Opinion

Hiring math teachers, catch-and-release?

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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The Globe reported that some of Marysvilles math classes lack qualified teachers. One teacher jumped contract. Others backed out after committing to teach in Marysville, leaving parents irate and students are frustrated.
Bothersome as this is, it isnt just a Marysville problem. Attracting and holding math and science teachers is a national issue that leaves students with makeshift instruction across the country. The big reason is money. When math-majors look over the job market they have to consider whether a teachers salary will be sufficient to pay off student loans. After all, this isnt Denmark where university education is not only free for qualified applicants, but students are also given stipends to cover living costs. In this country, college students typically graduate with heavy burdens of debt.
Here and there, other bones of contention include odd curriculum, questionable teaching materials and heavy student loads. Teachers of math and sciences lose conference periods to cover classes that lack qualified teachers. New teachers struggle with full loads of remedial math or four different math courses to prepare for. Other teachers discover shortages of textbooks. These and other crippling issues plague teachers in too many classrooms.
What should a new graduate do? Teach school or sign with industry for an extra $25,000 per year? Faced with that choice, anyone who opts for teaching should get a medal for their commitment to help kids. If they opt out, we shouldnt blame the math specialists who leave teaching as much as a system that expects to buy their services too cheaply.
Rentons schools find themselves in the same fix. Principals, substitutes and under qualified teachers are doing their best to fill gaps caused by the lure of Boeing salaries. As in Marysville, tougher state standards, the WASL and ominous threats lurking behind the No Child Left Behind Act haunt Rentons administrators.
In Oakland, Linda Handys son spent his first month in Algebra without a teacher. One sub after another did their best, but without proper preparation and with no consistency, little was accomplished.
Buffalos Grabiarz School of Excellence landed on New Yorks academic watch-list because four of eleven math positions lacked certified teachers. Buffalo began the year short 24 math teachers and chances of filling them arent improving as the year progresses.
Governor Chris Gregoire had no choice but to put the brakes on the states mandatory math graduation requirements. No passing grade, no graduation. The states controversial math standards need reviewing, the math portion of the WASL could use some fine-tuning and widely-accepted newer math curricula havent yet won over math purists who prefer a more disciplined and classical approach to math teaching and learning.
The entire nation is painfully aware of the problem. At the federal level, the House and Senate passed H.R. 2272, titled, The America Competes Act, a jumble of legislation that aims to shore up innovation, research and technology, largely by funding summer institutes and graduate courses for 25,000 math and science teachers. Congress passed a bill that forgives $17,500 in student loans for highly qualified math and science teachers who choose to serve low-income communities. It will take years for the effects of all this to be felt in schools.
At the state and local level, proposals to lure math teachers are as varied as their sponsors. The Honolulu Advertiser reports $12,000 signing bonuses for highly qualified math teachers.
Beaumont, Texas, proposes a $5,000 bonus for new math or science teachers payable over three years and subject to repayment if teachers leave within 18 months.
When Tennessee offered to give bonuses to math and science teachers, they ran smack into a teachers union that claimed unequal pay would be unfair to teachers of other subjects and only masked the underlying issue of across-the-board low pay.
Virginia pays $10,000 signing bonuses to snag good math teachers. The rub is that teachers who get the bonus will be assigned to designated schools suffering severe math deficiencies.
Battelle Labs picked up the tab for $10,000 bonuses to be issued to new math teachers serving schools near its Oak Ridge research facility in Tennessee.
Massachusetts was the first state to up the ante for math teachers. At this time, a $20,000 signing bonus is available to qualified teachers who commit to four-year hitches.
Thats whats happening in the broader market for teachers. As yet, Washington has no bonus program in place and if it did, be assured that the WEA would attack it tooth and nail for disadvantaging all but teachers of math and science.
Since the marketplace for talented math teachers is national, national ranking numbers may help to explain why we have trouble holding them. Washington ranks 30th (2004) in financial support per student. Washington is 10th highest in housing cost while teachers salaries rank 20th. Teachers in Washington face the 4th highest pupil-teacher ratio in the nation.
I sympathize with parents whose kids dont have top-notch math instruction but the fault doesnt lie with Superintendent Nyland or Marysvilles school board. Be assured that theyre doing everything humanly possible to fill every position though more could be done to assure that new hires get reasonable assignments and supportive mentoring. The fault lies with a society that permits obscene profits and foreign adventures to re-direct and drain resources that should rightfully ensure out childrens future. Remember that when casting votes.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef @verizon.net.

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