Out of the Box:
Math and Science Teacher Shortages
Alfred S. Posamentier
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
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
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
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! #
author is Dean of the School of
Education, The City College of the City
University of New York.
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