-up demand, however, comes at a time when the pool of educators is at an all-time low and few college graduates are choosing teaching as a career. By 1990, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there will be at least 200,000 new jobs for teachers in the nation’s public schools, many of them in California.
But even that estimate has been challenged as too conservative. Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest teachers union, believes that between 30% and 50% of those currently teaching will leave the classroom in the next three to five years through retirement and attrition. That could open up at least 1 million new teaching jobs by the end of the decade, she says.
In California, more than 110,000 new teachers will be needed in the next six to 10 years, the California Teachers Assn. predicts. According to the CTA, that is nearly half of the state’s current teaching force.
There are several causes for the shortage:
Low salaries in comparison to other professions, and a widespread belief that the profession lacks prestige, have turned many away.
Stories of classroom violence, widespread student drug abuse and indifference to learning have created the impression among would-be teachers that the job is more like police work.
Two of the profession’s most reliable sources of candidates--women and minorities--have been drawn away as opportunities in other fields have expanded for the two groups.
To get enough classroom instructors, the nation’s school districts are using a variety of enticements, including bonuses for teachers who specialize in fields where shortages are critical and granting emergency credentials for non-education graduates to help fill the gap. There’s even talk of making loans available to students who promise to teach in urban districts after their graduation.
The shortage has been felt acutely in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District, where this fall 2,500 new teachers were needed to put an instructor in every classroom. Officials of the district--the second largest in country with 579,000 students--say that next year they will probably need as many, if not more, new teachers.
Indeed, so acute was the need this year that about half of the new teachers--primarily in subjects like math, science, language and other desperately needed fields--were granted emergency, temporary credentials after passing a standardized test.
Over in the fast-growing San Bernardino-Riverside counties area, finding enough teachers to staff new schools has become an annual problem. Educators in these counties have held job fairs and traveled as far as western Canada and the East Coast to find recruits.
Most school administrators say the teacher shortage is most acute in math, science and, in some districts, English. But Southern California has an increasingly special need for bilingual teachers--and not just in Spanish. Many districts are seeking teachers who speak Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Farsi and even Hungarian.
“We’ll hire almost anyone who walks into our office and is bilingual,” said a spokesman in the personnel department of the San Diego School District. “Speaking Spanish is great, but what we really need are teachers who speak Southeast Asian languages.”
But while the problems of filling classrooms with qualified people seems to be a formidable challenge, there are signs that the situation may be improving.
Politicians and school administrators are trying to give teaching a new luster by increasing the pay. Less than five years ago the typical starting salary for a teacher was $12,000. Currently the starting salary is closer to $20,000.
In Orange County, officials of the Anaheim City Elementary School District and the separate Anaheim Union High School District say they are having few problems filling vacancies, and they say higher pay is a reason.
“One thing working to our advantage is salary,” said Don Liebhart, an assistant superintendent in the elementary district. “A beginning teacher (with a) graduate degree in math and some extra course work can earn close to $21,000 a school year. If they want to teach summer school, that’s another $2,000.” Many school districts already give bonuses to teachers with expertise in subjects where the shortages are most acute, including English, math and science. Teachers who speak more than one language and those who work with handicapped and emotionally disturbed children are also in high demand.
Most educators agree, however, that while it’s a start, the money is still inadequate and pay scales will have to be boosted across the board if education is going to compete with other professions that require a credential or advanced college degree.
But low pay is not entirely at fault when it comes to the teacher shortage. “I think school districts are getting a bad rap on salary schedules,” Liebhart says.
In fact, educators are finding that boosting pay is a lot easier than adding prestige to the profession. A recently released survey of 1,300 teachers found that nearly 75% of the respondents would not recommend the teaching profession to others. That sort of disincentive is taking its toll on the number of teaching graduates: In 1970, 34% of all bachelor degrees conferred in the United States were in education compared with only 14% in 1983, according to the Center for Education Statistics. And a 1984 Gallup Poll of college freshmen showed that only 5.5% were considering teaching as a career.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, believes that making the profession more difficult to join would be one way of adding new respect to the field.
Before a teacher could receive a credential, Shanker suggests, all candidates would have to pass a national exam similar to the medical boards doctors take.
Although it has long been opposed to testing teachers, the National Education Assn. now supports some type of examination. However, NEA’s Futrell would rather the tests be designed by individual states, “like bar exams taken by lawyers.”
Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, that district’s largest teachers union, suggests that the way to improve the profession’s image is to give teachers more control.
“Right now teachers in Los Angeles have virtually no say over their profession,” Johnson said. “They are told what to teach and when to teach and how to teach. That’s very difficult for college graduates. Our feeling is that power must be shared with teachers in order to improve the quality of education.”
Making teaching an attractive profession may take generations to accomplish, so educators are looking to other alternatives to lure candidates.
For example, Shanker and others have proposed paying the college expenses of recent graduates who agree to teach in public schools for three to five years.
There are many versions of the Shanker proposal, but all have the same framework: A college student applies for a teaching fellowship as a way of paying part of his college tuition and then tutors students during the school year and spends a month teaching during the summer.
After graduation, the teaching fellow would be assigned to an urban school district where he or she would teach at a standard starting salary. In return for working, the school district would pay off any outstanding college loans.
In any case, teachers point out, there are sometimes larger considerations than fellowships, higher pay and other enticements.
“I don’t encourage people to go into teaching for the money,” said Charles S. Terrell Jr., superintendent of the San Bernardino County School District. Would-be teachers “have to really like to work with kids. They have to be prepared to be on all the time. They can seldom relax when working with kids in the classroom.
“It is an emotional and physical commitment that can’t always be seen by others.”