I challenge each Florida legislator to acknowledge that the state is facing a crisis in recruiting talented individuals into high school math and science teaching careers. I also challenge each of them to propose a way of effectively addressing this crisis.
While news accounts from around the state report that last year’s severe teacher shortage is abating, the shortage of new math and science teachers continues. The number of first-time exam takers for “Math 6-12” certification – the certification required in Florida to teach Algebra 2 and above – declined by 25% from 2013 to 2016. A report prepared for the State Board of Education earlier this year showed that the state’s Colleges of Education are only graduating enough new chemistry and physics teachers to meet less than a quarter of the demand for these teachers in the public schools.
Legislators have proposed and even implemented “solutions” in the past that do not help. Democratic lawmakers have proposed a $50,000 minimum salary for all teachers, regardless of subject, even though starting salaries in the private sector for bachelor’s degree graduates in fields like math and physics are much higher than those for other fields represented on school faculties. Such a proposal is a non-starter in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.
Teacher union-bashing is a default setting for some Republicans. But in Bay County, the teachers’ union agreed to $5,000 signing bonuses for teachers in certain math and science fields. These bonuses may or may not be sufficient to address the $15,000 salary penalty that a new bachelor’s degree graduate in physics or math accepts to enter teaching, but it shows that at least in one community the union is willing to bite the bullet and address the problem.
The Best and Brightest teacher bonus program – in which eligibility depends on a teacher’s own SAT or ACT score and the teacher’s rating in the state’s fluid teacher evaluation system – has not stemmed the steep decline in the supply of new math teachers. My students at FSU say that the program does not provide the stability they need to start a family or pay off student loans.
Lowering barriers to certification sounds at first like an attractive and cheap option for increasing math and science teacher supply, but I haven’t yet met an individual who has allowed the certification process – including the requirement that Florida teachers know something about reading instruction and English-language learners – to keep her or him out of teaching.
It is likely that the continuing artillery duel over last year’s complex education bill (HB 7069) that included the authorization for the Schools of Hope program will dominate this year’s legislative debates – which begin next week – and keep the math and science teacher shortage out of the spotlight. But if even one legislator can come up with an idea that breaks the mold and would make the teaching profession significantly more attractive to math and science experts, that would at least provide a candle of hope for the future of Florida’s classrooms.
Author’s note: Former legislators are welcome to come up with ideas, too! Anybody?