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Shortage or surplus?

The most important issue isn't the quantity of teachers but the quality of teachers

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

So which is it: A national shortage of first-rate elementary and high-school teachers-or a buyers' market surplus?

Listen to the teachers unions and you're likely to respond in something of a panic. A historic turnover in the teaching profession, they say, is on the way. More than a million teachers (out of a total of about 3.2 million public-school teachers) are nearing retirement. To replace them and others who will be lost through attrition, and to respond to overall population growth, could well call for at least 2 million new teachers over the next decade. The nation (and its teacher education programs) has never faced such a huge assignment.

Not all experts agree, though, that such a crisis is in the offing. After all, they say, the nation's most immediate educational emergency has to do with the tens of thousands of teachers who this month and next may be getting pink slips of outright dismissal because the states in which they teach have run out of money. If the fiscal crises in California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and at least a dozen other states are as serious as they're made out to be, the problem is that there will soon be too many-not too few-teachers out there looking for jobs.

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How can both predicaments be true?

I reflected on all this a few days ago with a friend who through the last 30 years has interviewed hundreds of prospective teachers. Bill George is head of school at Asheville Christian Academy, a first-rate K-12 program serving about 600 students in the city where WORLD is published. ACA is staffed by 60 teachers, nearly all of whom Mr. George has had a hand in hiring.

Yes, I had very much in mind that the task of building a Christian-school faculty is quite different from that of assembling a public-school faculty. The pond in which Mr. George fishes is by definition smaller than those in which his public-school counterparts cast their nets. That suggests that his job is proportionately harder.

"But," he told me, "my job has actually become easier in the last couple of years. I have more applicants than ever to choose from." He thinks at least two factors are at work-both of which he thinks must also be affecting what's happening on the national "secular" scene.

"Partly," this educational veteran told me, "it is, of course, the economy. People who weren't looking for jobs are hard pressed now, and some of them are looking hard."

"And partly," he continued, "and I know this sounds contradictory-it's the urgency of these times, even for those who have jobs. People are asking questions about meaning in life. They want to be 'difference-makers,' and they're looking for ways to do that." He told me about a first-time teacher he hired last week who has been making more than twice what he'll be making now, but seems eager to give that up if he can do something more meaningful than what he's been doing.

So a few applicants are desperate for a job-any job-that will put groceries on the table. Others are ready to trade away the jobs they already have if they can do something more significant with their lives.

That kind of confusing picture puts enormous pressure on the selection process. Which applicants are merely looking for a job-any job-and which come with a genuine calling for the task? In his setting, Bill George has a three-part test for every teaching candidate: Is there a robust relationship to God? Does this candidate love students even more than he or she loves his or her subject? But is this candidate also competent as a teacher of his or her subject?

Such a sorting process is critical at a school like Asheville Christian Academy. But it's really no less important in the huge search for those million new public-school teachers America will probably have to hire over the next decade. Why would anyone not aspire to a process designed not just to let us "get by," but to bring all of America's children the very best?

The stakes are enormous-and it's a reminder that our nation's biggest educational issues are not ultimately financial in nature.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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