Science

Teaching the Bottom Line

First came for-profit schools for kids. Are for-profit colleges for teachers next?

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When the Edison Project began as a controversial for-profit school venture in 1992, the first thing it had to do was find some students. Those were the good old days. Now that Edison is teaching the three R's to 57,000 students in 113 schools across the country, it faces a tougher challenge: finding enough qualified teachers. The same is true for public schools, of course. But Edison thinks it has found a solution that might allow it to leap-frog its public education counterparts in the quest for instructors: The company is planning to open its own system of one-year teachers colleges.

However they are educated, more teachers are going to have to come from somewhere. According to a report by the National Center on Education Statistics, U.S. schools will need to hire as many as 2.7 million new teachers by 2009. Teachers are older than other workers (they average 44 years as opposed to 38 in the general work force), they have cushy pensions that allow them to retire early, and many bolt the classroom in favor of higher paying jobs. On Tuesday, nine education advocates descended on the National Press Club to discuss the crisis. Almost everyone agreed that teachers fresh out of college are ill-prepared to fill the growing need. "I think that this problem that we are identifying here today is one that is going to continue with us for at least a couple more decades," said Robert Rice, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Council for Basic Education, a beltway non-profit.

Carlos Ponce, chief human resource officer for Chicago Public Schools, said his jurisdiction is already scrambling to get people behind the podium. Chicago even implemented a program to bring math and science teachers from overseas. Still, he said the grinding educational bureaucracy makes any solution difficult: "The teacher shortage won't go away because government, which is the primary employer, is the slowest to respond to market forces."

The solution should be simple. Approximately 100,000 new teachers graduate with bachelors degrees in education from American colleges every year, according to Dr. Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and senior fellow on government studies at the Brookings Institution. While some of the schools are good, he argued that many of their new graduates were unprepared. "I have taken a lot of education courses," Loveless said Tuesday. "Most of them were a complete waste of time. They had nothing to do with whether or not I taught or the quality of my instruction." Ponce said the schools also failed to address specific needs. "We aggravate the problem because the schools of education don't even tell their students what are the specific specialties that are highest in demand," he complained. "In Chicago, we have job openings for 20 English teachers right now and we have 281 candidates. … For elementary ed we have 116 openings and 1,474 candidates."

The profiteers at Edison think that a proper teaching college can help breach the void, so they have decided to start their own. "Edison plans to recruit and develop 50,000 talented teachers between 2004 and 2008," said Jeannie J. Ullrich, vice president of the Edison Colleges (that part of the Edison Project that is planning the teachers colleges). "Edison's solution to the teacher shortage is to develop our own teachers, and how well we do this will significantly determine the success of our rapidly growing K-12 schools."

According to Ullrich, the program will be a year-long plan for people who already have a college degree in a field other than education. Unlike existing schools of education, Edison will focus on graduates in math, science and other critically needed fields. Those who complete the program will have a guaranteed job at an Edison School; Edison would ask for a five-year commitment from candidates.

Other than that the details are sketchy. Ullrich said that plans are still in the "embryonic stage." The program, she said, would be up and running in a few years. "Our mission is to operate the best and largest teachers college… Each candidate will be located in communities with 10 or more Edison schools. By 2008, we plan to have 20 campuses with at least 350 students at each site." If those numbers hold out and enrollment at traditional schools holds steady, Edison will be cranking out approximately 1 out of every 15 graduating teachers.

Not that it will be easy. Will Edison-educated teachers be accepted at other schools? Will Edison be able to retain the teachers without substantial premiums in pay and benefits? Of course, no one will know until Edison executes its plan. In the meantime, alternatives will no doubt come trickling out of the school boards and education schools that have failed to find a solution so far. They are motivated, they say, by the idealism of their calling. The folks at Edison have their shareholders'dollars on the line.