Who Will Teach Our Children?

By Lawrence Hardy

You've probably heard it a hundred times -- from former President Clinton, from members of the Bush administration, from countless school leaders around the country who are bracing for a potentially devastating teacher shortage.

In the coming decade, the United States must hire 2 million new teachers to keep up with teacher retirements and enrollment increases.

That statement, paraphrased from a 1999 Education Department report, is true, but it's misleading. Yes, America will need to hire more teachers in the coming decade, but not at a significantly greater rate than it's hiring them now. Record enrollment growth has already increased the number of new teachers hired each year, but by the time retirements peak, enrollment will have stabilized or decreased slightly. According to one estimate, the nation hired about 220,000 teachers in 1997-98; in 2007-2008 -- when the need for teachers will be greatest -- 225,000 openings will exist.

Good news? Not exactly. There is no impending teacher crisis: There is a teacher crisis right now, one that concerns quality as much as quantity. And whether this crisis affects your district a little, a lot, or not at all depends on what type of teachers you're looking for, how fast your enrollment is growing, and -- most critical -- whether the students you serve are predominately minority, urban, and poor.

"It used to be, in a high school district, you'd be able to pick and choose people you wanted to hire," says Jay Cunneen, superintendent of the J. S. Morton High School District 201 in Cicero, Ill., an inner-ring suburb of Chicago where most of the students are Hispanic and half qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Asked how the quality and quantity of teachers has changed in the past two years, Cunneen replies: "Both diminished." 

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