Special Report

H-1B Education

You'll never guess the identity of one of the largest users of America's skilled worker visa system.

By 8.12.08

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You would expect high tech giants such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and the U.S. division of India's tech support powerhouse, Infosys, to be among the biggest users of H-1B skilled-labor visas. The same holds true for universities such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and Purdue -- the world's training ground for skilled workers and research-and-development.

But some of the largest users of H-1B visas aren't tech firms or major research universities. Rather, these unlikely users are the nation's public school systems. Thirteen hundred seventy-four H-1B visas were issued to public schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This includes some of the nation's biggest school districts, including Baltimore's -- the 38th largest user of the program, with 196 visas issued to teachers in that same period -- and the New York City Department of Education, with 171 visas issued to its foreign-born teachers.

Smaller districts are also seeking high-skill labor visas for their own foreign-born staffers. Fifteen visas were issued to teachers in the 4,800-student school district in dusty Espanola, New Mexico, near Santa Fe, while 11 more are employed on the North Carolina coast by Bertie County Schools.

Emigrant teachers can even be found in crime-riddled New Orleans. Eighteen H-1B visas were issued to teachers working in the Recovery School District, the state-run school system.

THE SINGLE-BIGGEST user of H-1B visas among school districts is located right in the suburbs outside the Beltway, in the Prince George's County school system in Maryland.

Two hundred thirty-seven visas were issued to teachers in the district in 2006-07, a number that put it ahead of banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase, slumping cell-phone-maker Motorola, and healthcare outsourcing outfit Marlabs. The district's experience mirrors that of other school districts.

Just 57 percent of the freshmen who made up PGC's Class of 2005, actually made it to graduation, making it one of the worst-performing school systems in the nation. To turn that performance around -- and meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's provision that every one of its teachers is "highly-qualified" and knowledgeable in their respective subjects -- the district must improve the quality of its teaching corps.

At the same time, it must fill positions of teachers who have either retired, left for more-affluent school districts, or skipped out on teaching altogether. Some 1,064 teachers -- 11 percent of its teaching corps -- left its employ during the 2004-05 school year alone, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

So Prince George's has posted "help wanted" signs in exotic locales. Since 2004, the school system has hired some 400 teachers from the Philippines.

These teachers, having grown up in a nation with strong ties to the United States, have strong English language skills and advanced degrees. Many have spent more than a decade in classroom instruction, with classroom sizes of 40 or more students. Even better: They don't quit. Just 11 of the Filipinos have left the district over the past four years.

"They are determined to make this work," said Robert Gaskin, Prince George's human resources director, to the Washington Post Magazine. "You ask them, 'What are you doing this weekend?' They'll say, 'I'm preparing lessons.'"

THESE HARD-WORKING teachers likely don't cross the minds of immigration opponents at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, professional guilds such as the American Engineering Association, or the editorial board of National Review.

They successfully filibustered recent efforts by President George W. Bush and Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy to (among other things) expand the number of H-1B visas available for high-skilled labor beyond the 105,000 statutory limit. Their critiques vary but they have in common the spectre of evil corporations trying to benefit the bottom line at the expense of American labor.

Yet restrictionists fail to realize that the underlying reason behind Corporate America's global talent search is America's woeful public schools. And those schools are also struggling to recruit and retain highly-skilled workers, for the good of future American workers.

The development of value-added assessment, a statistical technique through which the effects of instruction on student performance are measured, have yielded new information to educational researchers. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a teacher with strong subject matter competency and strong instructional skills may have as much influence on the academic performance of a student as his socioeconomic background. These findings have resulted in mandates to improve teacher quality set down in No Child and other school accountability laws.

Exacerbating the need for teachers are class-size reduction initiatives, which haven't helped much and are about to make matters a whole lot worse. The upcoming retirement of the Baby Boomers from the teaching ranks -- 100,000 in California alone -- will force more school districts to look far and wide for replacements.

The traditional system of teacher compensation, under which teachers earn income based on seniority and number of graduate degrees acquired, makes the profession less attractive to math and science collegians.

So the most-critical shortages will continue to be in the courses that students badly need in order to advance in the global economy, unless something drastic is done.

BUT SCHOOL DISTRICTS can't count on help from the nation's schools of education. Just 13 percent of 77 education schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality had high quality math instruction programs.

Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, concluded in a 2006 study that 54 percent of the nation's teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements.

This lack of high-quality instruction helps the nation's annual teacher attrition rate of 8 percent. It's even higher among instructors with less than three years of experience, despite the fact that most teachers can easily attain tenure -- and near-permanent job security -- within two-to-three years of service.

Alternative teaching programs such as Teach For America -- which supplies aspiring teachers to school districts in 27 cities -- may help with the shortages. But school systems must look at other ways of getting teachers into the classroom. That means competing with other industrialized nations for highly-talented instructors, especially those from Third World countries in which teaching remains one of the few ways the poor can move into the middle class.

Some 10,000 emigre teachers were employed by the nation's school districts in 2003, according to the National Education Association. That number has since swelled. School districts have followed the path blazed by districts such as Prince George's County and the Clark County school district in Las Vegas, which lured 51 Filipino English and math teachers to its schools in 2005.

More could be brought in, especially as foreign teachers have gotten hip to the relatively high wages compared to those in their homelands, but efforts to improve U.S. schools will eventually run up against the statutory limits of H-1B visas. Maybe that could help teach our politicians a lesson about the need to reform the current Byzantine and bothersome immigration system.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.