Doubts Cast on Math, Science Teaching Lures

By Sean Cavanagh — July 31, 2007 7 min read
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Few strategies for luring more students and working adults into math and science teaching have proved as popular among elected officials as financial incentives, which try to make one of the least appealing aspects of the job—low pay—a little less daunting.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering a number of bills that would expand existing incentives, such as scholarships and loan forgiveness for aspiring educators, and create new monetary inducements. Dozens of states, meanwhile, already offer their own incentives for teachers in subjects with shortages, including mathematics and science.

But those who have studied financial incentives say evidence is scant that they are attracting substantial numbers of college students and career-changers to math and science teaching, despite years of investments in those programs.

Opinions vary on why incentives have not shown greater results. Some believe the money available is relatively insignificant when weighed against potential job candidates’ worries about poor salaries and working conditions. Others say the hodgepodge of federal, state, and local incentives is so fragmented that few potential teachers are aware of what’s available.

“There’s been virtually no research on how effective [these] options are,” said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We ought to be making decisions about these programs based on something more than what might be effective, and instead base it on empirical evidence.”

Yet backers of incentives believe they can offer an important carrot for college students and for people already in the work world. Even if that extra money is of secondary importance to job candidates, it can make the teaching profession more appealing to math and science majors who are likely to have more lucrative options in the private sector.

Teaching for Dollars

In addition to the myriad state financial-incentive programs, the federal government oversees a number of monetary hooks to recruit and retain teachers in high-need fields, including math and science:

The Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, administered by the National Science Foundation, offers scholarships of $10,000 annually, for two years, to students majoring in math- and sciencerelated fields, as well as to working professionals.

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, signed into law in 2006 and administered by the U.S. Department of Education, makes teachers of math, science, and special education eligible for up to $17,500 of loan repayment.

Teachers of math and science also can have up to 100 percent of their Perkins Loans canceled, with the amounts depending on years of service in the classroom.

The federal Transition to Teaching program provides money to school districts and colleges to pay for financial incentives of up to $5,000, total, to midcareer professionals, including paraprofessionals, interested in becoming trained as teachers in high-need schools.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; National Science Foundation

Anna M. Swenty, 26, credits an incentive program with having changed her thinking about teaching.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Missouri-Columbia three years ago, Ms. Swenty was considering graduate school and research jobs, but those career paths seemed too specialized. It wasn’t until she learned about the federal Robert Noyce Scholarship Program that the idea of teaching began to take hold.

The program, which is financed through the National Science Foundation at about $9 million a year, provided her with a total of $10,000 to return to school and earn a teaching certificate. In return, she agreed to work in a high-poverty school. She now teaches biology and earth science at Narrows High School in western Virginia.

“It was a godsend,” Ms. Swenty said of the scholarship. “I was worried about going into debt. … No one ever told me in my [undergraduate] program that teaching was a viable option.”

Financial Hook

Noyce money flows to colleges and universities, which give it to qualified applicants: college majors in math and science subjects who want to go into teaching, and working professionals with expertise in those areas. The program’s effectiveness is being evaluated, a process that is expected to be complete next year, said Joan T. Prival, the program’s lead director at the NSF. Separate bills approved by the House and the Senate would expand the program.

House lawmakers also recently approved a bill that would provide scholarships of as much as $16,000 to college students who agree to work in high-need subjects in schools serving large numbers of low-income students A measure that cleared the Senate this month would tie loan forgiveness to teachers’ income levels and lengths of service.

Low pay is just one of the factors that most frustrate teachers about their profession. Surveys show lack of administrative support and poor working conditions are of equal or greater concern.

Schools nationwide struggle to find qualified teachers in math and science. About 36 percent of secondary school math classes are taught by teachers who lack even a minor in math or a related subject, compared with 24 percent in all core academic subjects, according to the Education Trust, a Washington-based policy organization.

The pressure on schools to find teaching talent is likely to grow. About one-third of today’s teaching corps is expected to retire by 2010, according to one estimate. And the United States will need about 280,000 new teachers in math and science by 2015, a recent report says.

Although he believes financial incentives can make a difference to potential teachers, Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., said pay plans that offer higher salaries to math and science teachers have greater potential, because they bring educators’ yearly pay closer to those of jobs in the private sector.

“It doesn’t have to be equal” to other professions, he said, “but they have to be able to play in that marketplace.”

But grants and scholarships have proved more politically palatable in states than such differential-pay plans or pay-for-performance proposals, which tie teacher compensation to student achievement, said Tricia Coulter, the director of the teaching-quality and leadership institute at the Education Commission of the States, a research organization in Denver.

Thirty-one states have financial incentives for recruiting and retaining teachers, the ECS estimates. They vary in size and scope. Kansas offers $5,000 a year to college juniors and seniors who agree to become teachers in high-need subjects, including math and science.

During the 2006-07 academic year, the state awarded 248 scholarships, 45 of which went to math and science teachers, said Diane Lindeman, the director of student financial assistance for the Kansas board of regents. The state spent $778,000 on scholarships during that year.

The program helped only a small fraction of the number of teachers needed to fill math and science vacancies, Ms. Lindeman acknowledged. “There are so many factors in this other than just throwing money at people for going to college,” she said. “You’ve got to have the people who are actually eligible to do this and want to do this.”

Little Advertised?

Kansas’ scholarships require recipients to teach at a public or private school in the state for at least two years. About 40 percent of awardees in the most recent recorded year did not complete their obligation because they moved out of state or lost interest in teaching, among other reasons. Awardees who do not fulfill that obligation must repay the scholarships. Recouping money from those who renege can be a cumbersome process, Ms. Lindeman said.

Some policy experts warn that incentives can have the unintended effect of encouraging new teachers who lack the necessary talent or enthusiasm for the job to stay to meet financial commitments.

“You lock in some people who you probably do not want to be teaching,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Several observers said a greater flaw is that aspiring teachers do not have a single source to tell them about the available federal and state incentives—a common problem in financial aid. A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., would require the federal government to set up a database of public and private scholarships in math- and science-related fields.

“There’s a whole lot of stuff out there, but people kind of stumble across it,” said Margaret E. Heisel, a lead coordinator for the California Teach/Science Math Initiative, a program aimed at recruiting educators into the profession. Students, she said, need a system that tells them that “if you are interested in math or science teaching, we have a way of making sure you don’t have a lot of debt at the end of college.”

The UC and California State University systems in 2005 announced a plan to try to raise the number of math and science teachers who graduate from their collective teacher programs from 1,000 to 2,500 a year. The systems, with private-sector support, offer a host of financial incentives to teachers, including waiving up to $19,000 in college loans.

One state program that appears to have achieved some success is in North Carolina, where teachers of math, science, or special education in high-poverty or academically struggling schools were given an extra $1,800 a year, according to a 2006 study by researchers at Duke University. Turnover among those teachers fell by 12 percent from 2001 to 2004, and might have fallen more if the program, which the state eliminated in 2004 for lack of legislative support, had been better understood by teachers, researchers found.

Many state incentive programs “are new, and they’re relatively small in scale,” said James Brown, the co-chairman of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Caucus, a Washington-based group that is backing federal legislation to expand incentives.

“The states are grappling with this just as the federal government is, and it’s going to take a while to get it right,” Mr. Brown said. “The problem is large enough that you need a national role that will get national attention.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.


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