To the Editor:
Your May 18, 2005, Commentary “Choosing the Lesser of Two Inequities,” by Gary W. Ritter and Christopher J. Lucas, misattributes the root cause of the scarcity of qualified math and science teachers in inner-city schools, and hence proposes solutions that may not solve the actual problem. Pay differentials based on disciplines of expertise would be an ineffective and fundamentally unfair policy.
On the most pragmatic level, where would urban districts obtain the funds to pay higher salaries to math and science teachers? Given their limited resources, a problem that will only be compounded by the outflow of funds as students leave public schools to attend privately operated charter schools, should these districts penalize English teachers and ask them to take salary cuts so their counterparts teaching the “right” subjects can earn more? If they do, will inner-city districts then have fewer English teachers? Is that something we want?
How can we force teachers in overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated facilities to produce the same results as those in affluent suburban schools? Poor teaching efficacy in inner-city schools is found not just in the fields of math and science, but in other disciplines as well. The problem lies in the lack of funding in poor school districts. Teaching math and science, subjects that often require the use of costly equipment, is more expensive than teaching English, and consequently more logistically and financially problematic in poor inner-city schools than in wealthy suburban schools.
Messrs. Ritter and Lucas conclude that the relatively higher “opportunity costs” of teaching such subjects lead to the dire scarcity of math and science teachers. This is a scarcity not confined to inner-city teaching, however, but extending to all professional areas of math and science.
Empirical studies repeatedly show that this country is failing to produce adequate numbers of math and science professionals. If such studies hold only a grain of truth, the question then becomes: Is the scarcity simply because we do not have enough math and science teachers overall? Perhaps we are not successfully encouraging our young people in math and science.
Messrs. Ritter and Lucas set up a false dichotomy by forcing the reader to choose between teachers’ pay differentials and student learning gaps. The real questions to ask are whether we should use our limited resources to make some teachers worth more than others, or whether we should try to lift conditions across the board.
Alicia Yang Cao