Is online math instruction the solution to Florida’s growing math teacher shortage?

Franklin County is preparing a “virtual” Plan B for its middle and high school math program.

The Apalachicola Times reported this week that the district’s search to replace its three math teachers – all of whom departed the district’s secondary school this spring – has been fruitless.

Plan B is to work with Florida Virtual School to set up a “blended learning lab” and provide all of the school’s math instruction that way.  School starts August 8 – about a week from now – so the FLVS option seems inevitable.

As Florida’s math teacher shortage intensifies, Franklin County is particularly vulnerable.  Not only is the county rural, but it also has a relatively pricey rental market because of the success of the development of the county’s coastal communities, including St. George Island.

The collective bargaining agreement with the county’s teachers’ union allows for a $2,000 signing bonus, but that hasn’t provided a sufficient incentive for math teaching candidates to sign on.

Other districts – even those not nearly as rural – are struggling to find qualified math teachers to meet the needs of their students.

And recruiting isn’t the only problem.  Retention can be challenging as well.  Coy Pilson, the Principal of Bay County’s Rutherford High, tweeted today that “In last 4 years. CTE, math, & science teachers have left my school for jobs in the private sector. Hard to compete w/ the $ industry has.”

It’s not as if Bay County isn’t trying.  Bay County’s collective bargaining agreement allows $5,000 signing bonuses for teachers in certain math and science subjects.  The district is working with a local military base to provide affordable housing for new teachers.  Sharon Michalik, Bay District’s outgoing Director of Human Resources, accompanied School Board Chair Ginger Littleton on a two-day visit to Tallahassee (100 miles from home) this spring to pitch teaching careers to the students in FSU’s studio physics classes.  They followed up the visit by inviting three FSU physics majors for a visit to district high schools.  In short, the leadership of Bay District is making heroic efforts to recruit the teachers their students so desperately need.

But as the number of teachers earning Florida’s Math 6-12 certification continues to drop – the number of first-time takers of the exam for that subject declined 25% from 2013 to 2016 – the shortage seems likely to intensify.

So is the virtual school option a “solution to the rural teacher shortage”, as my friends at redefinED suggested?  The short answer is “no”, although it requires some explanation.

The first bit of explanation is this:  There isn’t just a “rural teacher shortage”.  The shortage of math teachers may be hitting rural counties hardest right now, but if the supply of new math teachers continues to drop by 8% per year or so as it is doing now, eventually every district will face a crisis.

And now for the second bit of explanation:  What Franklin County is doing – choosing an FLVS lab over putting “in the classroom another teacher unfamiliar with teaching math, or a substitute likely not certified as a teacher” (as the Apalachicola Times reported) – may be the right choice given their circumstances.   But the Franklin County leadership seems to have its eyes wide open.  They seem to know that their students would be better off being in a physical classroom with a gifted math teacher than they will be with the very best FLVS can offer.  But as a leader I admire from another school district told me once, “Good isn’t always an option.”

It’s a depressing situation, and perhaps the students who are hurt the worst in a virtual learning environment are the ones who come from disadvantaged backgrounds but who might flourish if they could build a relationship with a strong teacher.

In closing, it is worth returning to the point that Principal Pilson made above – that salaries (not signing bonuses, but salaries) are an obstacle to retention of teachers in math and science subjects.  Eventually, our state and district leaders may have to deal with that issue.

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