Short on Math Teachers? Give Easier Entry Test… or Offer Better Pay?

The state Board of Education took a step to ease South Dakota’s teacher shortage yesterday by making it easier to get certified to teach middle school math:

As school district officials in South Dakota worry about a shrinking supply of qualified teachers, aspiring educators continue to struggle with the certification test to teach high school math.

Nearly half of all teachers who take the exam fail. But the 9-0 vote by the state Board of Education might give them an alternative.

“This is a positive move forward, because we do have some schools where those eighth-grade teachers are certified for Algebra I, and it’s not really an equitable situation if you’re not in a school that doesn’t have that teacher,” board member Julie Mathiesen said.

She and other board members approved a rule change allowing for a separate “intermediate test” for teachers who need some kind of math credential, but don’t teach higher-level courses such as calculus [Patrick Anderson, “State Pursuing Alternate Certification for Middle School Math Teachers,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.07.27].

I’d test the “hard” test myself, if the version Anderson has posted online were legible. If there is a problem, maybe we should simply save money by dropping the Praxis test and giving math teachers the same test we give their eighth graders. To determine teacher qualifications, we can apply my homemade test test. When I make tests for my students, I calculate how long it will take students to do it by taking it myself, then multiplying by four: if I can complete my own test in 15 minutes, students will need 60 minutes. Reverse that for teacher qualification: if a teacher can finish the standard Grade 8 Smarter Balanced math test in a quarter of the official time limit, that teacher can teach middle school math.

My political concern is this: even before the Governor’s Blue Ribbon K-12 task force gathers its data and presents its recommendations for K-12 funding, Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown) is already signaling that the Legislature won’t approve any additional funding for teachers without increased work and accountability. The Board of Education can say that offering an easier test “isn’t about lowering the bar, but finding a better-suited alternative for teachers who don’t specialize in math but need some kind of math credential” (that’s the language in Anderson’s article), but yesterday’s decision (which requires Legislative approval) says, “Let’s let teachers who know less math teach math.” I understand the logic—a gal who can do differential equations may not be the best person to set seventh graders right on fractions—but easier tests will signal to legislators that they can justify paying teachers less.

It’s already relatively easy to get certified to teach certain subjects in South Dakota (remember, I’m a math and history major, and I’ve spent more time teaching English and French than anything else). Lowering the requirements to teach middle school math is perhaps a logical response to a shallow labor pool caused by our shamefully low teacher salaries. It’s certainly a cheaper response than paying the competitive wages the market demands for better qualified math teachers.

3 Responses to Short on Math Teachers? Give Easier Entry Test… or Offer Better Pay?

  1. Deb Geelsdottir

    Man, they’re desperate enough to try just about anything — other than the Right Thing. That Right Thing is directly addressing the pay issue.

    It’s like a car with a cracked head and bent pushrods. What is required is a complete overhaul or new engine. Nothing else will fix the problem. In fact, the engine is going to blow at any moment. So you add a heavier weight oil. Duh.

  2. I have never taken a math Praxis exam, but if it is comparable to the level of difficultly in various areas of science and education, one has no business teaching that content area if they cannot pass the test. Students would be better served by DDN or online classes.

  3. I think this is more an answer to the teacher certification problem created by the scope of the Praxis math test. The Praxis test (more intended for HS certification) covers math from algebra, to geometry, to trigonometry, to calculus – there are not separate Praxis tests required for each specific math discipline, only a global “math” Praxis. Certainly a HS math teacher might teach any or all of these classes, but the middle school teacher would only teach the Algebra (possibly Algebra 2). Absent this new adjustment to certification, a middle school math teacher had to demonstrate proficiency of content far beyond anything that teacher would be teaching; it prevented teachers solidly proficient in algebra from teaching algebra.

    I think this is a appropriate fix.