Staff safety tops US agenda

29th December 2000 at 00:00
TOO many students. Too few schools and teachers.

That summed up the state of American education this year, and it's a problem that shows no sign of abating in the year ahead. Other pressures are looming, such as an increasing shortage of qualified administrators, continuing concern about school safety, and a backlash against using standardised tests to measure the success of educational reforms.

But the news is not all bad. Searching for a middle ground, politicians seem inclined to pass some modest educational measures previously blocked by partisan posturing. Congress, for example, has just approved an 11th-hour measure to allocate billions of dollars for school construction and repairs.

Yet no money was approved for teacher training at a time when retirements are thinning the ranks of teachers just as record number of students are entering schools. Lured by higher salaries in other fields, replacement teachers have been hard to come by, particularly in low-income urban districts.

"The teacher issue, both quantity and quality, is probably the biggest problem," says Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. "We've seen some districts practically recruiting people off the streets. Parents want high-quality teacers, but finding them is extremely difficult."

Now good administrators are getting scarce, Ms Fulton says. Some school districts are reaching out to other professions - including lawyers, business executives, politicians, even retired military officers - to take control. Others are limiting the role of school principals to academic duties and giving those to assistants.

"The whole issue of recruiting, training, retaining and evaluating school principals is growing," says Stuart C Smith, associate director of the Education Resources Information Centre at the University of Oregon, which monitors trends in education management. He thinks that head teachers want to spend more time planning teaching programmes than on day-to-day management.

While there have been few high-profile instances of school violence in the last year, schools are also focusing closely on safety, Mr Smith says. "Fortunately it's in a preventive mode rather than reactive one."

Meanwhile, anger over an increasing reliance on time-consuming high-stakes tests is also rising. Students who do badly in them cannot move up to the next grade and they are becoming a requirement of high school graduation. "That's probably one of the most contentious issues," Ms Fulton said.

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