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Math Group Tries to Help Young Teachers Stay the Course

By Sean Cavanagh — May 06, 2008 6 min read
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Worried about the annual exodus of young teachers from the profession, a major association of math educators is making a fresh effort to help a new crop cope with the common frustrations of the job and make a long-term career of it.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics cannot directly influence some of the factors that steer young educators out of the classroom, such as low pay, poor working conditions, or lack of planning time.

But leaders of the 100,000-member association are trying to ease new teachers’ transition in other ways—particularly by helping them master new or difficult math content, manage their classrooms effectively, and know where to go for resources.

For the first time, the NCTM organized an entire schedule of seminars at its annual meeting, held here last month, specifically to provide preservice and new teachers with counsel in those areas. Those sessions, aimed at teachers at all grade levels, focused on content-heavy topics, such as teaching ratio and proportions, as well as broader issues, such as motivating students in math.

NCTM officials had noticed that more inexperienced math teachers attending the organization’s meetings were requesting that sort of help, said James M. Rubillo, the group’s executive director. The organization surveyed aspiring and new educators and organized professional-development sessions around those needs.

The message is that “in spite of what they hear in the press, people can be in this profession for years and be energized,” Mr. Rubillo said. “The main challenge in the field is to make the early-career period positive. We’re trying to [foster] an injection of positive.”

NCTM officials and others see major challenges to maintaining a well-qualified workforce in math and science teaching in the years ahead.

The Business-Higher Education Forum, a Washington-based coalition of corporate, collegiate, and philanthropic leaders, has estimated that 280,000 new math and science teachers would be needed between the time the group issued its report in 2005 and the 2014-15 academic year. That figure was based on projected increases in student enrollment, as well as requirements for decreasing student- to-teacher ratios. It did not take into account the burden of new state math and course requirements.

In-School Counsel

Mr. Rubillo, like many professionals familiar with teaching trends, believes retaining existing teachers is the key to maintaining and strengthening the math workforce.

About 16 percent of all math teachers leave the profession annually, roughly the same proportion that abandons English teaching and higher than the share—13 percent—that leaves science teaching, according to an analysis of 2004-05 numbers by Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The problem, Mr. Ingersoll noted, is not so much that math and science teachers leave in larger numbers than their peers in others subjects; it’s that their losses are more strongly felt because the U.S. system does not produce enough new ones. “There’s not [a] surplus of math and science teachers,” Mr. Ingersoll said, “so that turnover matters.”

The quality and size of the math and science teaching force have been a big focus of many U.S. business and policy leaders in recent years, who see effective teaching in those subjects as crucial to maintaining a competent American workforce overall.

Among math teachers who choose to leave the classroom, research suggests that working conditions and professional challenges weigh heavily in their thinking. Of math teachers who left their schools because of job dissatisfaction, 68 percent cited having too little preparation time as a source of concern, Mr. Ingersoll found. Sixty percent of those math teachers cited pay as a factor in leaving.

Among those seeking help at this year’s NCTM conference was Allison Duncan, 26, of Uintah Elementary School in Ogden, Utah. One of her struggles in the classroom this year, her first teaching, has been scheduling lessons: how to fit in all the math content she’s supposed to cover, particularly when unexpected events—a student assembly or student struggles with a concept—tie her up.

She’s also adjusting to working with students of vastly different ability levels. The high math achievers seem to fly through material, such as fractions, saying, “I get that, and I get that,” Ms. Duncan said, snapping her fingers. Other students labor to keep up. She’s found that using manipulatives, or hands-on objects—a strategy reinforced during sessions at the conference—can help present math visually.

Ms. Duncan has in-school counsel that many young math educators surely would covet. A teacher who works specifically with struggling learners often visits her classroom and gives her fresh math techniques when the novice’s lessons aren’t clicking.

“She’ll often step in and say, ‘What about this way?’ ” Ms. Duncan said. Some of those strategies, she added, end up helping better students, too.

Student Chapters

Another major professional organization, the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., has also increased its efforts to help young educators in recent years.

With the aim of reducing the number of teachers leaving the field, the 58,000-member organization last year launched a new science teachers’ academy, which provides entry-level middle and high school educators with professional development and mentoring. It is backed with a $3 million grant from the Amgen Foundation of Thousand Oaks, Calif., which supports numerous science education efforts.

The goal with new science teachers “is to get them better, faster, and then to have them stay longer in the profession,” said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the NSTA.

In an attempt to provide young teachers with more immediate help, the NSTA in 2001 established student chapters on college campuses to encourage educators-in-training to share ideas and concerns that will help them as they enter the profession. Those chapters are now located on 115 campuses nationwide.

Both Mr. Rubillo and Mr. Wheeler acknowledge that providing resources to young educators is an effective way to lure new dues-paying members to their organizations. But while Mr. Wheeler says the NSTA’s biggest growth comes from new teachers, he also notes that they bring in less revenue, because the organization charges them less than half the organization’s normal $74 annual fee.

Extra Pay

Some supporters of math and science education believe that paying new and veteran educators in those subjects more could encourage them to join the profession and stay. But many researchers say there is little evidence that such incentives, at least to date, are effective in accomplishing that goal. (“Doubts Cast on Math, Science Teaching Lures,” Aug. 1, 2007.)

Mr. Wheeler favors the idea of paying science teachers more, which he says would make schools more competitive with private-sector employers.

The math teachers’ association has no position on the issue, Mr. Rubillo said. One concern is that pay incentives might favor wealthier school districts, while those with fewer resources would continue to struggle to attract and keep talent, he said.

Mary McIntyre, 24, took a job in event-planning after college, where she majored in business, marketing, and sociology, and then took a pay cut when she decided to go into teaching a year later. Even so, she’s not dissatisfied with the $51,000 she earns now as a math teacher; her salary is higher than normal in the Dallas district, she says, because her school, the Thomas Edison Learning Center, has an extended school day.

Managing her classroom and keeping up with math content has been relatively easy, says the first-year teacher, who obtained an alternative teaching certificate.

Other young professionals could be drawn to teaching if they knew more about it, said the teacher, after attending a session at the NCTM conference. She cites her 20-something friends in Dallas as examples. Some of them, who work in fields like accounting and public relations, earn more money than she does, but they envy the pleasure she derives from her job, and her autonomy.

“When they hear me talk about it, they almost want to go into teaching,” Ms. McIntyre said. “I’m my own boss in my classroom.”

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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