Wednesday, February 01, 2006

70,000 Math Teachers???

President Bush said in his SOTU address last night that he wants to fund the training of 70,000 math and science teachers:
We need to encourage children to take more math and science, and make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We have made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers, to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science ... bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms ... and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs. If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world.
OK, I'm on board with the idea that we need better math and science education, and I agree that money is part of the problem. But I just don't think the President's proposal is going to work.

First, there's the problem of where these 70,000 math teachers are going to come from. Math teachers who are qualified to teach at the secondary level generally need a bachelor's degree in math, although at the moment something on the order of 50% of math teachers are teaching "out of subject" (i.e. they have no major, minor, or endorsement in math). For some reason I can't seem to find the AMS's article that I read a few years back that had all the stats for the number of math majors graduating each year with bachelor's degrees, but I do remember that that number was going up, but mostly because a greater proportion of degrees nowadays are granted to foreign students (currently it's about half). These students take their degrees back to their home countries to improve their own lands. That's a great thing, but it doesn't help President Bush find tens of thousands of math teachers.

I did a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how many bachelors' degree holders graduate every year, based in part on this data and this data. If about 10% of science and engineering bachelor's degree recipients are math majors, and there are 758,000 science and engineering bachelor's degree recipients in two years, and half of those are foreign, then that leaves approximately 20,000 math bachelor's degree recipients each year.

29% of those graduates get employment in academia and 7% are students (presumably going back for advanced degrees), so that leaves about 12,800 math graduates that are susceptible to being lured into teaching positions. Those that are not employed in academia are typically employed as computer people or (less commonly) mathematicians. If we recruited every single one of those, it would take us three years to draft 35,000 math teachers (and that's assuming we could retain them for longer than a year or two). But of course we won't be able to get all of them; the jobs they already get aren't exactly unimportant to our economy either. We just don't produce enough math graduates to fill the need. There are, I presume, people out there who graduated years ago and are not employed teaching high school who could also be enticed; but we should consider that they probably already have jobs if they're looking for them, and have moved their way up in their industry to a point where an entry-level teaching job would be highly unappealing.

The second factor in getting more math teachers is pay. Since those graduates who aren't already teaching are in highly paid fields, they will not be likely to want to switch careers to lower-paying ones. It is the height of naivete to assume that they will altruistically accept lower-paid teaching positions for the good of their country; if they felt that way, they would already have gone into teaching. This will mean having to raise teacher pay for these math teachers; that's where the money comes in. However, in practice, money for more teacher salaries frequently gets diverted into other needs or wants, and/or teacher's unions oppose differential pay scales for various types of teachers.

The third factor is working conditions. I was originally planning to be a high school math teacher, but I switched to college mostly because of all the crap that high school teachers have to put up with. High school teachers have to deal with high school administrations. And if you think college bureaucracies are maddeningly ossified, you should see public school administrations. Principals and district officials can be the worst kind of oligarchs; they implement infuriatingly unprofessional policies and treat their teachers as if they were as young as their charges, and there's no recourse. Even if you get a good district and a good principal, that could change at the drop of a hat as new people are elected to the school board or personnel are shuffled.

And then, of course, there are the students. The day I walked into the classroom and found the students literally throwing the desks around the room was the day I decided never to teach high school, because I knew there was nothing I could do to discipline the students. If I gave them the worst allowable punishment, sending them to the office, they would be back inside of an hour. And that was 10 years ago. At the moment I'm employed tutoring online a few hours a week, and about once or twice a month I get requests for sexual favors that I would only give to my husband (and then only if he's been good). This is what high school students nowadays think of people who are trying to help them learn. You'd have to pay me somewhere in the six figures to get me to put up full-time with the sort of crap I'd have to deal with in a public high school.

The fourth problem with Bush's plan is that he wants these teachers to teach AP courses. Jaime Escalante notwithstanding, you can only teach AP courses to students with an adequate background to meet the rigorous requirements. How are we going to find the students to fill these classes, when all the out-of-subject teachers are creating students who don't know any more about math than they do? And how long do you think districts are going to retain those 70,000 teachers when there aren't enough AP classes for them to teach?

So good luck with that, President Bush. If you can create 70,000 qualified math and science teachers out of whole cloth, I'll vote for a third term for you.