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Sen. Scott seeks to ease teacher shortage

Senator Jack Scott, D-Altadena, will unveil a proposal later this month to
address the state’s shortage of math and science teachers by recruiting
professions who are looking for a career change.

Scott, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, will outline his ideas at
a hearing at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena on Jan. 20. The centerpiece
is a proposal to create a streamlined credentialing process that would allow
people with sought-after math and science skills to gain a teacher
credential in as little as four to six weeks.

“I believe we can attract mid-career professionals who are very interested
in being teachers,” Scott said. “But I don’t think if we take them through
the regular credentialing process, where they have to take a year or more
out of their lives, that it would work.”

Such a program would be limited to people holding particular degrees or
skills. It would likely charge some tuition to attendees, Scott said, but
would be subsidized by the state. The cost to the state would be negligible,
he said, especially compared to other methods of addressing to the teacher
shortage.

The need for to recruit math and science teachers is clear, Scott said,
given that 23 percent of the state’s physical science teachers and 10
percent of its high school math teachers are not qualified according to the
state’s own standards. Many of these instructors, he said, are well-trained
in other subjects but are forced to fill in to meet the shortages in math
and science.

However, the idea could place Scott on a collision course with the
California Federation of Teachers. Mike Weimer, the legislative
representative of the Federation, said that the credentialing process
includes many necessary skills that even highly educated professionals are
unlikely to have. These include lesson planning, teaching standards and
methods.

“It takes more than four to six weeks to get that kind of information,”
Weimer said. “Teaching is not a job you can just walk in off the street and
do.”

A shortage of teachers in technical fields and special educations is a
widely-acknowledged national problem. In fact, 47 states have alternative
credentialing processes designed to bring in teachers in sought-after
subjects, according to the National Center for Alternative Credentialing.

California has six such programs, but most provide only a temporary
credential. A seventh such program which could have been used to provide a
temporary credential to those with technical skills, the California
Preliminary (CAP) program, expired a year ago. The Legislature passed a bill
last year, SB 404, to extend the CAP credential to 2011, but it was vetoed
by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said the program was underutilized
and overcomplicated.

Scott said that he hoped his program would allow those who attended to go
all or most of the way towards a permanent credential, rather than a
temporary one.

Another sticking point in bringing recruiting skilled math and science
instructors is pay. Weimer also said that the Federation would oppose a
higher pay scale for math and science teachers. But some industry groups
counter that this is unrealistic.

“There are ten times as many people who can teach math as English, because
math is hard,” said Ian Fletcher, vice-president for government relations of
the American Engineering Association. He added that one can’t go out and
“practice English” in the private sector.

Fletcher added he believed teachers are underpaid in all subject areas. In
Europe and Japan, he said, teachers are generally better paid compared
relative to the U.S. Nevertheless, he said, K-12 pay scales should be more
like those in universities, he said, where professors in technical fields
are often paid more to reflect the fact that they could make more money in
the private sector.

Higher pay for these teachers could be on the table, Scott said, though he
acknowledged that it was a “sensitive issue.” One potential way to reach a
compromise on this issue would be to allow those with technical skills to
count some of their relevant years in the private sector as teaching
experience, allowing them to start higher on the teaching pay scale.

However, these scales–and the types of alternative experience that
mid-career candidates can count towards them–vary widely between the states
many school districts. Scott said that he would be reluctant to mandate
statewide standards on pay scales because individual districts ultimately
have to pay the salaries.

Ultimately, Scott’s idea would rely on there being a pool of willing people
with the right skills. How big such a pool might be has been a matter of
some debate.

Groups representing American engineering and science professionals have long
complained that businesses lobby Congress to increase the number of H1-B
visas–a huge proportion of which are filled by engineers from China and
India–in order to drive down wages. This, in turn, has led to a pool of
older, out of work technical people who have been replaced by younger,
cheaper alternatives, said the Engineering Association’s Fletcher–though he
added that the actual numbers of these people is very hard to measure.

Marti Kramer, CEO of the California Society of Professional Engineers, said
that there is a pool of engineers who want to help. Her group focuses on its
MathCounts volunteer program, which brings in technical professionals to
teach critical problem-solving skills to middle schools. However, she said,
there might not be many skilled applicants driven to a math and science
credentialing program by financial needs.

“I think the employment outlook for engineers right now is hot,” Kramer said.

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