Struggling to fill openings for teachers in crucial subjects such as math and science, Baltimore's public schools are turning to overseas recruiting -- joining a growing group of urban school systems across the nation.
City school officials have signed contracts for next fall with 45 teachers from the Philippines -- and they are planning another trip to Manila this month to try to hire more.
For the past decade, school systems with burgeoning student populations or fluctuating teaching ranks, including districts in New York, California and Florida, have turned to foreign labor to keep classrooms staffed. Although many officials in those districts report great success, critics question whether recruiting internationally ignores the problems in these school systems, including low pay and difficult working conditions.
Baltimore began recruiting in the Philippines after starting this school year with about 200 vacancies, many in science, math and special education.
"We had to do something," said Bill Boden, the system's human resources director. "We know the country, in general, is not producing enough [teachers] to fill the demand, so you've got to go outside the borders."
In their first trip in November, city schools recruiters hired a group for mostly math and science, and nearly all of those hired have master's degrees and teaching experience. The second trip this week will focus on hiring early childhood educators.
Overseas recruitment is feasible even for cash-strapped school systems like Baltimore's because recruitment firms transfer the cost of searches to successful applicants. The Washington, D.C., school system hired 15 Filipino special-education teachers this school year and is recruiting in Puerto Rico for next year.
No other school systems in the Baltimore area have traveled to other countries to recruit teachers. Anne Arundel County and Carroll County school officials said they have been solicited by recruitment firms; Anne Arundel officials said they are considering the possibility.
U.S. schools hired about 10,000 teachers from foreign countries during the 2002-2003 school year, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.
Similar to nursing
The hiring trend parallels a similar movement in the nursing industry. For decades, nursing graduates from the Philippines, India and elsewhere have been recruited to fill jobs here, experts say, because American nursing programs produce too few candidates to meet the demand.
School systems usually focus recruiting efforts in countries where English is widely spoken, including England, Canada, India, the Philippines, West Africa and some Caribbean nations. Recruiters and school officials say they give preference to teachers who can speak English without a heavy accent.
Salaries are a major draw for some foreign teachers. In the Philippines, the average annual pay for a teacher is about $10,000, according to a 2002 UNESCO report. Baltimore teachers, by contrast, earn an average of $47,000 a year. The starting salary for a city teacher is $34,000.
As a result, many foreign teachers are willing to pay large sums to recruiting agencies that connect them to U.S. school districts. The 45 teachers hired by Baltimore will each pay $5,000 to $8,000 to a California firm working with city school officials.
Critics of overseas recruiting, however, say finding teachers abroad is only a short-term solution to the cyclical problem of teacher shortages. Instead, they say, schools need to focus on improving working conditions and salaries so teachers want to remain in the classroom.
"There's a choice here," said Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of education who has studied teacher shortages. "You could improve that job and have no trouble recruiting and retaining people here to become a teacher. Well-respected, well-paid jobs do not have shortages."
Ingersoll and other experts question whether there is a real shortage of teachers. Some school officials say the uneven distribution of teachers is the problem, leaving high-performing school districts with waiting lists of applicants and urban or rural districts without candidates to fill vacancies.
Maryland education officials say the state also faces a rising number of teachers nearing retirement and a growing student population in some districts.
The State Department of Education projects school districts will need to hire nearly 6,000 teachers for next fall but will fall short in some areas. They estimate districts will find 409 fewer special-education and 191 fewer math teachers than they need.
Another area of need is early childhood education, because the state has instituted a significant expansion of kindergarten services.
Baltimore is the first school system in Maryland to address its recruitment needs with such a large contingent of foreign teachers, though a few districts have done some overseas recruiting in the past, state officials said. Montgomery County schools have recruited teachers from Spain for some years to run Spanish language immersion programs.
For their part, state officials are studying ways to make it easier for experienced teachers from other countries to become certified in Maryland. Foreign teachers have to take the Praxis test, which assesses basic skills, knowledge of subject matter and teaching expertise. They also must undergo an assessment by a firm that specializes in evaluating foreign credentials, said Joann Ericson, the state's chief of certification.
City school officials believe the teachers they have hired will be able to easily obtain certification. The men and women have an average of 10 years' teaching experience, and nearly all have at least a master's degree, said George Duque, one of two human resources specialists who traveled to the Philippines in November.
Ligaya Avenida, president of a San Mateo, Calif., recruitment firm working with the Baltimore school system, said she screens thousands of candidates in the Philippines before presenting them to school districts.
"The teachers that I bring are all experienced teachers," said Avenida, a retired human resources director for the San Francisco Unified School District who began recruiting in her native country six years ago. "I make sure the teachers ... will have no trouble meeting the [state] standards."
Avenida and other recruiters say they are providing cash-strapped school systems with a valuable service at no expense, since fees paid by successful job applicants cover the cost of the search. The firm also pays for the travel and lodging of school officials who go on recruitment trips if a school system hires more than 10 people.
Avenida charges successful applicants $5,000 or $8,000, depending on the type of visa they need. The fee includes transportation to the United States and immigration, certification and housing assistance.
Most of Baltimore's new Filipino teachers will enter the country on cultural-exchange visas, which are good for three years, because the U.S. government has placed a limit on work visas, known as H1b visas, until October, she said.
Duque, who will be taking a second trip to Manila this week, said he has been impressed by the credentials of the job candidates.
One of the teachers he hired is a 44-year-old man from the Manila area who has 11 years of teaching experience, a doctorate in educational management and a master's degree in math education.
The plan, school officials said, is to have the Filipino teachers arrive in June so they will have time to undergo training before the start of school in September. The system is designing a summer orientation session to help them adjust to teaching in Baltimore.
"Obviously, there's a cultural difference," Duque said. "We'll try to prepare them. Hopefully, it's not going to be that [difficult] a transition for them, at least from a pedagogical standpoint."