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The teacher shortage "crisis" has been resurrected -- again. It seems every few years this issue is trotted out and used to get more money, more programs, more publicity, more political points -- all in the name of meeting the huge demand, now said to be two million new teachers in the next decade.

This time it's President Clinton who's doing the scaremongering. In his State of the Union address, he asked lawmakers to approve billions of dollars in federal aid, in part to help recruit and hire new teachers. Several members of Congress also have proposed their own expensive programs to ward off teacher shortages.

But before the additional billions are spent on scholarships and loan forgiveness programs to recruit millions of new teachers, many of whom will never find a teaching job, the administration and Congress need to look at some of the realities of so-called teacher crisis.

The nation has recently been hiring at the rate of two million "new" teachers per decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that annual growth in the number of teachers needed will decline as the current enrollment surge gets through high school during the next decade. "We don't see anything that would indicate there will be general teacher shortages," says Daniel Hecker, a BLS economist.

The first problem with the claim that we'll need millions of new teachers is in what exactly "new" means. When most people hear those words, they think it means teachers who have never taught before. Well, that is not what it means.

An NCES analysis shows that, of the 139,000 "new" public school teachers hired in 1993-94 (the latest year for which data are available), 42% had just finished a college program and had never taught before. Twenty-four percent were doing something other than going to college the year before teaching but were teaching for the first time. The remaining 34% of "new" teachers were actually former teachers coming back into the profession. Six years ago, the figure was even higher: In 1987-88, 52% of the "new" teachers were re-entering the profession. "It is not clear how much of this shift was due to changes in the relative sizes of the supply pools and how much was due to the policy preferences of schools to hire first-time teachers at lower salaries," NCES analyst Mary Rollefson noted.

The largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, reported last year that of the 2.2 million people working as teachers in the academic year 1995-96, only 2.1% were teaching for the first time. Thus the nation is hiring -- and is projected to need to hire -- approximately 45,000 newly trained teachers per year. That is a far cry from the 200,000 the "crisis" proponents would have you believe.

Now, just how many newly minted teachers is the country already turning out each year?

Every year in this decade, colleges and universities have been awarding more than 100,000 bachelor's degrees in education, and the numbers continue to grow. There were more than six million people holding at least a bachelor's degree in education in the U.S. in 1993, according to the Census Bureau. What's more, only about three out of four current teachers have a bachelor's degree in education. In all, there are plenty of people who are fully qualified to teach who are not teaching: at least four million of them.

Numerous surveys of high school and college students indicate there is widespread interest in teaching as a career. If even a portion of the young people expressing an interest in teaching become teachers, the demand will more than be met. And that doesn't take into account the huge interest in teaching that older people have -- people with experience from other careers, early retirees from the military and other occupations, former teachers, people who have raised their children and now want to teach.

It is this huge potential work force that is most ill served by the current system -- from the ivory towers of the self-described experts on who is qualified to teach, to the colleges that are supposed to train teachers, to the state-level departments that are responsible for licensing them, to the schools that are ultimately responsible for hiring teachers. Anyone who wants to make more new teachers available can begin by dismantling this elaborate system, which locks out potentially highly qualified teachers while accrediting many who don't belong in the classroom.

But to claim that there is a teacher shortage is simply wrong -- there isn't one, and there won't be anytime soon. One has to wonder about the agenda of someone who's willing to claim otherwise.

The Christian Science Monitor utilized this editorial in preparing a Sept. 15, 1998 story, Lots of Students, Not Enough Teachers.

Dr. Feistritzer is the President of the National Center for Education Information in Washington, DC

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