Kara Schlink says she can't remember wanting to do anything but teach. So it was natural to enter the teacher education program at Illinois State University in Normal, which is just a few miles north of Hudson, the small west central Illinois town where she was raised.
Last January, right after graduation, Schlink became a teacher - in San Antonio, Texas, where she says she was lured by better weather and a beginning teacher salary that topped Illinois' average by more than $3,000.
Schlink is indicative of a trend that is beginning to worry Illinois education officials: A growing number of teachers qualified to teach in this state's public schools are deciding to move somewhere else - or even do something else.
And what's worse, this trend runs smack into a couple of numerical realities: As the children produced by the baby boomlet wind their way through the nation's school system, a graying teaching force is heading into retirement.
Indeed, Illinois' schools are about to face a tough one-question test: how to deal with a projected teacher shortage. Failure to prepare could add up to what the state's school superintendent calls a potential "crisis." Within the next few years, Illinois could find that the demand for teachers dangerously exceeds the supply.
That is already the case in other parts of the nation, particularly in the Southwest, where booming enrollments are projected to hit double-digit growth in the next decade. These children, who Eric Hirsch, education program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures, calls "the baby boom echo," are expected to create an unprecedented demand for teachers over the next decade. Some estimates indicate the nation's public teaching force will have to grow by another 2 million or so from the current 2.7 million. For Illinois, another type of math is at work: a shrinking ratio of qualified potential candidates to hires, which means more people who are being trained to teach are finding employment out of state or in other fields.
"This indicates a tightening supply," says Jim Sweeney, a research consultant to the Illinois State Board of Education.
At the same time, demand for teachers continues to rise. From last school year to this, that demand grew by 11 percent. And last fall, 2,687 teaching positions went unfilled, nearly twice as many openings as existed five years ago. "I was actually shocked. That's a huge increase," Sweeney says. In fact, researchers predict Illinois schools will need to hire as many as 56,384 new public school teachers between the years 2000 and 2003. Last fall, they hired 11,352.
Overall enrollment, which has increased at the pace of about 1 percent a year since 1990 to a current 1.95 million, is expected to continue growing through the year 2008. But attrition (the number of teachers leaving the school system) appears to be moving at a much faster pace. Last school year, the number of teachers who left increased by 40 percent over 1997.
Much of that attrition is the result of a graying teacher force. Educators are eligible to retire if they are over the age of 55 and have more than 20 years' experience in the classroom. Now, 16 percent of the state's teachers meet that eligibility for retirement, and that group is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next three years.
Technically, a healthy hiring pool exists to replace those teachers. Illinois has 56 colleges that train teachers, and education as a major is enjoying popularity among students. However, a surge in interest in teaching in Illinois is not evident.
For instance, Illinois awarded teaching certification to about 13,000 candidates in each of the past four years, but only about half of those certified last year (6,655) now work as public school teachers in this state. The others have taken jobs out of state, in private schools or outside education entirely.
Illinois State University, which is the largest producer of teaching candidates in the state, has had a 15 percent to 22 percent increase in the number of participants in teacher education programs in the past five years, says Sally Pancrazia, dean of the college of education.
She has witnessed what she calls a "definite reinterest" in teaching. Society's view of the profession has improved in recent years. "There's less teacher bashing going on" and, she says, more recognition that "teaching is a good place to be if you want to change lives."
But many of those candidates are opting to seek jobs out of state, Pancrazia notes. "Illinois always has been an export state. Illinois school districts need to get creative in marketing our school districts." Some out-of-state districts, such as those in San Antonio and Milwaukee, recruit heavily at Illinois State. Schlink, for instance, says her interest in the San Antonio school system was sparked when she signed on through a program at the university to student teach in that south central Texas city.
Salary is an important consideration for new teachers, certainly. And Illinois remains competitive in that category. This state's average beginning teacher salary in 1999 was $28,954, compared to a national average of $26,639. Alaska paid the top beginning salary of $32,884.
But winning good teachers is not just about salary. Other types of financial incentives can shape a candidate's decision on where to work. Many states, for instance, provide big cash incentives to teachers who achieve National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. Better student achievement has been linked to high performance on that test. More than half who take it fail.
New York will pay a $10,000 bonus to national board certified teachers and will give a $3,400 stipend annually for up to three years to any certified teacher willing to work in an area with a critical shortage of staff. California, meanwhile, awards $20,000 to certified teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools for four years.
"Illinois has been slow to provide incentives for national board certified teachers," Pancrazia observes. Illinois' incentive to certified teachers is $3,000 for one year, while Iowa gives $5,000 for 10. "We don't want our most qualified teachers to go to Iowa because they can get more money there," Pancrazia says.
Indeed, a consequence of the competition for teachers is that states and individual districts are in something of a bidding war to obtain and retain good teachers. The Baltimore school system, for instance, offers new hires $5,000 toward the closing cost of a home in the city and will shell out $1,200 for a new teacher's relocation expenses. Massachusetts will pay a $20,000 signing bonus to teachers who meet stiff qualification standards and agree to teach in that state's schools for at least four years.
Illinois is one of 41 states that have agreed to alternative certification for teachers. The program is ideal for mature professionals who did not initially pursue education as a career because they had the notion the job was lacking in respect or pay, Pancrazia says. Nine such individuals are working on alternative certification at Illinois State.
Once a state has lured a new hire into its system, the next challenge is keeping that teacher. On a national average, 30 percent to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Between 1999 and 2000, Illinois lost 11 percent of its first-year teachers.
"How you work with these teachers to make sure the profession is supportive of new teachers is an important part of the recruitment puzzle," says Hirsch. Working conditions, such as student behavior and school atmosphere, can be crucial in determining whether a novice remains in teaching. And so can administrative support.
Schlink says her first year of teaching was made easier "because the school district I'm in offers a lot of support for new teachers." Teachers at Gregorio Esparza Accelerated Elementary School, where Schlink teaches first grade, get administrative backing, she says.
Normally, new teachers at the school also are paired with a mentor. Because Schlink entered the system in midyear to replace a teacher who had resigned, she was matched with a "buddy," another new teacher who had a mentor and could share advice and counsel. The veteran offered advice on dealing with the mountain of paperwork that comes with teaching, and that was key for Schlink, who says filling out forms is the only aspect of teaching she has found to be unpleasant. "The amount of record-keeping you have to do can be overwhelming in your first year."
In fact, mentoring will be among the themes the Illinois State Board of Education will explore as it looks in the coming months at ways to avoid a teacher shortage crisis. Now, only about 500 of Illinois' 895 districts offer mentoring programs.
In mid-January, the state board approved a 2001-2002 budget that allocates $5 million to local districts for mentor programs. But that budget, which must be approved by lawmakers and the governor, also slashes by half the $24.3 million set aside this budget year for staff development. That program was replaced by $12 million to be shared by local districts as student assistance grants that can be put to other uses such as textbooks, curriculum development and even criminal background checks. The board's concern about retaining new teachers is evident in the way it directed staff development spending.
The mentoring initiative, which links novice teachers with classroom veterans, has the backing of the 80,000-member Illinois Federation of Teachers, which doesn't endorse the proposed development cut.
"Mentoring programs, we as a union feel, can help new teachers with the first couple of years," says Gail Purkey, director of communications for the federation. "Those are by and large the hardest years ever."
Indeed, attrition rates for Illinois teachers begin to shrink once teachers hit the five-year mark. If they make it to that point, teachers are unlikely to leave the profession until they achieve 31 years in the system.
There's a strong incentive to get teachers over that critical five-year hurdle. There's a good chance vacant positions will be filled by underqualified or out-of-field teachers. It's estimated that a fifth to a quarter of Illinois' high school teachers don't even have a college minor in the subjects they teach.
Thousands of other teaching positions will simply go unfilled. The problem is worst in Chicago and in rural areas of Illinois, notes Richard Yong, a state board research consultant. Last September, Illinois had 2,637 unfilled teaching positions, half in Chicago District 299.
In their report on teacher supply and demand, state board researchers were blunt about what needs to happen to avert crisis: "Put more effort into recruitment and retention in Illinois public schools."
The aim is to convince young teachers like Kara Schlink to work in Illinois public school classrooms. Schlink says her family wishes she had opted to take a first job close to home. "But they understand completely why I needed to do this."