How Can Students Pursue STEM Careers When Math Majors Don’t Become Teachers?
March 16, 2021
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher can make or break a student’s interest in a subject.
When it comes to math, this axiom may hold particularly true. Since the subject is cumulative, each semester lays the foundation for the next, and one bad teacher can set off a compounding series of mathematical misadventures.
Unfortunately, your chances of getting a math teacher who inspires you may not be great. In fact, the person who is explaining the ins and outs of x’s and y’s may not even have studied advanced math in college.
A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 2008, more than 28 percent of high school math teachers in the United States had not majored in the subject in college. There are even fewer former math majors who teach at the elementary and middle school levels, despite research showing that developing an interest in math and science by eighth grade is crucial for getting kids into STEM jobs.
Other recent studies (such as this one from 2010 and this one from 2014) have even shown that elementary teachers’ attitudes about their own math abilities — many of which are not positive — can affect student performance.
Why aren’t math-loving math majors going into the teaching profession? As always, there isn’t just one reason. Nor is the lack of qualified (and enthusiastic!) educators necessarily a nationwide problem. Depending on where you live, there may be a shortage of qualified math teachers — and in such cases, districts make do with the bodies they have.
That shortage is driven by a number of factors, including the economy in a given local district, the relevant state’s teacher certification rules, and even the quality of teacher colleges nearby. Location plays a role in a different sense, as well, since rural schools tend to have a relatively hard time recruiting teachers, as do inner-city ones (though the latter difficulty may be eased with the reduction of teacher accountability in high-stakes testing following passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act).
It also doesn’t help that — even as most people acknowledge how important teachers are — the “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach" mentality endures. That attitude can be traced back to our country’s early education history.
“Those Who Can’t, Teach": A Brief History
When Europeans first came to the New World, different groups established their own forms of educating children. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Dutch settlers in what would become New York, Pennsylvania, and other northeast states set up schools, mainly for the purpose of teaching students to read scripture. In the southern states, however, schooling was mostly for the wealthy, who hired private tutors, or sent their children abroad, or enrolled them in private schools. There were a few public schools for the poor in states like Virginia (Thomas Jefferson pushed for such institutions), but these were not common across the south for many years. During the westward migration, schools were started across the country as families settled the land. That was when a shortage of male teachers — coupled with the fact that female teachers, not presumed to be supporting a family, could be paid less — gave educated women an opportunity to earn a living in a respectable fashion. This living, though, was dependent on their married status. Only “spinsters" were allowed to teach; and so for many, teaching was a temporary occupation.
What’s more, many women (and men, too) were not trained as teachers. The idea that teaching is a profession, requiring practice and pedagogy and support, didn’t catch on until the 1830s, when Normal Schools were established for teacher training. Unfortunately, frontier teachers often did not have access to this kind of education, and the districts that hired them didn’t necessarily care — or have alternative options.
The beloved children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder is a famous example. At 15, while still in school herself, she took a teaching job in a remote settlement, where she taught intermittently until she married Almanzo Wilder at 18 — having never officially graduated high school herself. But the landscape of education would soon change. Two years after her marriage, in 1887, the first graduate school of education was established at Columbia University in New York.
For math teaching specifically, change was not always for the better. A series of education reforms in the early 20th century set back the profession by calling for less advanced math to be taught in schools, not more. As we advance in the 21st century, there remains work to be done to improve math education in schools — but there is also a great deal of hope: A number of programs are determined to ensure that great math instructors, specially trained in the subject, will teach high-level math to their (increasingly enthusiastic) students.
Building a Better Math Teacher
Laurie Riggs is a math professor at California State Polytechnic University–Pomona, where she works to help build better math teachers. “We have a huge shortage [of math teachers in California]," Riggs said. “And it’s not just looming, it’s here." She would know, since she is also director of the University’s Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, or CEMaST. CEMaST’s mission is not just to help math majors (of whom Cal Poly has about 400) wanting to become teachers to get into the profession, but also to work with established high school teachers who want to qualify to teach math (by taking the subject certification test) or established elementary and middle school teachers who want to become better at their jobs.
For high school teachers, Riggs said, the Center offers math courses to help them pass the “hard" certification test. Having been a math major back in college is preferable, she said, since it gives the teaching candidate a better depth of mathematical knowledge, but it is not required. (Research bears this out: Recent studies show that just being a math major is no guarantee someone will be a good teacher. That takes a combination of knowledge and teaching skill.)
For established elementary and middle school educators, there is a three-part set of programs in nearby public school districts geared specifically toward helping teachers improve their instructional skills.
CEMaST also helps professionals who want to switch careers (from, for example, law or engineering) to teaching math.
To do all this, the Center gets grants from private and public sources, including the National Science Foundation and Boeing.
Pomona’s CEMaST has been around for about 20 years, Riggs said. Similar programs exist at other public and private universities in California. There are also versions at universities across the country. But helping build a better math teacher is only part of the solution. Getting better math teachers to stay in the classroom is every bit as important. Enter the Master Teacher Program.
Keeping the Greats in the Classroom
“We’re not trying to build math teachers, we’re trying to keep the great ones in the classroom," said Megan Roberts, executive director of Math for America. Math for America was started in 2004 by mathematician, Stony Brook University professor, and hedge fund manager Jim Simons. The New York–based nonprofit’s mission is to eradicate “those who can’t, teach" — particularly when it comes to math and science — from mainstream culture. “In our country today, we don’t do enough to encourage extraordinary teachers to stay in the classroom, and we don’t do enough to value teachers and teaching as a profession," the organization’s site reads. To those ends, MfA aims to make teaching a fulfilling and respected career — and to change the conversation around teaching.
To accomplish these goals, the organization offers more than 100 professional development courses, focusing on everything from fractals to LEGO robotics. It offers teachers a community in which they can discuss the joys and challenges of teaching (the group recently made a video talking about the need to stop referring to what they do as being “just" a teacher). It offers fellowships to promising teachers starting careers, and to established ones who may be tempted to leave for higher-paying STEM jobs. While Math for America has succeeded across the country — including in California, Massachusetts, Utah, and Washington, D.C. — the organization’s biggest success has been in its home state, New York. The organization also helped New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo start a Master Teacher Program, based on the Math for America model, that is helping keep teachers in the classroom. The program provides teachers with growth opportunities, access to a network of experts, and a stipend for their participation.
Math for America hopes to continue expanding, but the organization also wants to help other states set up their own similar programs. “We are working with a couple of other states right now who have come to us and said, ‘Will you help us’ on behalf of what to do, how to do it. We gave them our model, [and] they line-itemed it, so federal money pays for it now," Roberts said.
Looking ahead, prospects are promising: If more students are inspired by their math teachers, they’re more likely to major in math. And if teaching continues to receive much-deserved respect, more of those math majors will become the next generation of teachers who inspire students to undertake STEM studies.