Entranced by the lesson, the teachers lean forward in their chairs. The chatter ceases when their instructor speaks, eyes darting to the front of the room. On this Thursday night in the Math for America building on Broadway, they are students too, eager to ask questions and collaborate. BrainWaves, the workshop of the evening, is about how to bring neuroscience into the classroom. Though this might seem advanced for K-12 curriculum, the teachers extract the information they can from neuroscientist, Ido Davidesco, Ph.D., hoping to integrate it into their own schools.
Workshops like this one hosted by the Math for America fellowship program- which consists of Early Career and Master Teachers- are only one part of the ten-year-old organization’s initiative to retain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, who are increasingly and disproportionately impacted by teacher shortages across the nation.
Along with a $15,000 annual stipend over four years ($12,000 for Early Career), Master Teachers with over four years of classroom experience receive professional learning opportunities like conventions, monthly meetings, mentorships, or workshops- many created and taught by the teachers themselves- to incentivize their stay. It seems to be working. While the annual attrition rate for experienced STEM teachers across New York City is 9 percent, only 4 percent of MfA Master Teachers leave teaching each year, according to Senior Public Relations Associate, Scott Woodson.
The current president of Math for America, John Ewing, says, “We want to change the way we think about teaching math and science in this country- to make it more exciting, more prestigious, and more attractive- so teachers stay and young people want teaching careers.”
The situation in New York is representative of the national crisis, but most states don’t have programs as large or teacher autonomous as MfA, says Woodson. Though New York’s decline of students entering teacher education programs over the last five years was 11 percent lower than the national average of 46, urban and rural school districts shoulder the most shortages. In the 2015-16 school year, 42 states reported shortages in math to the Department of Education and 40 reported shortages in science, the highest numbers after special education. Despite facing of a growing number of students and increasing importance of STEM knowledge in an industrial society, STEM education struggles as teachers seek other alternatives.
It is no secret that many American teachers have long felt underpaid and undervalued. Only 34 percent of US teachers reported that they felt valued by society in 2013, according to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), compared to nearly double that from the world’s top countries for education. A study released in September by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a nonpartisan organization launched last year, further cited low teacher morale and feelings of scapegoating as primary causes for the shortage, Moreover, it reported that attrition rates, at 8 percent nationwide, accounted for 95 percent of the educator drought.
“We knew it was high, but we didn’t imagine it being such a huge share of the demand,”says Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the founders of the LPI. If nothing is done to stop it, she says, the country could be grappling with a shortage of over 100,000 teachers annually by 2018.
Of the 8 percent, only about a third of teachers retired, the majority of the rest citing dissatisfaction with teaching conditions as the cause for their departure. Teachers with degrees in STEM, furthermore, often have more opportunities for other, higher-paying options, making it easier for them to leave.
Recognizing this, MfA partnered up with the the State University of New York (SUNY) and Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014 to extend the reach of the Master Teacher Program beyond NYC. Modeled after MfA, this statewide program represents 300 school districts.
Darling-Hammond stresses the importance of policymakers in solving high attrition rates, stating that cutting the attrition rate in half could solve the entire teacher shortage problem.
Of the thousands of teachers involved with Math for America and the New York State Master Teacher program, there are about 30 in both. One of those people is Lauren Brady, the head of the math department at Park East High School. She attends workshops after school which she calls “enlightening,” and that allow her to experiment with different methods of teaching (like developing a unit on election theory for her statistics class.) While she doesn’t try to steer her students toward STEM education careers, she says it’s enough to expose them to opportunities.
“I’d prefer if [teaching] was viewed as a more prestigious profession, considering there’s a huge impact on youth,” Brady says. “But because it’s not, this causes people who have particular content knowledge to not go into the field.” She had wanted to be a math teacher since high school, when she recognized she could understand and explain math concepts with clarity. Despite her passion for introducing students to the interesting parts of math, however, she says, “It’s just as valuable, if not more valuable, to try to retain teachers. Instead of teacher shortages, it’d be nice to have competition.”
For Geoffrey Enriquez, a teacher of 10 years currently at Vanguard High School, he says the Master Teacher programs kept him in teaching. The workshops have been especially lucrative for him because of Vanguard’s state waiver exempting students from final exams, instead measuring content knowledge by final presentations that they each develop. With this unique freedom, Enriquez has translated many MfA courses to class, from explaining how the MTA analyzes traffic and Metrocard data to building financial literacy. For him, the most significant part of the Master Teacher programs are the connections they build, ranging from internet forums to a conference he attended in Berkeley.
“Sometimes you can get stuck in your school and exist in this vacuum,” he says. “You can be doing great things but not have access to other teachers out there with new techniques and insights.” The ability to learn from other teachers in these settings, something he feels is necessary for self-growth, made him want to stay in the profession.
“The people there are so amazing, sometimes I feel like I don’t belong,” Enriquez says. “But I can’t imagine not having access to this program.”
He hopes that the program extends to other states, a hope that Math for America shares, according to Woodson. With it replicated around the country, attrition rates could potentially decrease. Teachers and schools could then share in workshops like “Creating a Killer Unit: Forensic Science in Chemistry and Physics” and “How to Bake Pi: Making Abstract Math Palatable.”
*photo courtesy of Andrew Wille