March 20, 2008 – Though drawn to the United States by the promise of better job opportunities, the typical foreign-trained teacher fills an undesirable teaching position in an inner-city school, makes as much as $10,000 less than colleagues with similar experience and has fewer benefits and less job security than her or his American colleagues, according to Carol Anne Spreen, an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
"They are put in the worst schools," Spreen said. "They don't have collective bargaining. They don't have a lot of say in what they can do and where they teach. There is an inequality in that."
For the last three years, Spreen has studied the growing phenomenon of overseas-trained teachers, whom she calls "the new migrant workers." She also examines the effects of teacher migration on the quality of education in both the sending and receiving countries. Her work to strengthen international law monitoring the hiring of foreign teachers has led to collaborations with the British Commonwealth of Nations, the National Education Association and the Organization of American States. Spreen co-authored the article "Teachers and the Global Knowledge Economy: Balancing Educator Rights and National Teaching Demands in the Global Labor Market" with David Edwards, a senior analyst in International Relations at the National Education Association.
"I am not against immigration," Spreen said. "I think that is an important thing. But when you bring people over, do you support them? Are you using them as an asset?"
According to Spreen, the skills of foreign teachers who travel to the U.S. and U.K. are being wasted, and they are denied the same status as their native colleagues.
"We are paying them less," Spreen said. "They don't have any rights, are not paid any benefits and receive no pensions going in. ... They are highly qualified teachers, but they are not getting paid what is commensurate with their experience. There is an inequality in that system, and it enables school districts to get off without having to deal with those things."
One factor inhibiting equal rights for foreign teachers is the lack of international guidelines managing teacher migration. As international trade agreements, such as the World Trade Organization's General Agreement of Trade in Service, expand, they create a more flexible, open labor force. Worldwide, there are now more than 300 private, international agencies that recruit people to teach overseas. The agencies effectively become the teachers' employers and subcontract them to schools. Spreen believes these agencies and the hiring of teachers by individual school districts need to be more effectively monitored to ensure foreign teachers are supported and protected.
Spreen also points out that by recruiting foreign teachers, the U.S. and U.K. reduce international educational equity. Developing countries spend large amounts of money and resources to train educators, only to see their investments move overseas. These teachers, often the best math and science instructors, are the ones most needed in their native countries. Ironically, this hiring of foreign teachers by developed nations undermines their own international education initiatives.
"The U.S. is, on one hand, giving $5 billion a year toward Education for All [a UNESCO international education initiative] goals to increase access and improve education quality," Spreen said. "On the other hand, the U.S. and developed countries are poaching the best teachers."
According to a 2005 NEA report, U.S. public schools employ around 10,000 foreign teachers here on temporary cultural exchange visas. Spreen stated that the stopgap measure of hiring foreign teachers to fill shortages in the U.S. actually perpetuates long-term problems in American schools.
"In the United States we have a purported teaching shortage," Spreen said. "But our teaching shortages to some extent are self-inflicted. Inner-city schools that are under-resourced are bleeding people every year. They are losing 10 percent to 30 percent of their teaching population every year ... because of poor working conditions and lack of organization in the school and in the system.
"When we hire overseas-trained teachers, we are putting them in the least-resourced schools and in the worst conditions and they don't have a lot of say over that or a lot of preparation."
Spreen, who spent 10 years studying teacher quality in Latin America and Southern Africa before moving to teacher migration, insisted that teaching conditions need to be a central focus of all efforts to promote quality education.
"We should do more research directed at teachers' lives and work and the conditions of schooling, both domestically and globally, because teachers are the center of education improvement," Spreen said. "We get lost because we look at these bigger indicators like class size and textbooks, but we don't really look at teachers' lives and the kind of conditions they teach in and how that effects quality of teaching."