Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teaching Math or Science: Is the Shortest Path the Best?

Math and science are teaching shortage areas in much of the nation, and some states are responding by making it easier for content area specialists to don their teaching gear. You may not need to have completed an educator preparation program in order to be hired; in fact, you may not need pre-service pedagogical coursework at all. It’s not uncommon for teachers to be hired on the strength of a degree in a subject like physics or mathematics.

Lateral entry – or what some call sink or swim – options are becoming more common ( Many states allow for issuance of emergency credentials in cases where a fully qualified candidate can’t be found. There are also structured alternative pathways that offer varying amounts of pre-service.

The question is: Are either of these options the best path for you as a future teacher? And are you ready?

Classroom Challenges

The first year is a challenge. Lack of teacher training doesn't just impact those who don't appreciate the types of lessons that engage teenagers. Lessons have to be planned, not just in a global sense but in a minute-by-minute way. The experiment, along with any necessary administrative tasks, have to either fit into a 50-minute time slot or be broken down in logical 50-minute chunks.

Things have a way of happening to schedules after they’re written. Things have a way of happening in general: A fire drill. A bloody nose. A confrontation between students. Science materials can look very different to 7th graders than they do to adults: The material might look slimy – very slimy in an “I’m not touching that!” way. The equipment might look like a Slinky, or like something that could be turned into an airplane with a little tinkering… or like something that could be used to do something to someone that some of the class would think was funny but the victim wouldn't.

There won’t be enough equipment to go around. Unfortunately, even experienced teachers sometimes feel like it doesn't work to let kids choose their own partners -- and it doesn't work to choose them either. There can be other types of management issue. There's a lot of brain development that takes place in the adolescent years, and many are standing on the other side of it. Many students are in class simply because they have to be. A college student who really doesn't want to be in class is apt to skip class. At the high school level, there are plenty of kids who show up but bring disruptive behaviors. They don't have that cognizance of being adults -- they're not. Teachers at this level are still in a custodial role. They still have responsibilities that go beyond just teaching the subject matter. The best want to turn kids around, but it can prove more difficult than anticipated.

The Pivotal First Year and Attrition: Educator Preparation

Whether a novice teacher performs adequately at the novice level and whether he or she stays long enough to be something more than a novice: These are two separate issues. Educator preparation can mean the difference between making it as a teacher and becoming part of the revolving door that plagues some schools. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education studied the relationship between pre-service education and attrition. They noted that attrition rates were higher among science teachers than other disciplines studied and that educator preparation was less. There was a strong correlation between the two. Science teachers were less likely to have completed student teaching before they did the real thing. This was also the case with math, but to a lesser degree.

There was a marked difference among attrition rates based on the level of preparation a teacher had before that pivotal first year. There was a big difference between having little to no preparation and having had what the Consortium considered a basic program. The caveat: A basic program, by their definition, included student teaching. It also included all or most of the following: opportunities to observe teachers, formal feedback on teaching, coursework in learning theory (or the psychology of youth or children), and training in material selection. Basic wouldn’t include courses in teaching methods and practices, but with additional courses, the attrition level went down. (Comprehensive programs, by definition, included at least five pedagogy courses beyond the basics.)

Traditional programs are more likely to be comprehensive. It’s not just a matter of traditional vs alternative, though. Alternative programs may be defined in different ways at the state level. Some include more than 12 weeks of student teaching. Some traditional programs, on the other hand, don’t. Some programs boast higher retention rates than others – even if they don’t meet this particular definition of basic. Some teachers, too, are just plain likely to stay. Two teachers who began their middle school math careers through New York City Teaching Fellows (in the early years of the program) surveyed peers and sought to characterize those who stayed (

Will students learn less as a result of having a teacher who’s learning on the job? It depends. As the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) notes in a research brief, evidence for higher learning gains is mixed ( Some studies have raised concern about learning gains made by students of teachers who complete less selective alternative programs. Some studies, though, have pointed to very strong mathematics performance among students educated by AmeriCorps teachers. AmeriCorps, notably, has programs and partnerships specifically focused on STEM.

One alternative route graduate, quoted by NPR, notes that traditionally prepared teachers seemed to have more strategies for reaching different kinds of kids and more strategies for organizing and maximizing time (

Alternatives are evolving. School systems and education departments know that many can’t afford to go back to school for traditional teacher preparation, and that without alternatives, the teaching workforce is less diverse and less effective. The Learning Policy Institute prepared a paper on high retention pathways (

Those who want longer – and more traditional – programs may want to consider funding sources such as the Robert Noyce Scholarship.