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Turning a Crisis into an Opportunity

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by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, December 2000

The numbers aren't adding up. Too many mathematics classes, too few well-prepared mathematics teachers--this is the situation facing both the United States and Canada. In the United States alone, an unprecedented 2 million to 2.5 million teachers will need to be hired in the next decade, half of whom will be brand new to the profession. Trends indicate that between 15 and 60 percent of these new teachers will leave the profession by their third year of teaching. The Ontario College of Teachers estimates that more than 41,000 of Ontario's 175,000 teachers will retire in the next five years, and it expects another 78,000 to retire in the next 10 years--a scenario expected to be repeated across Canada.

The shortage is not just a question of numbers of teachers, however. It's also a question of teacher quality. Although a majority of states and provinces require teachers to demonstrate proficiency in mathematics appropriate to their teaching assignments, these requirements can be--and often are--waived. For example, of the 39 states that require prospective teachers to pass basic skills tests, 36 will hire teachers even if they fail the test. Currently, it is common to have 25 percent or more mathematics teachers teaching out of field, with the highest concentrations being in rural areas and at schools with large percentages of nonwhite and poor students. Furthermore, as the demand for teachers continues to outstrip the supply, these conditions are likely to intensify.

Another challenge for states is creating real incentives to join the profession. Recently, one of my best preservice math education students chose not to enter mathematics teaching, in spite of having a loan that would have been forgiven if he taught for several years. A computer company made him a much more lucrative offer--one he felt he could not afford to refuse. He indicated that his decision might have been different if his starting salary were higher, if the working conditions of a classroom teacher were better, and if there were more opportunities for professional growth.

Although states and provinces have numerous incentive programs, it is time for the United States and Canada to approach teacher shortages and improvements in classroom teaching conditions from a national perspective and with support that gives states and provinces appropriate flexibility.

In the United States, it is not new for the federal government to get involved in education when critical national needs are identified. From the Morrill Act of 1862, which supported establishing much-needed agricultural and mechanical colleges, to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which supported vocational education, to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which supported improving our nation's status in mathematics, science, and engineering--the federal government has played a role in helping states meet the educational needs of the nation.

Once again, it is time for bold, national-level initiatives to address a national problem. The bipartisan National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, headed by former Senator John Glenn, recently recommended a number of approaches to improving the teaching and learning of mathematics and science--recommendations NCTM strongly supports. Among them is a call for more than $2 billion of federal funds to boost status, pay, preparedness, and professionalism in math and science teaching. The Glenn Commission has played a key role in identifying new, long-term initiatives addressing teacher shortages.

Many others have important roles to play in improving mathematics teaching and learning. NCTM must continue its leadership in promoting Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. To help teachers implement the vision of a high-quality mathematics education for every child, our annual and regional conferences will continue to offer a wide range of sessions and resources, and our newly-launched NCTM Academy for Professional Development will provide even more in-depth, focused learning opportunities. Finally, NCTM leaders will continue to regularly interact with members of Congress and the business community to gain support for policies and legislation that would add to the professional development opportunities available to mathematics teachers and help to attract new and skilled teachers to the profession.

Teachers, supervisors, and administrators must also play a role in this effort by becoming advocates for the profession. We must offer our knowledge and expertise so that policymakers understand the issues surrounding teacher shortages and the possible solutions to the problem. We should consider, and become advocates for, mentoring programs or the addition of mathematics resource teachers when they would improve teaching and the teaching environment. We should speak up for teachers' needs for more time on the job to perform instructional duties and call attention to essential factors that might affect teachers' longevity in the profession. In short, let's help the community better understand the demands of our profession and the resources teachers require in order to improve the mathematics learning of our students.

The current teacher shortage presents a challenge ... and an opportunity. Let's make it an opportunity to explain the need for a strong investment in our children's future. Let's help parents and caregivers and community and national leaders recognize that the greatness of a nation is anchored in the greatness of its schools and its teachers--and in the educational opportunities for future generations that they provide.

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