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Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Math, Science Teaching Recruits Are Elusive

Math, Science Teaching Recruits Are Elusive

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Alice F. Artzt, frustrated and dismayed, has spent more than a year searching for college-bound students to take her money.

An associate professor at Queens College at the City University of New York, Ms. Artzt is the kind of person such students and their parents should love--she hands out college scholarships.

"When I started this, I envisioned it as being so easy, like people would jump at this," said Ms. Artzt, who teaches mathematics education.

But she's been "absolutely shocked" that it took her until last month to track down 35 students and five alternates to accept an offer of two years tuition-free at Queens College beginning this fall. Until a few weeks ago, and despite numerous extensions of the deadline and mass mailings, it looked as though she might have five scholarships left with no takers.

She thinks she knows why: The high school students who receive what amounts to $6,400 in tuition waivers must express an interest in becoming high school math teachers. "I have a feeling," Ms. Artzt said, "that when you're really good in math, you have the potential to go into things that make money, and teaching is not known for that."

High school and college students who excel at math and science are the very ones the profession needs to recruit, experts say, pointing to serious current and future projected shortages of teachers in those fields. But it's those same young men and women, and particularly minority students, who have some of the most lucrative and prestigious career opportunities--computers and high technology, medicine, engineering.

"We do, indeed, need a great deal of folks who come to their preparation programs with a deep understanding of the subject," said Barnett Berry, the associate director of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a private organization that advocates the improvement of teacher education and professional development. If teachers don't have that understanding, they're not going to be able to explain the material in enough different ways to draw in all students, said Mr. Berry, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of South Carolina-Columbia.

'Uphill Battle'

The recruiting plight, of course, extends beyond math and science teaching. A study in the May/June issue of the Journal of Teacher Education, published by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and Corwin Press Inc., found few students who wanted to walk in their teachers' shoes. Of 1,537 public high school seniors taking American government in nine Washoe County, Nev., high schools in 1994, just 9.4 percent said they were "very interested" in teaching as a career. Another 26.7 percent said they were "somewhat interested," but nearly two-thirds, or 63.9 percent, said they had no interest.

"It certainly is an uphill battle," said Segun Eubanks, the vice president of recruitment programs and services at Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit group that works to expand and improve the pool of prospective teachers. "Our most talented children, particularly those talented in math and science, are simply not encouraged at all to pursue careers in teaching," he said.

What's worse, he and other educators acknowledge, is that those students are often dissuaded from a teaching career by family members, guidance counselors, even teachers. As Ms. Artzt put it, "Teachers don't sell teaching."

Signs of Resurgence

Some try to foster student interest, however, said Gail Burrill, the immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and an award-winning Wisconsin teacher. She has found success giving high schoolers with teaching talent a taste of the real thing.

"One of the best ways I've found [to] prepare lots of kids to think about going into mathematics teaching," she said, "is when I would be absent or when other teachers in my department would be absent, I would use seniors to teach younger kids."

More than 50 high school projects around the country also strive to point teenagers toward teaching careers. ("High Schoolers Move to the Head of the Class," April 22, 1998.)

Just a few miles from Queens College, an administrator at a high school on Long Island said that in the past couple of years she's actually seen a resurgence in students' interest in teaching.

Dona Schwab, the chairwoman of the guidance department at Long Beach Senior High School in Long Beach, N.Y., said faculty members at her school have stopped discouraging their own children from going into teaching now that salaries are up in Nassau County.

Between 1990 and 1996, the most recent year for which data were available, the median Nassau County teacher salary went up 23 percent to $65,938. That outpaced the statewide rise in those years of 14 percent to $48,000.

And, in another turnaround, the 1,176-student school no longer has to dig deep into the list of lower-ranking seniors to award its 13 college scholarships for graduates going into teaching.

At least one of her students this year is considering math teaching as a career, but Ms. Schwab said she had not heard about Ms. Artzt's Queens College scholarships.

Minorities' Choices

If recruiting high school mathematicians and scientists in general is hard, attracting those students who are also from minority groups is truly daunting.

"It's clearly harder to get minorities," Ms. Burrill said. "They just have so many opportunities. If you're gifted in math and science, you have a huge set of choices."

DeAnna Banks Beane, a project director at the Washington-based Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents science museums nationwide, said she has spent much of her career trying to encourage children of color to go into math- and science-related careers, including teaching.

"In most cases," she said, "families and young people are seeking higher standards of living" than teaching can offer.

Even beyond the salary issue, said Ms. Beane, who is African-American, minority students take into consideration the kinds of supports--scholarships and mentoring--offered to those considering, say, engineering, vs. those available to prospective teachers.

Indeed, only eight of Ms. Artzt's 35 scholarship recipients are members of minority groups--one black student and seven of Asian ancestry.

Of Medicine and Money

Scholarship money made a difference to 17-year-old Edwin A. Ramos, and like a lot of other talented minority students, he had doors flying open.

A math and Latin star who graduated last month from the highly competitive University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill., Mr. Ramos was seriously considering a career in science teaching. He learned last December that he was one of 60 students statewide who had been named Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois. The winners, who commit to teach for five years after they complete their educations, receive college scholarships from the Chicago-based Golden Apple Foundation, which uses state, individual, and corporate donations to honor teachers.

Teaching appealed to Mr. Ramos in part because his father is an educational psychologist and, he said, "I've had very good instructors at my high school. I've always felt indebted to teachers for where I am right now." He said he figured that "a good way to contribute back to the community was to teach."

But in early April, Mr. Ramos, who is of Puerto Rican and Polish heritage, found out he'd won a four-year Navy ROTC scholarship requiring four years of military service after college. Four years of tuition, room, and board at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he'll enroll in the fall, is a stiff $120,000. The Navy offered $96,000 over four years. The Golden Apple was worth about $27,000 over his college career.

Keeping both would have meant a nearly decade-long deferral of his dream to enter medicine, Mr. Ramos said. So he'll take the Navy up on its offer, but return the Golden Apple scholarship with the hope that the program can bestow it on a deserving alternate.

After his Navy hitch, Mr. Ramos plans to become a physician and discover cures for disease among the indigenous peoples of the world's rain forests.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 5

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