Science

Finding (and Keeping) Math and Science Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — March 11, 2009 2 min read

At an event in Washington yesterday, President Barack Obama spelled out some of his priorities for rewarding effective teaching through extra pay. "[W]e know it can make a difference in the classroom.”

And in the pages of Ed Week, a pair of researchers presented some surprising data on the question of what can be done to create and secure a more stable pool of math and science teachers—among the most sought-after educators in the market.

Much of the attention given to Obama’s speech rightly focused on what he said about performance pay, and rewarding teachers who excel with more money (though it turns out listeners interpreted his message in multiple ways, as my colleagues Steve Sawchuk and Alyson Klein have aptly reported).

But given the overall attention being paid to teacher quality these days by the administration and others, I think it’s fair to raise the question: How will the president’s priorities mesh with what the new research on teacher supply-and-demand is saying?

As my colleague Debbie Viadero explains in her story, Richard Ingersoll and David Perda, of the University of Pennsylvania, have put forward new research suggesting that the real problem in trying to fill enough classrooms with math and science teachers is not that too few are being lured into the profession—it’s rather that too few of them are staying.

Efforts to expand the pipeline of math and science teachers by focusing primarily on what colleges and universities are or aren’t doing may be misdirected, their findings suggest. Relatively large numbers of teachers are picking up necessary degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels to teach, or graduating in math- and science-related subjects with an interest in teaching, they conclude.

The larger issue is turnover. With so many teachers leaving math and science classrooms, the problem is that the supply side simply can’t keep up. "[W]e’re pouring water into a leaky bucket,” is how Ingersoll puts it.

Obama talked about creating new incentives for luring teachers into the classroom. He also touched on the importance of mentoring new educators. “Teachers throughout a school will benefit from guidance and support to help them improve,” he said.

Ingersoll’s and Perda’s work indicates that those training, mentoring, and professional development efforts are indeed crucial, perhaps as much or more than teachers’ concerns about their pay. General dissatisfaction—as the Ingersoll-Perda research noted—and lack of administrative support, traditionally rank high on the list of reasons why math and science teachers leave, in some cases more than pay concerns.

The Ingersoll-Perda research, at the very least, could carry implications for federal and state investments in teacher recruitment and retention. The federal government invests a considerable amount in trying to lure new teacher into the profession, despite, as I’ve reported, limited research showing that those approaches work. Much of that investment flows in the form of grants and scholarships for math and science teachers.

Other efforts, such as Math and Science Partnership programs, run through the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, are geared more toward improving the skills of teachers already in the classroom. Is that where Obama and other policymakers should be devoting the most attention? If Obama is attempting to halt, or at least slow, the revolving door in math and science teaching, what’s the best way to do it?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.