Incentives for math and science teachers in Florida: First, parents, educators and leaders have to care about math and science.

For those who think that incentives should be used to reverse the decline in the supply of high school math and science teachers in Florida, there has been good news and bad news recently.

The good news was in Bay County, where an existing bonus program for first-year teachers in some STEM subjects was continued in the district’s new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union.

While the continuation of the bonus program is one signal that Bay County’s teachers, leaders and parents care about preparing students for career opportunities in STEM fields, it is only one of many such signals.  During the last two years, School Board Chair Ginger Littleton triggered an effort to improve math and science achievement at all levels and to increase course-taking rates for upper-level high school math and science courses.  She has been joined in this work by teachers, counselors, parents and leaders at the school and district levels.

The results have been impressive.  For example, the number of students taking physics in Bay District high schools jumped from 100 in 2015-16 to 260 this fall.

On Monday afternoon, FSU’s Panama City campus will host a Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony for 224 middle school students.  The speakers will include the Dean of the FSU campus, the President of Gulf Coast State College and the district’s Superintendent of Schools.  The Bay County chapter of Future Physicists of Florida was named for a donor who is a pillar of both the local medical community and the community at large.  It seems everybody in Bay County is pulling in the same direction – toward improving opportunities for the school district’s students by improving math and science achievement.

The bad news comes from Duval County, where the state’s most promising initiative in recruiting and preparing math and science teachers – the Jacksonville Teacher Residency Program – was terminated by the district’s school board late this summer.  The Residency Program recruited new college graduates in math and science fields and then paid them a $20,000 stipend for a year during which they worked as teaching interns and took education coursework leading to a master’s degree (in the case of Duval County, the coursework and degree were at the University of North Florida).

The residency model is not unique to Duval County.  In fact, there is a National Center for Teacher Residencies that supports such programs around the nation.  The center reported that during the 2014-15 school year there were 557 “residents” in such programs, and that 2,661 others had already graduated from residencies.

It’s not always clear that incentives are needed.  Seminole County, which is Florida’s math and science superpower, is able to attract plenty of strong applicants for its math and science teaching positions simply by being perceived as a district where STEM subjects – and the teachers of those subjects – are valued.

But it is clear that in order for an incentive program for math and science teachers – or any other STEM initiative – to be sustainable there must be broad support and understanding of the importance of math and science among parents, teachers and counselors, and that support must extend all the way to the top of the chain of command – the school board and the superintendent.

In Seminole County, that broad support has existed for many years.

In Bay County, strong leadership has helped build the necessary support during the last few years.

In Duval County, whatever support that once existed seems to have collapsed.

At present, there are many more districts in Florida like Duval than there are like Seminole and Bay County.  In fact, only Brevard County – the home of the Kennedy Space Center – provides any real competition for Seminole County at the top of Florida’s STEM career readiness rankings.  Bay County’s rapid improvement is an anomaly in a state where the total physics enrollment in district high schools dropped by 5% during the last two years.

Fixing Florida’s STEM problems – one of which is the decline in the supply of math and science teachers – will require explaining to parents why STEM disciplines are important to their kids.  We’ve barely begun to work on that enormous job.

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