Bills To Solve Math-Science 'Crisis' Said Inadequate for Long-Term Needs
Washington--Educators meeting here last week expressed doubt that current proposals in Congress and before state and local governments and school boards will provide an adequate long-term solution to the perceived national weakness in science and mathematics education.
"The problem is not knowing what the problems ... are. The problem is our response," said James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (aaas).
"Sensing that a national crisis confronts us," Mr. Rutherford said, "we demand that something be done right away. Is the problem the shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers? Then pay them more than other teachers. Is it that they are out of date? Then send them back to college for a few weeks to brush up."
In true American style, Mr. Rutherford told those attending a conference sponsored by the Council on Basic Education, educators and government officials are rushing to find "easy answers" to a complex situation. The solutions being devised, he said, are "fragmented, unsystematic, underfinanced, and old hat."
In all likelihood, Mr. Rutherford said, "we will spend too little money," and "we'll spend it too fast and in the wrong way."
Even U.S. Representative Dave McCurdy, Democrat of Oklahoma, who helped write the recently approved House bill that would allocate $425-million to improve mathematics and science education in schools and colleges, said that "Congress has acted quickly, perhaps too quickly." He noted that the result might be that--after the bill makes its way through the Senate--the Congress will "wipe its hands and say [it has] solved the problem" and overlook remaining initiatives that will need to be taken.
One of these remaining initiatives, Mr. McCurdy said, is a bill he is sponsoring, HR 836, that would give tax credits to businesses that allow workers to teach.
Mr. Rutherford said the amount of money needed to provide adequate training and revitalization of mathematics and science teachers is "several orders of magnitude" higher than the $425 million proposed by Congress. He said it would take "billions of dollars" for two million teachers to participate in satisfactory courses and summer programs.
But the problem is not simply one of finding more teachers, according to Katherine K. Merseth, special assistant to the dean of institutional planning at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. "If by some divine intervention we suddenly had an infusion of 25,000 new math and science teachers--roughly a 10-percent increase above present levels, the current condition of math and science education would ... not [be] solved," she argued.
Ms. Merseth said the shortage of mathematics and science teachers is also one of "quality." And both problems, she said, are compounded by a salary structure in which "the competent and the incompetent collect the same paycheck" and long-time teachers do not earn much more than new teachers; those factors make the incentive to leave the profession for other jobs increasingly strong over time, she said. She also noted that negative views of the teaching profession--held by teachers themselves and by the public at large--as well as changes in the labor force will make it difficult to attract young people into the field.
Educators attending the conference disagreed over the desirability of using financial incentives to attract and retain good mathematics and science teachers.
Mira Baptiste, executive director of the employee development department for the Houston Independent School District, described the district's plan to provide $2,000 in additional salary to teachers who teach "critical subjects" such as mathematics or physical sciences and $2,000 to those who teach in "critical locations" such as the inner city. The Houston district, she said, also has a program that provides a stipend of $200 for every six hours of additional university course work completed by teachers. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1981.)
Most educators seemed to think that the Houston plan is "peculiar" to oil-rich Texas, where there are no teachers' unions to protest "special pay" for a limited group.
"Sweetening the pot for a limited number of teachers is politically unacceptable to teachers' unions," commented Paul du Vair, a science teacher from Madison, Wis., who is a past president of the Wisconsin Education Association.
Mr. du Vair said incentive-pay proposals are possible only "where unions are weak" and "the authority of middle-level managers, such as principals, is strong."
Mr. Rutherford of the aaas argued that since people tend to make career choices on the basis of starting salaries rather than the overall pay schedule, school districts should boost minimium salaries. This, he said, would create a "big pulse" of new teachers entering the school system. Those dissatisfied with the limited range of salary increases over the long haul could leave, while those who like teaching would choose to stay, Mr. Rutherford said.
'Raising False Hopes'
Robert T. Williams, associate dean of the School of Education at North Carolina State University, disagreed. Proposals to raise starting salaries across-the-board, he noted, do a "disservice" to teachers by "diverting thinking and efforts" and by "raising false hopes."
"Administrators who are about to break new ground, such as financial-incentive plans, must have the understanding and support of their policymakers if they expect to survive the controversies that their proposals will generate," he said.
Mr. Williams said solving the teacher-shortage problem is not "an either-or situation." Schools will have to add more teachers and work hard to find incentives to retain them.
A December 1982 study conducted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (aacte) indicated, he said, that incentive pay was last among a list of solutions that are being introduced to alleviate teacher shortages in mathematics and the physical sciences nationwide.
The most common practices to alleviate the shortage, the aacte researchers found, were:
Providing emergency or provisional certification with the approval of state agencies.
Recruiting teachers from other fields.
Increasing class size.
Recruiting teachers from other states.
Utilizing noncertified teachers, such as technologically trained workers, retired military personnel, and recent college graduates without formal teacher training.
Canceling 11th- or 12th-grade elective courses.
Changing the time schedule of courses. For example, a five-days-a-week class can be made into a three-day-a-week class.
Arranging for emergency or provisional certification without state-agency involvement.
Providing incentives, such as salary supplements.
Mr. Williams argued that educators "may be overemphasizing" the movement of mathematics and science teachers to private industry. Many teachers leave the classroom to take other jobs in the school sys-tem, he said, such as counselors and principals, or they teach in other fields.
Teaching in Other Fields
He cited statistics from a recent study of 2,500 former mathematics and science teachers in North Carolina. The study indicated that 1,315 former mathematics and science teachers chose to teach in other fields, 837 became principals, 163 became guidance counselors, 105 went to work in school libraries, and 55 chose other jobs.
But, according to Ms. Merseth of Harvard: "A survey of mathematics and physics teachers from upper-middle and middle-class suburbs of Boston indicated that within the next two years, six out of 10 mathematics teachers hope to find other jobs outside of education while 13 out of 19 physics teachers plan to leave teaching completely. Many of these individuals hope to enter the high-tech corporations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire."
The educators at the conference agreed that it was "futile and unrealistic" to attempt to make teacher salaries commensurate with those offered by private industry.
But Mr. Rutherford said that although salaries cannot match private-sector pay, they should at least be equal to "the salary levels of all other public-service jobs" such as firemen and policemen.
Mr. Rutherford said salaries could also be raised by about 20 percent by lengthening the number of days in the school year from 180 to 210 or 220, and by employing teachers for the entire year. Schools should be more creative and more flexible in combating the teacher shortage, the educators said.
Jack A. Gerlovich, science consultant for the Iowa Department of Public Instruction, described a system in Iowa in which college teachers provide physics lessons through teleconferences that link the University of Iowa to 10 rural schools in the state. (See Education Week, March 2, 1983.)
Other solutions involve alternatives in the use of class time.
"There's nothing in the stars that says a teacher can't teach one class a day, or that a subject has to be taught all year or not all, or five times a day or not at all," Mr. Rutherford said. Physics, he said, can be taught two times a week year after year.
One of the most controversial ideas for alleviating the teacher shortage was that presented by James W. Wilson, head of the mathematics department at the University of Georgia.
Mr. Wilson noted that since schools have "upgraded [their] preparation of mathematics-teacher candidates to the point that they can get jobs outside of teaching ... an obvious 'solution' [would be] to cut back on our demands for content preparation of teachers to the point where they will no longer be competitive for nonteaching jobs."
The idea sounds "insidious," he said, but Georgia and other states have seriously advanced the plan. He noted that "with the wholesale assignment of certified nonmathematics teachers and noncertified mathematics teachers to mathematics, are we not in fact lowering certification requirements?"
Mr. Rutherford countered that although the notion of lowering standards may have some appeal, it is better "not to teach a course than use unqualified teachers."
Vol. 02, Issue 31