More teachers needed in some subjects

Published: September 15 2009 | 7:17 am - Updated: 30 March 2014 | 9:33 am in
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Donna Young retired from teaching in Cedar Rapids in 2002 — sort of.

She took a couple of years off and then started teaching part time.

“I missed the laughter of kids,” said Young, 62.

This fall, she’s back to full-time teaching family and consumer science — what used to be called home ec — at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, because the district could not find a certified teacher in that subject area.

“The field of family and consumer sciences education is experiencing significant numbers of retirement and an inadequate supply of new replacement teachers,” said Robert Bosselman, professor and chairman of the department of apparel, educational studies and hospitality management at Iowa State University. “This is a national issue and not limited to any one state.”

The absence of experienced teachers in certain subject areas is something states have struggled with for years.

I-Teach program helping

An increase in the number of science and math students who hope to be science and math teachers can be attributed to I-Teach Math and Science.

The program launched last fall as a project of the The Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership. IMSEP is a collaboration of the state’s three universities to improve math and science education in Iowa schools, and address the state’s math and teacher shortage.

I-Teach Math and Science educates math and science majors about teaching. The program consists of weekly tuition-free seminars, as well as internship opportunities, mentoring and scholarships.

The University of Northern Iowa and North Iowa Area Community College piloted the program in fall 2008. It was offered at Iowa State University and other community colleges in spring 2009 and will eventually be available at the University of Iowa and other locations.

Of the 77 math and science majors who have participated in the program, about two-thirds are now education majors, said Jeff Weld of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership.“It’s still relatively new,” Weld said. “It has glimmers of hope. It’s just about maintaining and expanding.”

More than one-third of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers could retire within the next four years, according to a 2008 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a non-profit research advocacy group. That is coupled with a large turnover rate — 20 percent of all new hires leave the profession within three years — and fewer individuals choosing to be teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Iowa Department of Education has identified a dozen teacher shortage areas for the current school year: special education, science, math, English as a Second Language, foreign language, music, industrial technology, agriculture, family and consumer science, talented and gifted, counseling and media specialist. Most shortage areas are at the secondary level and have been on the state’s shortage list for years.

“We’re just having a difficult time attracting people to those areas,” said Judy Jeffrey, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Money is a key issue. People with the aptitude for math and science — two subjects always in short supply — can make more money in the business sector than they can teaching. Stress levels are another concern, as well as public perception.

“Education takes a beating in the media regularly,” said College Community Superintendent Richard Whitehead.

Jim Pedersen, director of human relations for the Iowa City school district, said the district hasn’t had trouble filling its math and science positions and cites the district’s location as an advantage.

“If we post a position early in the hiring season, we have an ample pool of candidates,” Pedersen said.

The district isn’t immune to shortages, though, and always has a need for special-education teachers. Other areas of concern include industrial technology and teacher librarians.

Prairie’s advertisement for a family and consumer science teacher netted just three applicants, said Mark Gronemeyer, Prairie’s principal.

Iowa State’s family and consumer sciences education program has about 50 undergraduates, with 12 to 15 students graduating each academic year, said Bosselman.

The university’s post-baccalaureate program, for those who want to teach at the secondary level, has 22 students, with six to 10 graduating each year.

The numbers are just as daunting in other subjects, especially in math and science, at a time when U.S. schools are falling behind other countries in those subjects. For example: 185 biology teachers are eligible to retire, with only 85 graduates available to replace them, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

“We need to improve in math and science,” College Community’s Whitehead said. “If we don’t have the instructors, it’s game over.”

Schools that can’t fill a teaching post do have options, though they aren’t ideal. If the subject in question is an elective, it might be dropped. For core classes, some schools hire long-term substitute teachers. Districts also share instructors, with the teacher traveling between schools or even districts. Other districts collaborate with community colleges.

“Other countries across the world have come up with strategies to address this issue,” including higher salaries, more support and a general respect for the profession, said Jeffrey of the Iowa Department of Education.

“They have created the conditions to make teaching attractive,” she said. “We need to do that in the U.S.”

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