Day 6: Attract and Retain High-Quality Math and Science Teachers

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Massachusetts’ students have made impressive gains in math and science over the past decade and a half. Consider that in 1992 Massachusetts stood below national averages on the SAT. Fast forward to this past year, when the state ranked among the highest performing nations on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). In fact, on the TIMSS, Massachusetts 4th graders ranked second and third worldwide in science and mathematics, respectively. Our 8th graders tied for first in science and ranked sixth in math.

But the 2007 TIMSS identified areas of particular weakness. Over 40 percent of 4th graders in Singapore were advanced in mathematics, compared to only 22 percent in Massachusetts. A similar pattern holds for 4th grade science, as well as 8th grade mathematics and science. Massachusetts needs to enhance mathematics and science achievement for all students but also train an eye on our highest performers. Tomorrow, we’ll delve into how to improve our STEM standards, instructional practices and assessments; today, I want to focus on improving the quality of our mathematics and science teachers.

Part of the answer lies in more rigorous teacher preparation and professional development (see Day 5). But that’s not enough. We also need a special effort in math and the hard sciences, subjects in which too many teachers have inadequate content mastery and in which those remaining in the teaching profession have disproportionately had lower levels of prior academic success. Data from the National Science Foundation’s annual Science and Engineering Indicators report provides a view of the problem: In high school math, 11% of teachers do not have a major in math or a related field; the number climbs to 15% in low-income schools. In middle school physical science, 29% of teachers don’t have a major in their or a related field. In middle school math, 43% of teachers lack a major in the field or a related content area.

To succeed we need to attract and retain the highest quality STEM teachers in our schools. Two actions will help enormously:

    Remove obstacles to attracting more academically able STEM teachers to the profession by eliminating (a) “program approval” and (b) the statutory requirement of a two-stage licensure process. Eliminating program approval will open up teacher recruitment beyond the narrow pipeline provided by our schools of education. A better option is to create a vendor-client relationship between higher education and school districts. Eliminating the statutory two-stage licensure process would mean that teachers would no longer be required to complete a master’s degree program in education or its equivalent to be fully certified. Prospective elementary teachers would be eligible for full licensure if they pass the state’s teacher tests and the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check, and have three years of successful teaching experience. Alternative programs (e.g., Teach for America, Math for America, UTeach, and The New Teacher Project) should be encouraged and welcomed. Experienced teachers moving from private or parochial schools to public schools should not have to fulfill student teaching requirements after spending so many years in a classroom.
    Attract and retain high-quality STEM teachers by implementing differential pay for mathematics and science teachers (at a total cost of several million dollars). As noted above, a significant proportion of mathematics teachers do not possess a major or a minor in mathematics. The “wage gap” between salaries in the private sector and those of teachers in public education makes it extremely difficult to recruit and retain highly qualified math and science teachers. Initial wage enhancements of $3,000 to $4,000 for these subjects would be sensible, with revisions based on labor market research.