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Teacher Shortage: Likely To Get Worse Before It Gets Better

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The already severe shortage of science and mathematics teachers in most parts of the country is expected to grow steadily worse in the next 15 years, experts predict.

The number of new teachers graduating in these fields is expected to dwindle further each year. Last year, an average of only three mathematics teachers and five science teachers graduated from each teacher-training college, according to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

And the "crisis" will be deepened by a gradual rise in the number of school-age children beginning in 1985, by increased graduation requirements in many states, and by an unusually high retirement rate among science and math teachers, the experts say.

There are now about 200,000 teachers of science and mathematics in the nation's classrooms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Most analysts agree that the nation's schools need about 60,000 additional science and math teachers to replace those who are unqualified or minimally qualified and have been hired on emergency waivers.

That need varies widely by region. In Pacific states, the percentage of unqualified teachers reached 84 percent in the 1981-82 school year; in Northeastern states it was at 9 percent, according to NSTA figures.

Between now and the mid-1990's, when the shortage is expected to reach its peak, the schools may need as many as 300,000 additional science and mathematics teachers, according to some educators.

"There is no way we will possibly meet the demand under the present incentive system," says John A. Nelson, dean of the education school at California State University at Long Beach, one of the largest in the country. He adds that high-technology companies in his area immediately siphon off many of his graduates.

Educators also suggest, however, that their pessimistic forecasts could be altered by such variables as increased incentives to enter teaching in these areas, an upturn in the economy, increases in college aid for prospective teachers, or changes in retirement policies.

In the near future, the trend to increase graduation requirements in science and mathematics may exacerbate the shortage. More than half the states have passed or are considering increased requirements at the high-school level. If schools raised their requirements by one year in each subject, 68,000 more teachers would be required nationally, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said in a speech early this year.

In addition, by the 1990's, two significant demographic trends will converge to create a serious shortage, the experts project.

One of these is school enrollments. Increases will begin at the elementary level in about 1985 and will reach the middle- and secondary-school levels starting in about 1992, according to Valena Plisko, an NCES editor and statistician. Total enrollment is expected to increase by about 2 percent, or about 400,000 children, annually for about 15 years, predicts Ms. Plisko.

The enrollment increases are expected to exceed 2 percent per year in the Southeast, the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest, the Plains, and the Northwest states—30-percent annual increases are forecast for Utah and Wyoming—according to the nces data. But enrollment in the Mideast states is expected to continue to decline, and in the Northeast and Great Lakes states, trends will be mixed.

About 200,000 new elementary-school teachers will be needed as early as 1990, according to NCES projections, and that need will reach secondary schools by 1995.

A "retirement bulge" is the second factor expected to compound the shortage. The average age of the nation's science and mathematics teachers is 41, according to a survey by the science teachers' association. By 1995, at least 40 percent of the present 200,000 mathematics and science teachers will be retired, predicts the NSTA "We'll be hit by a double-whammy—by the retirement bulge and the increase in enrollment," says Stanley Hecker, professor of administration at Michigan State University's college of education.

The enrollment increase will not reach the college level until about 1997, says Ms. Plisko of NCES. At that point, it may increase the number of college students who choose teaching careers.

The combination of demographic change and increased requirements could mean at least 300,000 new teachers would be needed in mathematics and science by 1995, according to NSTA officials. These teachers could be recruited from outside the profession or retrained from within, they said.

In an era of declining revenues, spokesmen for teacher-training institutions and school districts express pessimism about the financial implications of the shortage.

For example, Mr. Nelson of the California State University foresees years of financial losses ahead for institutions that continue to offer mathematics methodology courses. His school regularly runs methodology classes with enrollments of only six or seven students, although it takes 25 in a class to break even, he says.

At large schools like Long Beach—which last year graduated six mathematics teachers out of a total of 1,500 education graduates—such losses can be cushioned by over-enrolling other classes, Mr. Nelson says, but few smaller colleges can afford special classes for a handful of students, he warns.

In the nearby Los Angeles Unified School District, Rosalyn Heyman, assistant superintendent for secondary education, is also concerned about costs. She points out that proposed new graduation standards in mathematics and science would require the addition of 283 new teachers in her district and would cost about $6 million, including salaries, fringe benefits, and supplies.

Such costs, says Ms. Heyman, are "unthinkable"; if the new requirements go into effect, the district will meet the need by retraining teachers from other fields.

For many other districts, says Mr. Hecker of Michigan State, retraining older teachers is "the only hope."

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