A recent Barron's article on the growing numbers of foreign-born workers in the United States, reported that the percentage of those coming from other countries to work here has nearly tripled in only three decades as a percentage of the labor force.
In 1970, about 5 percent of the labor force was foreign-born. By 1990, that has risen to 10 percent and to 13 percent last year. The article predicted that immigrants are "bound to claim an even bigger share of the labor force" over the next 30 years with the mix shifting in favor of skilled jobs that these workers have already been filling in large numbers.
While the United States has always been a place for the "tired ... huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." it has typically relied largely on native-born citizens to teach its children.
It seems our Statue of Liberty is not only summoning engineers, computer scientists, health care providers, and other skilled professionals from beyond our borders, she is now having to fill shortages in our K-12 teacher ranks with those who come here from different parts of the world.
For some time now, our public schools have been dealing with how to motivate more young people to take the rigorous math and science classes needed to prepare for high-tech and bio-med careers. Closer to home, several San Diego area high-tech employers have long lamented the fact that only a small percentage of the employees they need are coming from local schools because of the lack of an emphasis on math and science.
I'm not sure what students consider "cool," but we need to find ways to inspire children to pursue the more rigorous course work that will equip them with any one of several critical career skills that our nation will need in years to come.
The same dilemma faces the effort to train enough home-bred young people to become teachers.
A Los Angeles Times story earlier this summer talked about "the first ripple in a wave of experienced English-speaking foreign teachers about to land on American shores." With school districts needing to hire 200,000 teachers a year to stem a national teacher shortage, the story said that private recruiters are planning to place at least 15,000 foreign teachers in American classrooms over the next five years.
The recruiters are looking at India and China as sources, but it's the Philippines with its English-speaking school system founded by American teachers in 1901 that is emerging as the chief source of foreign-born teacher recruits. One reason the recruiters have been so successful is the almost sacrificial motivation of these imported teachers have to come here to teach in U.S. schools. Foreign teachers pay the job placement agencies about $7,500, which covers the costs of passage and recruitment fees. With these teachers picking up the tab, recruitment is a free lunch to U. S. school districts.
Recruiters have placed significant numbers of foreign-born teachers among school districts in Boston, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. However, the need has been particularly acute among mid-size school districts in Southern California which are struggling to meet a federal mandate for "highly qualified" licensed teachers. Philippine teacher recruits, many of who have advanced degrees, beginning the credentialing process even before they leave the Philippines.
The issue is not whether these highly trained teachers from distant lands are qualified to teach our children or, even whether we should presently import teachers from off shore. We have a shortage of qualified teachers that needs to be filled somehow.
The question or issue is deals with the problem itself. Why is there a shortage in teachers? Why can't we motivate enough young people and others to become teachers? What are schools overseas doing that we are not in terms of encouraging young people to become teachers?
One thing for sure, we need to discover and and deal with the root of the problem.
As a former teacher, I think the problem is not so much economics as it is the neutral or even negative perception of the teaching profession. Just how desirable have we made teaching?
We've come a long way in upgrading teacher salaries, especially at the entry level and in the early years of a teacher's career. Teachers work hard and carry considerable responsibilities, as do other professionals requiring similar educational preparation. Most of all, they have the potential of achieving an immense level of personal job satisfaction that few other professions can offer. So what is the problem in motivating young people to enter teaching?
As a national culture, we need to highlight the teaching profession in new ways. We need to instill status into the profession that has not existed heretofore. And, we need to go far beyond the lip service we've paid to teachers. It doesn't motivate any young person to enter teaching when parents and other adults continually patronize the profession with knock-off phrases such as: "They should pay teachers more."
Our entertainment and news media can and should influence young people by depicting teachers as people who make a difference. Even heroes. We need a propaganda program with carefully designed communications strategies to position teaching an important and desirable career, much the same way we positioned engineering with youngsters in the late 50's to help the U.S. compete in the space race.
If we're going to have enough young people want to become the teachers of tomorrow's children, we need to do a better job in esteeming public education. We need to focus solely and do whatever it takes to make teaching a highly desirable profession, one worthy of young people whose aptitudes and intellect give them a choice to be anything they want to be. We need to ask young people to consider being a teacher and highlight their attributes and skills that they could share with their potential students.
We've become an import society for many of the goods and services that we once produced within our nation's boundaries. Let's not add teachers as an endangered species by being forced to import foreign professionals to perform the most critical task we as a society have: teaching our children. ###
Hovenic, Ed.D, is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org