The Crisis in Teaching

New schools are being built, new classroomsthough not enoughwill be ready for occupancy this fall; but to secure the teachers we need, we should have to enlist half of the total number of college graduates of last June. Obviously this is impossible, but it does illustrate the appalling shortage of trained teachersa shortage which is not being lessened by the lethargy in Congress or the half measures of state legislatures. OSCAR HANDLIN, Professor of History at Harvard University and a Pulitzer Prize winner, discusses the emergency measures which are available. Can they BE undertaken without lessening still further the quality of those who teach?


A CENTURY ago, in a nation primarily agricultural and rural, the teacher was a respectable and substantial figure in the American community. Together with the lawyer, the minister, and the physician, he supplied intellectual leadership to people who valued his opinions and his services. Education, it is true, was primarily the concern of gentlemen and professional folk; others needed only a command of the three R’s to get on in life, and that they could acquire almost as readily outside the school as in it. There was nonetheless a universal respect for learning. The first struggles of frontier settlement were hardly won before the farmers began to make provisions for the schools that would keep alive their cultural heritage.

Today the teacher has lost much of the esteem formerly accorded him. Yet his role is more important than ever before. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are now only the beginnings of learning. The schools must also preserve and pass on to the next generation the multitude of skills and techniques through which an industrial civilization survives. At the age of six the child is taught to brush his teeth, and at sixteen to drive the family car. He studies torts or anatomy or soil mechanics or automobile engineering or bookkeeping or dress design to prepare for a career. These are not extraneous or peripheral subjects. In a fluid society in which sons do not necessarily follow the trades of their fathers, the school alone is equipped to select the talents appropriate to the job, and to supply the training for it. Visible evidence of this role may be found in any college placement office in the spring, as the emissaries of the great corporations descend to recruit new personnel for production and administration.

Yet we are not content simply to make our schools technical training institutes. The Soviet Union and pre-war Japan showed it was possible to develop large numbers of adequate engineers and technicians uneducated in anything but their own tasks. Americans, however, are repelled by the conception of factories and offices staffed by skilled automata. In a free democracy it is essential also that each man have an understanding of himself and of his job in its context. He must know enough about his society to act as an intelligent citizen in it; and he should be familiar enough with its cult ure to be able to make intelligent individual choices in life. Our schools attempt to equip every child with the spirit of learning in the faith that the “citizenship of the world of knowledge” is equally important to the mechanic, the industrialist, and the lawyer.

In our culture, also, the school is a primary social matrix in which growing boys and girls learn to behave and coöperate, to make friends in high school and college and to find partners in marriage. If provides instruction to those whom increased leisure gives the desire for adult education. The universities store and transmit knowledge. Furthermore, through laboratories, museums, and libraries they constantly add to it, and the whole nation profits by their discoveries in medicine, in chemistry, physics, and the social sciences.

Copyright 1956, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

These complex and numerous functions are already part of the responsibility of the educators. Hence their trepidation as they confront the mass of new students sweeping in upon them.

The tidal wave of students

The crisis in teaching has come to a head through the pressure of cataclysmic population changes since the Second World War.

In the decade before 1941, a little more than 2 million children were born in the United States each year. Since that date the number has risen steadily. In 1955 it was just about double what it was twenty years earlier.

As a result, a tidal wave of students has inundated the schools. Advances in medicine and improvements in standards of living permit ever more children to survive babyhood and to enter upon their education. Relative prosperity enables a rising percentage of them to remain to complete their courses of study. In 1956, 80 per cent of the eligible age groups were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, 30 per cent in the colleges.

Theelementary level was first to feel the effects. In 1945-46 there were less than 20 million students in the first eight grades, in 1955-56 almost 30 million; and the number will rise as the birth rate has. In the high schools, the major shock of expansion is still two or three years off. Just over 6 million boys and girls were receiving a secondary education ten years ago; just over 7 million do so now. But by the time today’s six-year-old moves on to high school, eight years from now, he will be one of more than 10 million. And that number too will grow.

The colleges and institutions of higher education are least prepared and therefore will suffer most. Already they are crowded with 2.5 million students, a million more than before the war. But when the current crop of first-graders matriculates twelve years hence, they will be part of a collegiate population of well over 5 million, possibly as high as 8 million.

There is no escape from the logic of these figures. These babies are already born and more are on their way. Place will have to be found for them unless we wish to deprive them of their birthright as Americans.

Can we get the new teachers?

The prospects for the adequate education of the oncoming generation are not encouraging. The physical requirements for space alone are enormous. It will take determination and money to build the 700,000 classrooms which will be required in the next four years. The appropriate libraries and laboratories will be even more difficult to assemble and construct. The White House Conference on Education, early in 1956, outlined the basic necessities toward which the federal and state governments must contribute their share. Yet the outrageous failure of Congress to act on this matter in its last session reflects the apathy of a public uninformed as to its own vital interests.

New buildings are a first step, but by no means the most important one. In one crucial matter, even money and determination will not be enough. The expansion of the school population has created a crying demand for teachers. And there is no easy way of finding them. Confronted with this emergency, the White House Conference produced only empty generalizations; and no one else has been wise enough yet to do better.

On the eve of the war, American elementary and high schools employed some 875,000 teachers. In 1955 there were just over a million. By 1959 they will require at least 1.6 million to do the same job they do now. Since well over 50,000 retire or resign each year, the schools will find it necessary to recruit almost three quarters of a million new teachers in the next three years. In addition, the 200,000 or so instructors now on the staffs of American universities will have to multiply themselves in the next twelve years to at least 450,000, through the recruitment of no fewer than 25,000 new faculty members each year.

It will be a tragic delusion to imagine that the problem can be “solved.”The enlistment of 200,000 or more new teachers a year between now and 1959 would absorb about half the total recipients of bachelor degrees in that period. In view of the demands for college-trained personnel in industry, in government service, in science, and in the other professions, such a diversion of talent is not likely or desirable. For a long time makeshifts will have to do. We can only minimize the damage, maintain standards as best we can for the time being, and lay foundation for future recovery.

If we fail, the consequences will be disastrous.

The size of classes will no doubt grow, and many schools will fall back upon double, sessions. The standards of certification may be undermined and the quality of instruction will decline. Already 100,000 “emergency” teachers are in service, and almost half the elementary school children receive instruction from unsupervised green hands. Less than 70 per cent of elementary school teachers are college graduates, and only 60 per cent of the college faculties have earned the Ph.D. (In the next few years, those percentages will certainly fall.) For some subjects, a total collapse is imminent; 46 per cent of American public high schools offer no foreign language at all; 23 percent no physics or chemistry; 24 per cent no geometry.

Nor can we blink the fact that the quality of those teaching has steadily been falling. College graduates of the highest caliber are ever less likely to select teaching as their career. The honors student in physics or mathematics or philosophy is still likely to go on to teach those subjects. But the man or woman who earns a magna or summa cum laude in history or the social sciences or literature, w ith increasing frequency chooses some ot her calling than teaching.

Under these circumstances, the level of preparation for, and instruction in, the colleges will decline. The educational system as a whole will lose its capacity to filter the best potential talents through to the jobs that need them. The future physicist and doctor, as well as the future teacher, will be lost to society for want of the high school courses through which their abilities could be recognized. The loss to us all will be immense. The crisis will not cure itself. It will grow more acute unless we confront it boldly.

Meager salaries

Salary in our society is an inescapable measure of the desirability of a job. There was a time when the schoolmaster stood fairly well in the community by that standard. Few occupations now rank as low in terms of earnings as teaching. The average annual wage in elementary schools ranges from $3000 in small towns to $4800 in large cities; in high schools, from $4000 to $5500. By contrast, workers in the auto industry average $4900 and railroad conductors $6600, to say nothing of the laborers in the building trades, who do even better. Electricians, plumbers, plasterers, and steamfitters take home larger checks than the teacher; and there are schools in which the best-paid employees are the maintenance men. The average salary of full professors in large state universities, presumably the best-trained and most skilled in their profession, is much less than that of railroad engineers. After eight years of teaching, a Ph.D. in science can just about rise to the level at which he could start in industry.

But then, few teachers have any expectation that their income will markedly improve. They stay on through dedication to their calling, but they know that their experience counts little. The typical college graduate who enters a large corporation will probably double his initial salary in five years. If he enters teaching he may do so in twenty, and then usually only if he has toiled away summers and evenings accumulating mechanical credits toward mechanical degrees. Salary increments come more often through persistence and seniority than through teaching merit.

Teachers are the only occupational group whose real earnings have actually fallen since 1940. (By comparison, those of industrial workers have gone up almost 50 per cent, of physicians 80 per cent.) Even the notoriously underpaid ministers have improved their position.

Most important, there are no inspiring goals. The enterprising young man, in the choice of a career, is less likely to be concerned with averages than with the highest prizes. He may indeed spend his life compiling citations for the briefs from which others will argue; but as he enters the law school, he sees himself the partner of a firm that represents mammoth corporations, or a famous trial attorney, or a respected judge.

Of what can the future teacher dream? Leave out of account the businessmen to w hom our society offers its richest rewards, and compare the pedagogue with other professionals. Fully 40 per cent of America’s physicians earn more than $10,000 a year, almost 30 per cent of the lawyers, and more than 10 per cent of the authors, editors, and reporters. Only 5 per cent of college staffs (including the presidents) do so, and less than 1 per cent of high and elementary school teachers.

In the past, it seemed enough to give the teacher other concessions. A long vacation, security, relatively short working hours, and a five-day week were compensations for his meager salary check. But these are no longer exceptional in a society which provides similar advantages to all its members. It was always a pernicious habit to consider the time out of the classroom a reward instead of a condition of effective teaching. Teachers were thereby encouraged to take odd jobs rather than to use their summers for the intellectual refueling without which they become dull time-servers. Fringe benefits of this sort may be inescapable in our times. But they draw into the teaching profession too many persons interested primarily in safety, security, and long vacations. Such are hardly the incentives to good teaching.

The status of the schoolmaster

Americans have fixed the schoolmaster in a lowly status because he has fallen markedly in their estimation in the last fifty years. The lawyer, the newspaperman, and the doctor are active and pow erful. Mr. District. Attorney, editor Steve Wilson of Big Town, and Madic get things done. But who can respect Our Miss Brooks, a female eager to be married, but unsuccessful and therefore condemned to remain in the classroom; or her male counterpart, the ineffectual, bumbling Mr. Peepers? Such people, incapable of the real work of the world, deserve no more than amused tolerance. “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches,” goes the old saw; and the nickname “the Professor” is used with comic disparagement. The caricature is certainly out of place in a society the welfare and security of which depend upon its laboratories and its libraries. It is the product of crass materialism but it is nonetheless widely held; and it determines American attitudes toward the profession.

In every community there are teachers who love their work and are conscious of its importance. But increasingly, and tragically, they find themselves surrounded by colleagues who accept the popular image of themselves. Deprived of status and prestige, they acquiesce in the lowly role society assigns them.

They live on the fringes of the middle class. But they cannot afford to indulge in the tastes of their peers. Neither can they revolt like the “bohemian,” since the community demands of them an utter respectability. They can only withdraw timidly to a self-contained world of their own, with its own standards, often entirely out of touch with reality. They — and their wives and children — make admirable sacrifices. When the annual meeting of the teachers’ association comes along, they cannot stretch the budget or the skimpy school allowance to travel by sleeper or to stay at a firstrate hotel as the hardware salesman does. And all too often self-respect insists that they convince themselves that the coach is more comfortable than the Pullman, that the lunch-box sandwich has as many vitamins as the restaurant dinner, and that the marked-down suit from the basement is all that man can desire. Thus they confirm society’s impressions of a lowly group, not quite first-class and deserving of no better than the hand-me-downs of our culture.

Even dedicated young people are therefore reluctant to make teaching their career. For many men and women on the threshold of life, material considerations are not of first importance. Yet those motivated by idealism and by the desire to be of public service rarely find the classroom an appropriate means to it.

There was a time when they did. We can all recall with gratitude the wisdom and learning of inspiring teachers whose devotion to scholarship endowed them with understanding of the children committed to their charge. The young women, especially, who began to graduate from college in t he last quarter of the nineteenth century found few opportunities for being useful as exciting as those in teaching.

In the last thirty years, however, a variety of alternative careers has opened up for women as well as for men — in government, in business, in journalism, in advertising, and in research. These occupations seem to offer more independence and a greater opportunity for service as well as for personal advancement than does teaching.

What hope for the future?

The comparative monotony and dullness of the life of the teacher as presently organized in the United States stifles the sense of achievement and of professional progress. Once, a single teacher, casually hired, did all the work of the one-room village school until he escaped to something better. Anachronistic carry-overs from that past still influence the educational system to a surprising extent.

Consider the men and women who devote their lives to our children. After probationary terms, they receive permanent appointments. The rest of their careers they will repeat exactly the same tasks at the same level until the faces of the successive generations are lost in a vague continuing blur.

There is no prospect of advancement, except for those who move into administration and who are, in any case, lost to the classroom. The mass of teachers lack incentive for innovation or for departure from the usual. Meanwhile, they are loaded down with odd jobs; they watch the lunchroom, coach athletics, even drive the school bus. And in some communities, they are literally public servants, subject to the continuous oversight that makes their inferiority clear.

In the colleges the situation is somewhat better. There a young man can hope to improve himself by moving from one institution to another; and a hierarchy creates the possibility of promotion by rank from instructor to assistant to associate and full professor. The drawbacks at this level are the products of the dead weight of petty jealousy, timidity, and inflexible seniority rules.

Administrators hiring a new teacher are less likely to look for the inspiring or original teacher than for the innocuous conformist who will “fit in.” No dean or department head ever was criticized by his administration for taking on the safe mediocrity.

Emergency measures

The emergency demands quick action. If Americans discover someday that their children’s future is being molded by an inferior grade of talent, they will become aware too late that that is what they have been paying for. They ought immediately to begin devoting as much attention to the selection of teachers as they do to the choice of a physician or even of a maid.

Five palliatives can help tide us over. It will be interesting, for instance, to experiment with the use of television as a supplement to the classroom. It may also be possible to increase the effectiveness of a limited number of teachers by using student aides. In Bay City, Michigan, there is a significant effort to depart from the assumption that the whole instructional staff must do the same work. Instead the experienced teachers are assigned a greater number of students, but their routine jobs are handled by less skilled assistants. Such a division of labor may prove a more efficient way of disposing of the limited supply of available talent.

Such new departures may, incidentally, prove highly significant for the future. They offer an opportunity for experiment outside the traditional patterns of instruction. The experience may open the way to a more flexible and more realistic conception of the organization of the schools and of the role of the teachers. Innovations that give the most competent increased responsibility as well as increased rewards might actually draw into the classroom some of the bright young college graduates who now pass it by. The crisis is thus a challenge as well as a threat.

We must economize on experience and skill. The superintendent who hires a young girl just out of college or training school now expects that she will last on the job three or four years. (Turnover in the schools is about 10 per cent annually.) Once married and a mother, she finds it difficult to continue at her calling. Every obstacle in the way of her doing so ought to be eliminated at once.

It may also be possible to draw supplementary assistance from outside the ranks of the profession. Many well-educated women in their forties whose children are mature and who have relative leisure could serve for ten or fifteen years were the formal barriers to their employment leveled and were they given the opportunity to draw abreast of their subjects through convenient refresher courses. Or again, some corporations would find it in their larger interest to release scientists on their payrolls for several hours a week to teach mathematics or physics where acute shortages exist.

Arbitrary and outmoded restrictions on the choice of teachers ought quickly to be discarded. General state requirements were once essential devices to take the power of appointment out of local politics and to raise standards of competence. Having served their purpose, they have too often become encrusted with tradition and vested interest and now act as a deterrent to qualified men and women who might otherwise enter the profession. The bright young graduate of the liberal arts college balks at the formal demand that he invest another year or two on courses only vaguely related to his job but required by the rules. A welldesigned period of summer preparation could get him into the classroom the September after his commencement.

Every level of instruction ought to be freed of similar encumbrances. Can we continue to insist upon the doctorate in philosophy as a license to teach in college, whatever its past utility, when we know that the graduate schools simply will not produce enough candidates to fill the expanding demand? A careful review of the requisites might point to other modes of preparation that would preserve the values of the old training, yet streamline formal requirements and diminish the time the prospective teacher must now invest in it.

Such measures will help in the emergency. But a larger revaluation of the role of the teacher is also essential. It might well start with the question of salaries. The gift by the Ford Foundation of $210 million to the private colleges is a beginning, but only a beginning. It will take $15 billion in the next decade to bring professorial incomes up to the level of comparable professions, and that will leave untouched the elementary and secondary schools. The problem is immense, but it cannot be wished away.

Most important of all, we need a new attitude toward the teacher, who is central to the work of the school in a democrat ic society. Only if we value his services will we receive the services we value. That calls for a fresh consciousness of the dignity of his calling and of the respect due it. And not least among those who must arrive at an awareness of what is due them are the teachers themselves.

One year ago, as the schools prepared to open, 141,300 desks in the public elementary and secondary schools had no qualified teacher behind them. Will we allow the number to grow?