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New York City
July 2001

Think Out of the Box:
Addressing Math and Science Teacher Shortages
by Alfred S. Posamentier

The recent issuance of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s task force on mathematics education is yet another cry for improving mathematics instruction in New York. This can be translated into a quest to improve the competence of the teachers, which is closely related to the ever-increasing shortage of these teachers. Of the 1,500 acceptances for the next phase of the Teaching Fellows program, one of the Board of Education’s efforts to solve the teacher shortage, only ten are qualified to teach mathematics. This does not bode well for the future of the teaching staff in New York City.

But things have not always been this way. During the Depression of the 1930s, scientists were attracted to the teaching profession, and it was one of the few professions open to women and minorities before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These early waves of professionals buoyed the school system through the beginning part of the 1960s, until another national crisis, the Vietnam War, again channeled high-quality personnel into the teaching profession; this time through draft deferments, issued to those teaching in hard-to-staff schools and in the critical areas such as mathematics and science.

After 1968, job opportunities for women increased significantly, providing them with viable alternatives to the teaching profession, which heretofore was their profession of choice. Similarly, minorities who once would have chosen teaching as their profession, are now being actively recruited into the business world. It is clear that teacher shortages are at crisis proportions today because we are not adequately competing with the economic pull of the private sector.

One temporary solution is the importation of foreign teachers to fill the immediate vacancies until permanent local replacements can be found. I initiated this idea, inviting visiting Austrian math and science teachers. Now in its third year, some teachers are staying on longer than the initial two- or three-year period. This concept for meeting immediate shortages has now been replicated in many American cities and in numerous countries throughout the world.

An extension of the Teaching Fellows program might meet the most severe shortages in mathematics teaching. The Board needs to survey the 1,500 accepted applicants to determine which ones have some interest and experience in mathematics. Those who pass an aptitude test could then be given a series of mathematics courses to build their knowledge of the underlying mathematics concepts of the middle school curriculum. Coupled with preparation in appropriate pedagogy and methods of teaching mathematics, these Fellows could be “converted” into reasonably well-trained math teachers.

We need to begin to think “out of the box”: offer signing incentives to qualified teachers who can teach in areas of need; offer competitive salaries and working conditions, and recruit aggressively from business industries where qualified people may be found. Many excellent math and science teachers have recently retired or are about to retire. Allowing them to earn tax-levy money on top of their pension for part-time teaching could help fill the void. Conduct an aggressive recruitment program outside of New York City, offering such incentives as housing allowances and reimbursement for moving-expenses. Woo current college majors in math and science who have outstanding academic records into the teaching profession with rewards that could include loan repayments, paid summer internships as math and science tutors in summer school, and scholarships. These are just a few of the ways that we can begin to address the crisis.

It is clear that this crisis has resulted in a decline of the teacher caliber in the schools, and has been reflected in overall weaker school supervisors and administrators. Although Universities do not like to admit it, we too find it much more difficult to recruit high quality teacher educators than several decades ago, which in turn affects the quality of teachers we turn out. This vicious circle must be stopped.

Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy, coming from the private sector, knows that you get what you pay for. Society has to respect the role of the teacher, something long out of fashion. Free public education is the cornerstone of the American democratic system. It must be preserved and cherished! #

The author is Dean of the School of
Education, The City College of the City
University of New York.


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