Teacher Shortage Is Starting To Show -- Amid Signing-Bonus Offers, Many Fear Influx Of The Unqualified

On one poster, a tree sprouts dollar bills. On a second, a fist holds a bulging bag of coins. At first glance, the advertisements look better aimed at gamblers than teachers.

The posters boldly list bonuses for teachers who sign up with the Fort Worth Independent School District: $500 for those who earned high grades in college, $1,000 for those who speak two languages, $2,000 for those who sign contracts before June.

Fort Worth's blunt approach is understandable: The district expects to lose more than 10 percent of its teachers this spring, mostly to retirement.

Across the country, districts are bracing for a serious shortage of teachers in the next decade as a generation of educators retires and student populations swell.

Anxious school officials are boosting salaries, putting recruiters online and on the road, and offering to pay applicants' relocation costs, find them apartments and even throw them welcome-to-town parties.

"They have glossy brochures and fancy displays, meeters and greeters," said Cindy Clegg, personnel director for the Texas Association of School Boards. "They're touting their working conditions, promoting what a great place they are to live, how wonderful their campus looks. You've got to have an edge."

Demographics are the primary force behind the looming teacher crunch. With late-marrying baby boomers still sending a steady stream of children to school, elementary and secondary enrollments are expected to set records every year until 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And with almost a third of the country's teachers having taught for more than 20 years, the government predicts the nation will need at least 2 million new teachers in the next decade.

Other factors are also squeezing the teacher supply:

-- Twenty states have either passed or are proposing class-size limits.

-- Teaching standards are getting tougher, which could weed out under-performers.

-- More new teachers are quitting, particularly in urban areas, as social and physical conditions worsen.

With the need for teachers growing, desperate districts are granting more emergency licenses and "alternative" teaching certificates. Both raise concerns that teaching standards could sink.

Emergency licenses permit people with no teacher training into classrooms, if they agree to complete training and become licensed as soon as possible. But overcrowded districts commonly ask states for permission to extend the terms of unlicensed emergency teachers. Eleven percent of teachers in New York City and 7 percent in Arizona have emergency licenses.

States are also creating "alternative certificates" to lure skilled midcareer professionals into classrooms, hoping their work experience will give their lesson plans added impact. Although alternative-teacher candidates generally get more preparation than emergency teachers, there are still misgivings about their increased use. Critics say people with less training can't help but be worse teachers.

Shortages in half of all fields

The American Association for Employment in Education, which tracks the job market for teachers, says it's tricky guessing where and when the shortage will hit hardest. The decision to retire is based less on age than on a district's retirement package, and wealthy districts with high-achieving students and bountiful resources may never feel the shortage, said Charles Marshall, the organization's executive director.

A new report by the association already finds shortages in half of all teaching fields, including bilingual education, speech pathology, special education and science. The "long-predicted need for new teachers," the study said, "is starting to become evident."

It's becoming evident in Boston, where half the city's 4,600 public-school teachers will reach retirement age in the next decade. In Georgia, where school districts are offering sign-up incentives as high as $4,000. In California, where 21,000 teachers are working with emergency credentials. In North Carolina, where teachers are paid $100 to mentor new teachers in hopes they won't quit.

`Everyone's terrified of it'

The possibility that hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared teachers could be hurried into classrooms is unnerving, said Pat Wasley, dean at Bank Street College, a teachers school in New York City.

"Everyone's terrified of it," she said.

But to many educators, the impending shortage has brought opportunity along with dread - a chance to re-examine how teachers are recruited, trained, paid and nurtured.

School districts are brainstorming with state universities about how to beef up training programs, new teachers are being paired with more experienced mentors, and advocates of alternative certification want teaching courses revamped.

"The debate hinges around quality," said Edward Hurley, a researcher with the National Education Association, a union and professional organization in Washington. "You can always find someone to stand there, but whether they're quality is the question."