None of the plethora of programs for increasing the supply of math and science teachers ever focuses on bringing back the great teachers America already has. Schools constantly look to hire novice teachers, and routinely reject teachers with over five years experience. Hiring committees in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and upstate New York have told me so. I made the telephone calls back in 2001 as part of commissioned research in public school district practices regarding the recruitment of substitute teachers, but often conversation ranged to general hiring policies.
What these hiring policies mean is that a teacher who moves to another district may very well be unemployable.
“I admit I’m being heretical,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the university. “But it’s not that we’re producing too few math and science teachers. It’s that we’re losing too many.”
The findings are important, Mr. Ingersoll said, because they suggest that national efforts aimed at expanding the pipeline of new math and science teachers are misdirected. If policymakers really want to ensure that those subjects are being taught by skilled teachers, he said, they ought to focus on retaining the much larger pool of science and math teachers who are already in schools.
The research studied the reasons that teachers leave teaching. The top three reasons: dissatisfaction, another job, or personal. The study did not address teachers who did not leave teaching but found that teaching had left them when they moved for whatever reason, usually to follow a spouse.
But research is poor.
While teacher supply-and-demand issues are much debated, there have been relatively few efforts to examine the issue empirically, Mr. Ingersoll said.It is notoriously difficult to get frank answers to questions. My telephone survey is a good example. I was collecting data regarding substitute teachers, but when the conversation veered to other areas, I heard interesting stuff, but I was not prepared to collect the information in any systematic or “scientific” way. Yet when I have tried to collect information about hiring policies directly, I get different answers from those previous “off the record” responses.
One thing the study highlights is that supply is not the problem.
But the researchers maintain that (supply) difficulties stem more from teacher turnover than from supply-side problems. “For science, those leaving teaching at the end of the year represented 130 percent of those who entered at the beginning of that year,” the study says.
For math, the number of teachers leaving their jobs was 120 percent of the number who entered the pool of qualified candidates at the start of the year. In both fields, retirements accounted for only a small percentage of leavers, suggesting that most of the attrition is not the result of a graying workforce.
The high rate of nonretirement-related job movement led Mr. Ingersoll to suggest that retention, rather than supply, is the key to solving schools’ staffing problems.
Retention should mean not only keeping the teachers who are already in the schools, but also bringing back teachers who were ended up working who-knows-where after moving. Teachers who are no longer teaching but want to teach become invisible in our society. Their identity as teachers is effectively scrubbed. A receptionist who is a once and hopefully future math teacher is a receptionist, not a teacher. The fact the receptionist was ever a teacher becomes part of a past life, not a present possibility.
Schools can reduce turnover, Mr. Ingersoll said, by improving their working conditions—supporting new teachers, for example, offering better pay schedules, getting a handle on student-discipline problems, or showing more effective leadership.
Schools should do all that, but schools could also welcome veteran teachers who move into their communities as the valuable assets they are instead of viewing them as budget breakers. State credentialing commissions could remove the arbitrary obstacles that make it difficult for proven out-of-state teachers to get certified in their new state of residence. For example, an out-of-state teacher who moves to Arizona must pay for and pass Arizona's certification tests, even if they have already passed either the National Teachers Examination (NTE) or other state tests. Once they pass Arizona's tests, they get a provisional credential which expires in two years if they are unable to land a teaching job. The more experienced the teacher, the more likely their provisional credential will expire. Then these teachers are barred from tutoring for the schools or serving as teachers for the home-bound or in other public capacities.
They suffer even when they try to tutor privately. The first question any parent asks is, “Do you have a teaching credential?” “I have an expired one,” does not satisfy. The public simply does not understand how society is barring some of its best teachers from teaching.