Attracting Bright Teachers

I remember spending one evening with other Filipino graduate students in Chicago. We had a guest from the Philippines, Rev. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J. He was on a private mission then, trying to figure out how to attract Filipino talent to return home. One of the students mentioned "a house and lot". At that time, I wondered how many Filipinos who pursued graduate studies in the sciences in the United States actually had some property back in the Philippines. In my case, I knew I had nothing. When I received my doctorate, I received a letter from a former teacher asking that I consider returning home. At that time, I knew my training was not yet done - I was in transition to the other campus of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to begin my postdoctoral training. Evidently, starting from scratch without anything but a diploma from Illinois was clearly a challenge. I had no influential connections and my last name, although "providential", is not among the Philippines' influential dynasties. Growing up poor in the Philippines taught me well of where I actually stood in society.

A society with critical needs faces the great challenge of placing people where they are most needed. The critical nature intrinsically comes with less desirable features. Overcrowded classrooms in poor urban areas are not naturally attractive to a young starting teacher. Remote areas in the provinces where teachers in math and the sciences are needed are not really alluring to young people. Young people have dreams. Young people have specific needs. Perhaps, identifying those needs and targeting them holds the clue to attracting bright teachers to where they are needed most.

Above image downloaded from

More than ten years ago, Education Week published a survey of some ways school districts in the United States had devised to attract teachers. "Hooking New Teachers" looked at programs in Mississippi, California, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. First, a sign-in bonus of $20000 from Massachusetts (to be given in three installments) failed to keep the new teachers in the schools. Mississippi is one important example. The state enacted a law, "The Critical Shortage Act of 1998", which specifically provided incentives for teachers to work in schools districts within the state that had been identified as critically in need of teachers. The incentives included scholarships to high school graduates who aspire to teach in Mississippi schools, and housing and moving assistance to new teachers. A task force created more than ten years later after the passage of the act reports that among 1400 teachers graduating from Mississippi's teaching schools each year, half do not go into teaching and among those who actually taught, only half stayed in the job after five years. A recent article on Hechinger Report, "Some Mississippi districts have critical teacher needs" reviews the problem of teacher shortage in the state that continues to linger fifteen years after the passage of the Shortage Act of 1998:
In Mississippi, attracting top-performing teachers to the neediest schools is an ongoing challenge. Nearly one-third of all districts in the state have been identified as critical needs districts, meaning they have extensive teacher shortages. Those shortages are often exacerbated in rural settings that lack housing, restaurants and other amenities that would make them attractive places for individuals without family connections.
Although the incentives in Mississippi are not able to solve fully the problem, without the incentives, the situation clearly would be worse. Nevertheless, recruiting good teachers remains elusive. The Hechinger Report article mentions the following:
For schools that are struggling to keep teachers, other experts point to research that shows money may not solve the problem. While some districts across the nation have found initial success in offering bonuses and higher salaries to those who teach in high-needs schools, studies have found that in these schools, supportive school leaders and positive working conditions were more important to teachers when deciding whether to stay in their schools.
The above is in line with the one of the observations noted in the 2001 Education Week article. This example was from New York:

Community: Yonkers Public Schools, New York. Yonkers, a city of 190,000 just north of the Bronx in southwest Westchester County, currently has 2,018 teachers on the payroll for its 25,000-plus students. 
Shortage: YPS is awaiting census results to determine the size of next year's district, but it will most likely need a few hundred teachers; last year, 504 people, or 25 percent of its educators, were new hires. One of the state's "big five" school districts, Yonkers has more classrooms to fill than do many other areas, and it must compete with the higher teacher salaries of more affluent, surrounding districts-20 miles north, for example, lies Chappaqua, Bill and Hillary Clinton's tony new hometown. 
Incentive: Teachers of Tomorrow, established under Chapter 62 of New York's 2000 education laws, provides $25 million to school districts statewide for recruitment, retention, and certification programs. Yonkers Public Schools uses the funds for one-time signing bonuses of $3,400 plus $700 per-semester stipends for those working toward teacher certification. The money also supports the district's free training workshops-in fact, teachers are often paid $34 an hour to attend-on current topics in education, such as mentoring, child abuse, and literacy. 
Result: Officials say the commitment to professional development seems to be an even bigger lure than the signing bonuses. "We do a lot of training in our district," says one personnel employee. In a competitive recruitment environment, she adds, "it gives [teachers] a nudge in our direction."

Teachers are really not different from other professions. Like scientists and doctors, teachers need continuing education. Similar to other dedicated professionals, teachers need an atmosphere where they can continue to grow and improve.

To attract good teachers definitely requires an environment that allows for professional development. Likewise, it is important that talented young people be lured to the profession before they enroll in college, as demonstrated by Mississippi, a state that starts the incentives by providing scholarships with stipends to cover textbook, meals, room and board expenses. Attracting the talent is only the first step. The teaching college assumes the responsibility of preparing and transforming the attracted talent into effective teachers. And with this, the task is still not finished. The schools where these new teachers teach must provide a climate that nurture and promote the professional advancement of these teachers.

In the Philippines, the names of those who have passed the most recent Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET) have been recently released. The passing rate for this year is 28% for elementary teachers and 40% for high school teachers. This is a bit better than the 2010 results in which 85% of elementary teachers and 77% of high school teachers failed. Still, the passing rates are alarming. The teacher shortage in the Philippines is critical and in places where good teachers are needed most, the predicament is worse. Browsing through the list of schools from which the test takers graduated reveals quite disturbing numbers (The following are for elementary school teachers):

  • Agusan del Sur College had 2 out of 12 first time test-takers passed (for its repeaters, only 13 out of 53 passed)
  • Central Negros College had 1 out of 7 first time test-takers passed (for its repeaters, only 22 out of 146 passed)
  • Lake Lanao College, Inc. had 1 out of 62 first time test-takers passed (for its repeaters, only 2 out of 95 passed)
  • Marawi Capitol Foundation College had 2 out of 41 first time-test takers passed (for its repeaters, only 9 out of 139 passed)
  • Marawi Islamic College had 3 out of 35 first time-test takers passed (for its repeaters, only 4 out of 36 passed)
  • Mindanao Autonomous College, Inc. had 1 out of 15 first time-test takers passed (for its repeaters, only 4 out of 26 passed)
  • Mindanao State University - Tawi-Tawi had 8 out of 55 first time-test takers passed (for its repeaters, only 17 out of 202 passed)
  • Pacasium College had 7 out of 104 first time-test takers passed (for its repeaters, only 15 out of 335 passed)
And there are many more examples that may give someone the impression that this licensure exam is a lottery and not an exam testing the skills of teaching school graduates.

Clearly, the above describes some of the challenges Philippine basic education faces. The problems are truly daunting. Obviously, the solutions are not going to be easy. It is true that there must be some optimism and confidence, but equally important is a sense of reality. Claiming that these problems will simply go away in three years or even six is a fantasy. The solutions required are obviously not superficial.  There is wisdom in what Fr. Nebres shared in an interview in 2010 with the Berkeley Center for Peace, Religion and World Affairs. Fr. Nebres said:
Overall, the really big challenge in the Philippines is how there is such a knowledge and cultural distance between the elites and the poor. If you ask me what our biggest role is, it is a bridge across those gaps. The biggest solutions will only come from our next generation of leaders who will have a better feel for the poverty in the country. People in power have tended to take simplistic approaches to the poverty – consider the businessmen who seek an improvement to our struggling public schools by adding two years to the curriculum. My point is, ‘700 thousand students drop out before grade six, and 1.2 million do not finish the current high school curriculum.’ Solutions like getting more computers or adding years of school won’t work for these student dropouts. Our challenge becomes connecting these leaders with the actual problems the poor have.
Fr. Nebres is now counting on the next generation of leaders. A generation is about 20 years. That gives us an idea of what the actual time table is....

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