Curing school staff blues Major raise in pay would help remedy teacher shortage

December 06, 1998|By GARY LEVIN

AS THE millennium approaches, Americans are concerned about a number of serious issues, including computer crashes, the possibility of Social Security funds being drained by retiring baby boomers, and scary scenarios of genetic engineering.

Our concerns about these issues are justified. However, one serious problem is already upon us: the severe shortage of qualified public school teachers, especially at the secondary level.

State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, in a Nov. 12 Op-Ed column in The Sun, wrote that Maryland colleges produce about 2,500 new teachers a year, but that number is woefully inadequate. She said, "Maryland schools opened in the fall of 1997 with 5,700 additional teachers. In the fall of 2001, nearly 11,000 additional teachers will be needed."

Maryland's schools chief focused the rest of her article on ways to attract top college graduates to a career in teaching. Most of her ideas are intriguing.

As a large number of teachers near retirement age, she is correct about the need to replace them. But no matter how attractive we make the profession to college graduates, the numbers of those eligible to leave in the next 10 years are so great that replacement will be impossible.

School administrators would be wise to develop strategies to keep potential retirees from leaving the moment they are eligible to retire. Managing rooms full of other people's children, not to mention teaching them useful skills and knowledge, is a challenging task - especially in contemporary America, where the school functions as a surrogate home for many children.

Yet the people who run education frequently fail to consider the well-being of their most precious resource: the classroom teacher.

Ironically, and depressingly, almost all of those guilty of such neglect are former teachers, exhibiting astonishingly short memories of the challenges posed in the classroom.

Hiring excellent young teachers and keeping the best veterans around for a few extra years will be a daunting task that will require no less than a revolution in public attitudes toward education and a willingness by school officials to move away from the often insensitive management style that can so alienate teachers.

Several issues should be considered:

* Make public school teaching financially competitive. Let's get away from the guilt-trip argument that teachers and their unions often invoke during salary negotiations - namely, teachers are victims of a greedy public that doesn't care about their financial plight. Salaries are mediocre at best, but teachers are far from the poorhouse, and with many other employee groups in America underpaid, taxpayers aren't sympathetic to this argument. A more valid argument for substantially increased salaries is, simply, you get what you pay for. In a democracy based on a free-market economy, where a person's place in the class structure is financially determined, much of his or her self-worth is salary-based. Many engineering majors fight through a very difficult regimen because a company is going to offer them $40,000 or more to start. Such a salary ensures early financial security, but the boost to its recipi-ent's self-image might be more important.

In poll after poll, Americans say education is their major concern, but when it comes time to provide the funds to make teachers' salaries competitive, public officials succumb to the short-sighted view that money is not the problem. It is time to face facts. In every service-oriented occupation (teaching, police work, firefighting and nursing), some people live with a lower-than-competitive salary because of the satisfaction of serving others. But there aren't nearly enough of these individuals in teaching to meet school demands, especially in economically depressed areas. While most people are not so self-sacrificing, they will provide an honest day's work for a fair salary. Education has not been able to attract enough of the best and the brightest college graduates, so school systems fill their needs with the best of the rest. Many of them become good teachers, but some should not have been hired.

Grasmick suggests that the public provide bonuses and tuition tax credits to top college graduates and to teachers who pass national certification tests. These ideas are on the right track, but they won't succeed because they only nip at the problem. When the math or science whiz who likes working with people sees that a teacher can start at $40,000 a year right out of college, bonuses will not be needed to entice him or her to teach.

Law school will no longer be seen as the only path to financial success for a liberal-arts undergraduate. We also have to be willing to pay even more to those who teach in inner cities and depressed rural areas. Perhaps it is a sad thing to admit that teachers are as mercenary as the rest of society, but 10 years after beginning to compensate them on a par with other professionals, our schools would be filled with excellent instructors.

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