America’s schools are falling behind on efforts to assign a high-quality teacher to every classroom by the 2005-06 school year, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) told Congress June 11. But California state officials claim they are making progress in this area by employing a creative solution to the problem: recruiting teacher candidates with solid content knowledge from a slumping technology sector.

California’s Technology-to-Teacher program is a recruitment effort that turns currently unemployed technology professionals into fully credentialed, working teachers. The program is designed to place former private-sector employees displaced by the dot-com bust and other high-tech woes into classrooms, where their knowledge, education, and real-world experiences could make up for a lack of well-prepared, properly educated math and science teachers in schools throughout the state.

That premise became especially important yesterday in light of ED’s latest report, “Meeting the High-Quality Teacher Challenge.” The first in a series of annual reports to Congress on this topic stressed an increased need for highly qualified teachers who demonstrate solid content knowledge—especially in such currently understaffed subjects as math and science—in schools across the country.

“We now have concrete evidence that smart teachers with solid content knowledge have the greatest effect on student achievement,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a statement. “If we are to meet the challenge of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year, states and universities must take heed and act now to bring more of these people into our nation’s classrooms.”

California’s Technology-to-Teacher program was conceived by Gov. Gray Davis as a way to help combat the concentration of technology-related layoffs occurring in places such as the once-booming Silicon Valley, said Larry Rios, the program’s project director for the Ventura County Business and Employment Services Department.

According to Rios, the program gives state educators $1.6 million to train and qualify former private-sector professionals for more than 200 currently unfilled teaching positions. The money was allocated throughout the state based on those areas having the highest concentration of laid-off technology workers and is being used to help pay for the cost of securing candidates’ state-approved teaching credentials, Rios said.

In Ventura County, the project has supplied $167,000 to help fill 18 slots, Rios said; and in Sunnyvale, Calif., recruiters received $536,000 to fill more than 100 vacancies.

“What we are trying to do is take a talent pool that has dried up and redirect it,” said Rios. He claims the program already has attracted a number of potential applicants, many of whom had been accustomed to earning at least six-figure annual incomes.

According to Rios, the obvious reduction in salary has done little to curb enthusiasm for the project.

Participants “want to be able to have a positive impact on future generations,” said Rios. “They are not in it for the money.” Jesse Gonzalez, a 42-year-old electrical engineer and former product manager for a voice-mail services company, said he had long considered teaching as an option—but after losing his job in the tech sector, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

“I had a calling that I’ve done a good job of suppressing most of my life,” said Gonzalez, a Sunday school teacher and avid youth leader.

Gonzalez, who hopes to become a math instructor, is eager to have the opportunity to teach. He believes his real-world technology experience will prove to be an added benefit to students, because it enables him to explain how math and science are applied in everyday situations.

“Why do we need to know, that’s the question [students ask],” Gonzalez said. “What I feel I could bring is practical application. You need to get people excited that what they are studying is something that they can use.”

Practical application isn’t the only advantage former technology professionals bring to the classroom, said Leslie Conery, deputy chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Conery contends that properly trained and teacher-certified recruits from the technology sector would greatly enhance the integration of technology in schools. Unlike many veteran teachers, she said, former technology professionals would be less likely to experience intimidation in the face of new classroom technologies.

“These people are going to know how to demonstrate using the technology,” Conery said, adding that former tech professionals also would be able to help train veteran teachers on new equipment.

Despite the potential that exists in this new pool of teaching applicants, Rios cautions that the path to achieving certification can be difficult.

“The program doesn’t guarantee anyone will become a teacher,” Rios said. “We simply are facilitating the process for potential teachers to get their credentials.”

To be eligible for the Technology-to-Teacher program, candidates must be certified dislocated workers and must pass the California Basic Education Skills Test, used to demonstrate essential knowledge of math, reading, and writing. Once they have passed the test, they are required to meet with an academic advisor and construct a path to certification. The final step is enrollment in a university-supported teacher credential program, the cost of which is paid for by the program.

Prospective teachers also must pass background checks, drug screenings, and be fingerprinted to ensure child safety.

“You do have to jump over some hoops and hurdles here,” Rios said. “But we help navigate our clients through the process.”

In all, said Rios, the program takes an estimated two years to complete. But candidates won’t necessarily have to wait until they are wholly certified to begin teaching. In the event that a fully certified teacher cannot be found, the program allows for prospective teachers still involved in the certification process to take over a class as long as they agree to finish out the requirements. In this situation, candidates are deemed intern-qualified and are eligible to receive full benefits.

California is not the only state that has dipped into the technology sector in search of new teachers. The New Teacher Project (TNTP) is a revenue-generating, non-profit consulting group headquartered in New York City. It focuses on recruiting young and mid-career professionals to join the teaching ranks and says it has secured 19 contracts in more than 13 school districts across the nation, placing more than 3,500 new teachers in schools.

“There is a general interest from a certain group of civic-minded people,” said Michelle Rhee, TNTP’s chief executive officer. “This is a great pool of people to look at, because school districts often have difficulty finding people with direct content knowledge.”

Like anything, learning to become a good teacher will take time, Gonzalez pointed out: “Sometimes the fruits of the labor aren’t always so noticeable. But they do come.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

State of California
http://www.ca.gov

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

The New Teacher Project
http://www.tntp.org