Two STEM teacher recruiting proposals to be considered Wednesday by the Florida Senate PreK-12 Committee fall far short

On Wednesday, the PreK-12 Committee of the Florida Senate will consider two proposals for recruiting new STEM teachers for the state’s K-12 schools.  Both proposals are deeply flawed and should be rejected by the committee.  Instead, the committee should amend the proposal for the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program – on which it is also scheduled to vote on Wednesday – to focus on the recruiting and retention of math and science teachers and teachers in high-needs schools.

The first proposal on the agenda is SB 290, a bill that would repay a modest (up to $16,000) amount of student loans for teachers who teach a STEM subject in a Florida public school for eight years.  Given the large gap between starting teacher salaries in Florida and the salaries that new bachelors’ degree grads in fields like engineering, computer science,  physics and math can earn in industry or elsewhere, the $2,000 per year incentive (that’s $16,000 divided by eight years) is woefully inadequate.

SB 290 does have one notable virtue – it is at least inspired by solid research.  The proposal is a partial reprise of the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program, which was terminated by the Florida Legislature in 2010 after its funding was drastically reduced in 2002.  The program provided up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness, as well as tuition reimbursement for teachers who took courses leading to certification in a critical needs subject.  A recent paper published by Li Feng and Tim Sass of the CALDER Center examined the impact of the program, concluding that the program’s loan forgiveness “did have substantial positive effects on the likelihood an individual would remain in teaching”.  The authors suggested that “educational subsidies, particularly ex-post LF for early-career teachers, can be effective tools at promoting the retention of teachers in high-need areas.”

The second proposal to be considered by the Senate PreK-12 Committee is more harebrained.  SB 432 would authorize a pilot project in which an individual with a master’s degree in a STEM subject could be hired into a K-12 teaching position without a permanent or temporary teaching certification.  For those not involved in K-12 teacher education, this might seem perfectly reasonable.  But it’s not, and this will require some explanation.

Here at the FSU, strong students do not arrive on campus for the beginning of college thinking that they want to be physics teachers.  Instead, about one strong student per year (and we graduate about 25 new bachelors’ degree recipients in physics each year) decides in her or his junior or senior year to try out a teaching career.  Sometimes this happens because of our “learning assistant” program in which strong physics majors are paid to be undergraduate teaching assistants in our hands-on studio physics courses.  Sometimes there are other reasons.  But these students are generally too far along in their academic programs to enter a standard undergraduate teacher preparation program and have a “normal” student teaching experience in a K-12 classroom.  So they graduate without the permanent teaching certification that graduates from standard teacher preparation programs have.  Instead, our students take the few steps necessary to secure a temporary certification from the Florida Department of Education.  Those students then have three years to complete the requirements for a permanent certification while they are teaching full-time.  And a temporary certificate never seems to be an obstacle to getting a physics teaching job.  When these students attend FSU’s annual teacher job fair, they are treated like guests of honor, with multiple districts pleading for their attention.

But why does it make sense for these strong physics students to be required to earn any certification at all?  They know physics well, right?  Yes, they know physics well.  But knowing physics well is not the only thing a teacher needs to be successful in a real high school classroom.  A physics teacher also needs to know how students learn physics.  For example, we know that most students learn poorly or not at all in a conventional lecture environment, and the effective physics teacher must also know enough cognitive science to understand why this is true.  The learning assistantships in our studio physics classrooms provide an introduction – but only an introduction – to these “pedagogical content knowledge” issues.

In addition, physics teachers must understand how to operate effectively in a classroom in which some students come to school without having had enough to eat for the previous day, or who have watched their mothers being beaten, or who are undisciplined and out of control.  You can’t learn that in my studio physics classroom.  That’s the component that is completely lacked by the new physics teachers I am sending into the state’s high school classrooms, and I don’t feel good about it.  But we are doing what we can.  And the temporary certification process – asking new teachers to learn about how to operate effectively in real high school classroom environments while they are working – is the right way to go.  I should add here that I have never talked with a physics teacher who is completely happy with the training they received while temporarily certified, so there much room for improvement there.

But back to SB 432.  The bill is a clear statement that pedagogical content knowledge and training in how to function in a real high school classroom environment are not important.  And therefore it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The members of the Senate PreK-12 Committee should face the fact that to significantly improve the recruiting and retention of strong teacher in STEM subjects they will have to modify the controversial Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program – with its intended $10,000 per teacher per year pay bump – to focus on these subjects.  The shortcuts and half measures represented by SB 290 and SB 432 will not help.

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