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Shortage of math teachers needs Legislature’s attention

January 22, 2019

If mathematicians thought Fermat’s Last Theorem was a hard one to solve, maybe they should look at the ongoing problem of recruiting and retaining math teachers for West Virginia’s public school system.

Finding teachers certified to teach math has been a longstanding problem here in the Mountain State, and it shows when students are tested to see how well they are learning what they are expected to learn. Proficiency in math lags behind that in reading and other subjects.

Steps are being taken to correct this problem, and they are the subject of debate in the Legislature this session, according to an article by The Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck on Sunday.

Michele Blatt, assistant superintendent for support and accountability for the state Department of Education, says 33 percent of teachers teaching Math 1 in ninth grade in West Virginia are not certified, and for Algebra 1, 25 percent are not fully certified.

Teresa Eagle, dean of the Marshall University College of Education and Professional Development, says colleges and universities are seeing a lack of interest in the math education profession. Eagle, a former math teacher herself, said part of the issue is math education majors take all the same courses as those who are going to be engineers or other professions that “without question” pay more.

There is also a problem with keeping certified math teachers. Trena Wise, a math teacher at Cabell Midland High School, said one math teacher at her school recently moved to Florida, where she received a $1,000 signing bonus along with a higher salary.

Last week, the House of Delegates began considering a proposal offered by Gov. Jim Justice. Among other things, it would provide a onetime $2,000 bonus to teachers who complete specialized math courses to be offered by the Department of Education and who spend at least 60 percent of their time teaching math classes.

State Superintendent Steve Paine said the bonus could be considered a pilot program. If it is successful, it could be expanded to other subjects in which teachers are in short supply, he said.

Frank Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the state’s largest education union, is skeptical about the governor’s proposal as a long-term solution. He said the union is willing to look at options to address the shortage, but he questioned whether that incentive would be enough. It could just shift the problem to other content areas, he said.

Albert’s concerns are justified. It would not be good for public schools if a system developed where math teachers were paid a large amount more than others, but something must change. Too many students are graduating from West Virginia’s public schools with insufficient math skills. When they take classes in college or vocational training programs, they can find themselves taking remedial classes in which they learn what they should have learned in high school and earlier.

Justice’s proposal might not be the answer, but it does provide a starting point for a much-needed discussion.

For what it’s worth, Fermat’s Last Theorem was proposed in 1637 by Pierre de Fermat, who said he had a proof that he never got around to revealing. His theorem was one of the most difficult problems in all of mathematics until it was solved in 1994 by British mathematician Andrew Wiles.

It took math people 357 years to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Here in West Virginia, we need to solve our problem of recruiting math teachers sometime before the year 2376.

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