Teacher-Shortage Realities Seen Thwarting Reform
At 2,278-student Plant City (Fla.) High School, located just east of Tampa, instructors of home economics and vocational education are teaching science this year, though they have little or no training in the subject.
The reason for the change in assignments, according to the chairman of Plant City's science department, Ralph Aversa, is this: The Florida legislature, as part of an effort to raise requirements in four core subjects, declared in 1982 that as of next spring, a student must earn three Carnegie units in science in order to graduate from a high school in the state--and Plant City has not been able to find enough qualified teachers for the extra classes formed to meet the new requirement.
In the name of "excellence," virtually all of the states--48 by the last count of the U.S. Education Department--have recent-ly rewritten or are planning to rewrite their graduation requirements. Most have followed the recommendation of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that students be made to spend more time studying the so-called "New Basics"--mathematics, science, English, social studies, and, to a lesser extent, computer liter-acy. The reshaping of graduation requirements in this way has become a cornerstone of school-reform plans nationwide.
But there are indications that efforts to increase students' exposure to core academic subjects may be jeopardized by the absence of capable teachers in many of the additional classes being created to accomplish that goal.
The rules governing the teaching workforce, the tendency of school systems to fill vacancies on the basis of convenience and cost savings, and the apparent inability so far of incentive programs to lure significant numbers of new candidates into teaching have already begun, some educators say, to undermine recently enacted mandates in some states.
These circumstances are now affecting the fields of mathematics and science, where increased competition from business and industry had already created shortages of teachers.
But some states, including Florida, are also projecting school-reform-related shortages within the next few years in English and social studies, areas where there has been a surplus of teachers in recent years. The extent of such shortages nationally will probably not become clear for several years, when new graduation requirements are in place in all the states that have recently enacted them.
The U.S. Education Department predicts, moreover, that one million new teachers will be needed nationwide between 1986 and 1990 just to replace existing teachers and to meet projected enrollment growth.
"What I see coming is a higher quantity but a lower quality of instruction in subjects like mathematics and science," said Robert S. Lumsden, director of mathematics, science, and computer education for the Florida Department of Education. "Any time you have poor teachers, you risk giving students a bad impression of the subject. So what's the point of giving students more science if they end up hating it?"
Educators at all levels in states where graduation requirements have been readjusted report that many underqualified and unqualified teachers are moving into newly created mathematics and science classes.
One reason for this, they say, is that widely adopted and much-publicized programs offering financial incentives to would-be mathematics and science teachers have not been as successful as expected in the few states where they have already been put in place.
"It hasn't made an impact yet on the numbers in the mathematics- and science-education programs. We're probably just financing those who would go into it anyway," said Akeel Zaheer, director of the incentive program in Kentucky. Under that state's program, individuals training or retraining to be math or science teachers are eligible for a "forgivable" college loan of $1,250 for each semester they agree to teach in a Kentucky public school after graduation.
According to Mr. Akeel, who noted that the state plans to publicize the incentive effort more widely, 350 teachers have been trained or retrained under the program, now in its third year.
In Florida, officials have been unable to find enough applicants for a similar project launched last January. The state legislature appropriated funds for 150 loans of $4,000 an-nually, but 30 of this year's loans remain unclaimed. Officials attribute this, in part, to the newness of the program.
In some cases, the gap is being filled by increasing the workload of those already on school faculties.
Many school systems in Florida have taken advantage of an optional program passed by the legislature to expand their school day to seven periods. At Leon High School in Tallahassee, this has meant that science and mathematics teachers teach an average of 175 students in six periods, compared with 145 students in five periods. The school's principal, J. Michael Conley, said the increased load has been such a burden on teachers that "we are reaching the point of diminishing returns."
Says Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association about the new course loads: "Preparation time is down to almost nothing, labs are being cut out, and there is virtually no time for individual instruction."
Unable to staff the growing number of mathematics and science courses with new teachers, many school systems have resorted to filling positions with teachers trained in other subjects.
"The shortage of math teachers is unbelievable, and the people filling those slots are being transferred from other fields," says Nicholas J. Rubino, program director of mathematics for the Boston Public Schools. "In general, students suffer tremendously when that happens."
According to Mr. Aldridge, mathematics and science positions are filled with teachers from outside those areas on a "massive scale" nationwide.
Lax Certification Standards
School systems are able to shift untrained or inadequately trained teachers from one subject into another because lax state-certification standards allow them to, educators say.
Fifteen states allow any teacher to teach any subject, regardless of his or her background. The home-economics teacher in Plant City, for example, is teaching science under a Florida provision that allows schools to employ teachers "out of field" for one year. North Carolina, one of the states with similar regulations, will end the practice for most teachers next July.
Many others permit the practice in certain grades, especially in junior high school. For instance, any teacher in Michigan with an elementary or high-school license can teach any 7th- or 8th-grade course in any subject, according to Robert Trezise, the state's acting director of teacher preparation and certification.
"It's a major problem," he said. "In some cases, people are being assigned to science and mathematics classes with no background in those subjects at all."
Even in states where it is stipulated that transferred teachers must have college training in each of the subjects they teach, the state requirements are often so modest that they do little to ensure a reasonable standard of competence among teachers, those who are concerned about the situation argue.
In Michigan, as in many states, a teacher must have earned 20 semester-hours of credit to teach a high-school subject.
"The problem is that a person could have picked up the credits as a minor in college 30 years ago and never taught the subject," Mr. Trezise said. "In subjects like science, the field changes in that amount of time."
"Not only are the standards excessively low," added Mr. Aldridge, ''they are bad. States grant science credit, for example, for all kinds of peripheral things, such as photography or electronics."
Some jurisdictions, such as the Fairfax County, Va., school district, sponsor what are considered to be extensive and successful retraining programs for teachers switching from one field into another.
But too often, educators say, those transferred from other subjects are not interested in retraining and, they add, little money is available to support such work.
"If you go to school to study math, you love the subject," said Boston's Mr. Rubino. "But if you are teaching the subject just to keep a job, then it becomes a burdensome task."
He noted that last summer he had arranged for teachers recently moved into mathematics positions to attend a voluntary, four-week workshop at Harvard University, for which participants would receive graduate credit from Harvard. He said he had to cancel the class for a lack of interest.
In some cases, certification standards that were designed to ensure the competence of teachers appear to discourage talented prospects from entering the profession.
Gary R. Knight is a graduate student in biology at Florida State University, where he has worked as a teaching assistant. He was interested, he said, in teaching part time this fall at Leon High School. "I like teaching and I knew there was a shortage of teachers in the sciences and wanted to help out," he said.
Mr. Conley, the principal at Leon, wanted to hire Mr. Knight. "He had good credentials and he interviewed well," he said. Although Mr. Knight has amassed dozens of credit-hours in the sciences, has taught at the college level, and has expressed a willingness to take pedagogy courses once he started teaching, he was prohibited by the local school system from taking the job because he did not have a Florida certificate, which allows those with as few as 21 hours of credit in a subject to teach it at the high-school level.
"The regulation requires that you have to take a certified person if one is available, even though you feel another candidate has more experience and is better qualified, as was the case [with Mr. Knight]," Mr. Conley said. He added that the person who ended up filling the position is capable.
Because states and school systems deem any teacher to be qualified who meets the minimum standards, estimates of the number of underqualified teachers are too low, say Mr. Aldridge and others.
"Most people talk about the shortage as a personnel issue or as a response to calls for public account-ability," said Ran Coble, director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, which two years ago published a study on out-of-field teaching in North Carolina. "The discussion is not framed in terms of whether the people they are putting in the classrooms are qualifed to teach."
Low certification requirements and provisions for out-of-field teaching often allow school systems to transfer less-senior faculty members with lower salaries into shortage areas, rather than hire more expensive, experienced people from outside the school system to staff those classes.
"There's been a lot of talk of bringing in experienced people from industry to teach math and science," said Leo Klagholtz, director of teacher preparation and certification in New Jersey. "These people have been applying, but not all of them have been able to get jobs. Some districts would rather move a junior English teacher to math at $14,000 a year than pay $24,000 to hire a highly qualified person from Hoffmann-LaRoche [a pharmaceutical company]. Districts are using a lot of mirrors--are they ever."
Beginning next September, New Jersey teachers will be prohibited from teaching any subject unless they meet the qualifications for a major in that subject. That means they will need at least 30 college credits or work experience to pass a state test in the subject, and to either have had pedagogical courses or take them on the job.
"I think we've closed the door tightly on transferring teachers from subject to subject," Mr. Klagholtz said. "Now school districts are going to have to beat the bushes for teachers."
The National Science Teachers Association is also moving to reduce the number of underqualified or unqualified teachers being placed in science classes. In January, a committee of the organization will propose a plan for the nsta to certify teachers itself. According to Mr. Aldridge, the association plans to set rigorous standards for the science teachers it endorses, then pressure local school systems--through letters to school-board members and local media, for example--to insist that their teachers meet the standards.
Educators agree, however, that small school systems that lack resources need a degree of flexibility in staffing.
Seniority rules are also coming into play in the scramble to staff newly required courses, educators say.
As states increase their graduation requirements in core subjects, many are also reducing requirements in other areas, such as physical education, vocational education, art, and music.
Many teachers in these areas meet the minimum state-certification requirements in the subjects in which enrollment is growing and, under union contracts and by tradition, are given the opportunity to teach them.
"The teacher with seniority often gets the position, even if it is well known that he or she is less well qualified," Mr. Trezise said.
According to Mr. Zaheer of the Kentucky Department of Education, some recipients of that state's incentive loans in mathematics and science have applied for jobs that were eventually filled by teachers, under local seniority provisions, from outside of mathematics and science.
"It's a head-on conflict with the idea of higher standards," said Mr. Klaghotz.
According to officials of teachers' unions, the principle of seniority is also used in hiring and firing decisions in most school systems and states where collective-bargaining laws and contracts do not exist.
In extreme instances, capable teachers already in the classroom are forced out by less-experienced but more-senior colleagues. This has happened in areas such as the Northeast and the Midwest, where teachers' unions are strong and shifting curriculum priorities have been accompanied by budget cuts and declines in high-school enrollments.
For example, Boston fired 25 mathematics teachers 18 months ago to make room for an equal number of teachers from other fields with less expertise and experience in the subject but with more seniority, according to Mr. Rubino and Harold A. Miner, associate professor of education at Northeastern University.
In the Saginaw (Mich.) Township Community Schools, a school system of 5,450 students where enrollment has dropped sharply in recent years, a teacher with two master's degrees in chemistry and 12 years of experience as an instructor of the subject is now teaching homemaking.
Although she was described by the Saginaw superintendent of schools as "outstanding," she was "bumped" out of her chemistry position by a colleague with more seniority who majored in physical education in college and has spent most of his teaching career as a coach and health instructor. He was certified under Michigan regulations as a chemistry teacher after having minored in the subject in college, and thus was able to claim a chemistry position.
The Saginaw Township superintendent, Gerald S. DeGrow, said recently that he considered the teacher who was bumped to have "more recent and better experience teaching chemistry" than the individual who replaced her. "Seniority," he said, "is really creating problems."