Will Best and Brightest make it more difficult to recruit physics teachers?

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a few high-ranking Florida education officials about the state’s poor track record in promoting high school physics.  The subject of physics teacher supply immediately came up, and both officials told me I had to try harder to recruit physics teachers.  I asked about state-level policy changes that would no doubt help, including differential pay and even loan forgiveness for math and science teachers.  But the officials dismissed those possibilities out of hand.  Nope, Paul, you just have to try harder to recruit physics teachers for us.

That conversation came to mind during the last week as the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program, which this year provided bonuses of about $8,000 to teachers who earned high SAT or ACT scores when they were in high school themselves, neared approval by the Florida Legislature.  At the same time, a proposal to provide limited student loan forgiveness to teachers in STEM subjects who taught in Florida public schools for an extended period of time died in the House of Representatives without a single committee hearing.  It’s worth noting that there is at best weak support in the education policy research literature supporting a link between a teacher’s high college entrance exam scores and high student achievement.  Meanwhile, a study of a student loan forgiveness program for STEM teachers that existed in Florida until 2010 demonstrated that even though the program was modest it reduced attrition of math and science teachers.  That is, there is concrete research supporting the loan forgiveness proposal, while there is none for the Best and Brightest program.  Yet the loan forgiveness proposal died, and Best and Brightest is on a glide path to approval.

So nothing has changed, right?  Best and Brightest will not make it easier to recruit math and science teachers, so we just continue on as we have before.  Isn’t that correct?  Well, no it isn’t.  Not at all.  It will probably make things worse.

When I talk with my students about becoming physics teachers, I hear three things.  First of all, some of them really want to become professional engineers and physical scientists, and are not at all interested in teaching.  And that’s OK.  But among those who have at least considered teaching careers in passing, there are two primary reasons they decide not to teach.  One is the salary penalty that strong students in engineering and physics pay to become teachers.  New bachelor’s degree grads in these fields routinely start at salaries of $50,000 or above, and most Florida school districts start new teachers below $40,000.  But students who have considered teaching are discouraged by one other important factor:  Most report that their own high school teachers told their classes repeatedly not to become teachers because Florida treats its teachers poorly.

A certain amount of bitterness among Florida teachers is understandable.  Most of the state’s teachers entered the profession when working conditions were quite a bit more forgiving than they are now.  After a probationary period of a few years, teachers had considerable job security – what is often called tenure (but which didn’t look at all like the tenure protections I have as a professor at my university).  In addition, teachers had a high degree of certainty about their income.  Teachers were paid based on a salary schedule that rewarded teachers for time in the position and graduate degrees in a very predictable way.

For new teachers in Florida, both the job security and salary schedule no longer exist.  In addition, teacher evaluations now depend in part on the test performance of their students.  Teacher resistance to this has been loud and emotional.

And here is where Best and Brightest comes in.  For a Florida teacher corps already angry about recent changes in their working conditions, Best and Brightest has been the fuel to make that anger white hot.  Many teachers, parents and students see Best and Brightest as evidence that policy-makers have now completely lost their minds.  While the primary goal of Best and Brightest is to coax strong students into the teaching profession, it may backfire as frustration about how the state’s teaching corps is being treated fills classrooms in high schools throughout the state.  The state’s students may breathe that frustration in and decide to forgo teaching careers….or at least teach in another state.

And where does that leave me in my effort to recruit more physics teachers for Florida?  Most of the students I work with have SAT or ACT scores high enough to qualify for the Best and Brightest program, so if they chose a teaching career in Florida they would at least receive what amounts to a signing bonus.  But it’s hard to imagine that for most strong students that will be enough to overcome the long-term salary penalty they may pay if they don’t receive the “highly effective” ratings necessary to continue their eligibility for the Best and Brightest program, or the remembered fury of their high school teachers about the state of Florida’s teaching profession.

So that brings me back to my primary strategy for recruiting more physics teachers:  Try harder, Paul.

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