WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is betting heavily that the Troops to Teachers program can help solve the national teacher shortage.
The administration is spending $18 million this year on a program whose funding had been frozen for years at $3 million. And President Bush wants to boost funding in 2003 to $20 million.
Part of that increase would be used to start offering ex-soldiers up to $10,000 to teach in high-poverty areas for three years, and up to $5,000 to defray teaching certification costs.
Some have expressed reservations about the Troops to Teachers, which tries to channel military retirees into teaching careers, saying it is a fine solution in the short term, but it does not address the long-term problem of teachers shortages.
But Maryland Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Leak said he hopes the incentives will draw more military retirees into local schools, given the state’s ongoing struggle with teacher shortages. Education officials estimate that Maryland school systems will have to hire 8,000 new teachers each year through 2009.
“These military folks come in with a vast amount of experience,” Leak said. “Their level of maturity and commitment is among the highest you’ll ever find.”
The Defense Department launched Troops to Teachers in the early 1990s in response to military downsizing. The program has placed about 4,200 recruits in teaching posts nationwide, including 76 in Maryland, since its inception.
But program director John Gantz hopes to start placing about 2,000 ex- soldiers annually with the increased funding that is budgeted this year.
Many of the troops-turned-teachers in Maryland work in Baltimore City or Prince George’s County schools, reinforcing one of the program’s selling points: its participants often teach in poorer districts.
Studies have also shown that the program places minority teachers at a higher rate than the national average, and that its recruits tend to stick with teaching longer than their civilian counterparts.
Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has expressed concern that the number of novice teachers in the state — those with less than five years of experience — has doubled in the last decade, to more than 30 percent of the state’s teachers.
But spokesman Ron Peiffer said Grasmick supports Troops to Teachers — especially in light of the staggering number of new teachers Maryland needs to hire every year.
“We absolutely have to have some alternative routes opened up to potential new teachers,” he said.
Education organizations have given Troops to Teachers a qualified thumbs- up, though they advise against overestimating its potential impact.
A spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers said the union endorses the program but rejects the idea that it represents a “silver-bullet” solution to the teacher shortage.
“We believe the best way is not to avoid or bypass traditional teacher education programs, but to strengthen them,” said AFT spokesman John See.
While ex-soldiers bring positive skills to the classroom, he said, “it’s not the same skill sets, being a military leader and being a good teacher.”
For that reason, he said, the union urges Troops to Teachers recruits to seek supplementary training on their own.
In Maryland, Leak said the military retirees are teamed with a teaching mentor in the classroom and that many do seek additional training.
Troops to Teachers does not train or hire its recruits, but helps them find certification programs and make contact with prospective employers. Maryland participants often follow the state’s alternative Resident Teacher Certificate program, which provides much of the required training on-the-job and at full salary.
Some ex-soldiers plan far enough in advance that they can get fully certified before setting foot in a classroom. Former Coast Guard Capt. Dennis McLean, who now teaches at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, spent three years studying at Marymount University while still on active duty.
“I was ready to student-teach as soon as I retired,” said McLean, adding he has already been paid back “a hundred fold” by a student who credited the retired captain with turning his life around.
“Probably the most rewarding was the day a student I’d worked very hard to help graduate came back to school in his Marine Corps dress uniform,” said Mclean. “He was proud and he thought I had made it possible.”
Some peace activists and educators have criticized the program on grounds that it may inflict a pro-military bias on students, but Peiffer dismissed that notion outright.
“When you teach, algebra’s algebra,” he said.
Arthur Moore, a Troops to Teachers veteran in Baltimore, agreed.
“I don’t think they bring the military into the classroom,” he said. “I think they come in bringing more structure than you may realize, but really, our new military teaches its people to be self-thinkers, and to be flexible. Today, they’ve got to be.”