Higher Education

Recruiting and retaining math teachers

(Courtesy Milken Family Foundation)

Good math teachers are hard to find. Some school districts have resorted to recruiting math teachers from overseas, while others have offered perks such as signing bonuses, housing assistance and student loan forgiveness.

In attempting to address the shortage of math teachers, much of the focus has been on recruiting – providing financial incentives, alternative routes to certification or programs to attract career-changers.

But Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education and sociology, generated discussion with a 2009 study concluding that while there are widespread school staffing problems, they aren’t simply due to a lack of new math teachers. The problem, Ingersoll says, is poor working conditions – particularly at schools serving impoverished populations – that cause teachers to leave long before retirement age. In 1999-2000, the most recent year for which Ingersoll had data, 8,021 math teachers entered the field, twice as many as the number who retired (3,915). But a total of 13,750 math teachers left the profession that year (including retirees).

“We actually produce enough folks,” Ingersoll says. “It’s just that the turnover is such that we have these staffing problems in particular types of schools.”

Secondary schools in high-poverty areas, both urban and rural, have the most trouble finding and keeping math teachers. “Almost every urban area has massive challenges and problems,” says Henry Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). “The rural areas, it’s almost a disaster for math.”

The NCTM maintains that secondary math teachers should have the equivalent of a major in mathematics, but many do not. Some enter classrooms after only a few weeks of review in an alternative certification program and then begin work on master’s degrees while teaching.

As for elementary teachers, who are often trained as generalists in colleges of education, many mathematicians believe that most current math preparation is grossly inadequate. A 2008 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) evaluated the elementary education programs at 77 colleges and universities and found that “almost anyone” can get through the math requirements. Even the people teaching math to elementary teacher candidates often are “not professionally equipped to do so,” the report said.

The NCTQ recommends that aspiring elementary teachers demonstrate proficiency through at least geometry and Algebra II before being admitted to education school.

Many schools have hired math specialists to make up for teachers’ shortfalls, according to a 2008 report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel – although the panel “found no high-quality research showing that the use of any of these types of math specialist teachers improves students’ learning.”

The panel recommended that “research be conducted on the use of full-time mathematics teachers in elementary schools. These would be teachers with strong knowledge of mathematics who would teach mathematics full-time to several classrooms of students, rather than teaching many subjects to one class, as is typical in most elementary classrooms.”

Some universities and nonprofit organizations continue working to recruit new, qualified math teachers. For example, UTeach, at the University of Texas at Austin, has gained national attention. The program places math and science majors in education classes – they take the first two UTeach courses tuition-free – and gives them student-teaching experience as early as their first year of college. The program has been replicated at 13 other universities.

For recent college graduates and career-changers, Math for America is also growing, having expanded from New York to four other cities. It pays for fellows to spend a year earning master’s degrees in education and provides stipends of up to $100,000 over five years (on top of normal teaching salaries), plus professional development opportunities.

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