March 1, 2000

Almost everyone can remember a favorite teacher -- a wise and compassionate adult who took the time to understand who we were and what made us special. A mentor whose example turned us on to reading or math, history or tech ed. A friend we still try to visit when we're back home -- and the standard by which we now measure our own children's teachers.

When all is said and done, nothing has more influence on whether children learn in school than their teachers. But our schools are in trouble, and unless we act swiftly and decisively, our children will be the losers.

First, we must make sure that every teacher who steps in front of a class has the expertise, the knowledge and the drive to meet the highest possible standards. No child should spend a minute in a classroom with an unqualified teacher. Yet, every year in this country, approximately 50,000 men and women in our children's schools are teaching with "emergency" certificates, meaning they do not meet the state standard for certification.

Not only should every teacher be certified in the subjects they teach, new teachers should also be tested for mastery of the material they are expected to pass on to their students.

The challenge of filling our children's classrooms with first-rate teachers, though, will be harder than ever in the coming years, as across the nation, schools are facing severe teacher shortages. Twenty percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years -- a number that is growing. Over the course of the next decade alone, our public schools will need to hire 250,000 teachers each year. Math, science, bilingual education and special education have the most serious shortages. Sadly, schoolchildren in poor neighborhoods are hit hardest by the shortages at the very time we are trying to help them meet tough new academic standards.

In order to recruit and retain new, high-quality candidates for our schools, the President has proposed that we undertake the equivalent of a national recruitment campaign, including the creation of a national job bank, and increased portability of licenses and pensions.

His proposal would also preserve and build on the successful Troops to Teachers program, which, since 1994, has helped 3,000 retiring military personnel become teachers in our public schools. This expanded initiative, called Transition to Teaching, would provide scholarships and other support to help retiring military as well as non-military professionals become teachers -- particularly in high-poverty schools and in subject areas that are experiencing the worst shortages.

In the three decades that I've worked on child and family issues -- in my first job at the Children's Defense Fund, as head of a statewide committee to improve education in Arkansas, and as First Lady -- I have visited hundreds of classrooms, and met thousands of good teachers. They love their students, and they love what they teach. But too many are now telling me that they are ready to quit because they can no longer muster the support or respect they deserve.

How has this happened? Not a day goes by that I don't hear from parents telling me that their No. 1 priority is their child's education. They want their elected officials to do whatever it takes to achieve smaller class sizes, modern schools wired for the Internet, and teachers who demand only the best from their students and themselves. These are challenging goals, but goals that, working together, we can -- and must -- meet.

This week, the Senate begins its consideration of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government's largest and most significant investment in our nation's public schools. The President hopes to sign a reauthorization bill that incorporates the priorities he has proposed, including higher standards for teachers and students, smaller class sizes, school accountability, safe and modern schools, improved and expanded after-school programs and increased public school choice.

There are those who will fight passage of these proposals, arguing that the challenges facing our schools can be solved with "quick fixes" -- like vouchers. Others deride issues like class size or teacher testing, implying that these "kitchen table" issues do not belong on the federal government's agenda at all.

They're wrong. The quality of our children's education -- the very children who will be the first generation of leaders to come of age in the new century -- will one day determine America's place in the world.

It's time we give these issues the attention they deserve. It's time we tackle the teacher shortage, the salary shortage, the support shortage and the quality shortage. It's time to work together in a bipartisan fashion so that we can once again be proud of our public schools. Our children deserve no less.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at