Monday, August 25, 2008

Washington Policy Center OP ED on Solutions for Math and Science Teacher shortages

Increasing high school requirements warrants a fresh look at teacher shortages in math and science

by Liv FinneDirector, Center for Education

This op-ed appeared in the July 22 edition of The News Tribune (Tacoma), and in several other newspapers in July.

While the world changes at breakneck speed and our needs for a skilled workforce continue to increase, our public education system remains stuck in the past. In an effort to modernize the school curriculum, the State Board of Education will soon vote on a plan, known as CORE 24, to require students to take more classes in math, science, English and other subjects before they graduate. Current law requires students to fulfill only 19 credits to graduate. These 19 credits do not prepare students to apply for college or to follow a vocational career. However, education officials say our system is not ready for such a change, because we already face shortages of teachers in math and science.

Education officials have a point. They are hampered by laws which sabotage efforts at reform. Antiquated teacher credential laws prevent schools from hiring individuals working in the private sector who have a high degree of knowledge and expertise in math and science. For example, by law Bill Gates is not allowed to teach math in a public high school. Teacher certification laws also contribute to an education culture which equates quality to the holding of a credential, even though research shows that teachers without such credentials, such as Teach for America candidates, are just as effective, if not more so, at raising student achievement as teachers with certificates, particularly in math.

Washington has a rich resource of talent which should be tapped for our classrooms. In Washington, over 240,000 people have bachelor degrees or higher as computer or mathematical scientists, architects or engineers, statisticians and accountants, computer and information systems and engineering managers, life and physical scientists, and post-secondary professors in math or science. Over the past 10 years, public and private colleges and universities in Washington State graduated 26,693 individuals who earned a bachelor's degree or higher in math or closely related subject. Yet, none of these talented professionals can be hired as a teacher without a state-approved certificate.

In 2001 the Legislature, reacting to shortages of teachers of math and science, attempted to create alternate routes to the classroom. Alternate Route 3 was intended to attract "career changers" with five years work experience and a bachelor's degree or better in math. Unfortunately, this "alternate route" requires candidates to go a year without pay, take 45 credits, and pay over $10,000 in tuition. The program has failed to attract sufficient numbers of teachers to meet current shortages.

Shortages of teachers of math persist. School officials are forced to lower standards for teachers of math. Only 40% of Washington's middle and high school teachers of math either majored or minored in math in college. The rest of our math teachers only have a math "endorsement," which requires considerably less math knowledge. The research shows that the higher the grade, the more a teacher needs to know in order to be effective in raising student achievement. The state's artificial restrictions on hiring new teachers has resulted in large numbers of students failing the math WASL, and having to take remedial math in college. In addition, this year the Legislature and Governor repealed the WASL graduation requirement in math.

The world that our children live in is dramatically different from the past. In 1950, 60% of all jobs were unskilled and required a high school education or less. Today, less than 15% of all jobs are considered unskilled and roughly two-thirds of all jobs require some level of college education. Knowledge of math and science is critical to the futures of many of our children.

Updating the curriculum through CORE 24 is clearly necessary to prepare our students for the global marketplace. Our students desperately need to benefit from individuals currently working in the private sector who might be attracted to our classrooms, if only the main obstacle to entry, teacher certification laws, can be removed. School officials need the freedom to hire any skilled professional with a bachelor's degree in math or closely related subject, and to create on-the-job training programs supported by mentor teachers.

Liv Finne is director of the Center for Education at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan public policy research organization in Seattle and Olympia. Liv can be reached at Nothing here should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder any legislation before any legislative body. For more information contact WPC at 206-937-9691 or online at

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