For some five months, I've been teaching math and science at a public school in California. Upon my decision to begin teaching, a change of heart from an intended research career, I faxed out a few quickly hashed-out resumes. To my surprise, nearly every school called back within two days, and every place I interviewed offered to hire me, effective immediately.

Beginning half-way through a semester, I took over a class which had been taught exclusively by substitutes, and found that at least 3 other sets of classes remain in limbo even after my hiring. I had read of teacher shortage, but was not aware of the extent; perhaps 10% of the math or science students at my school have no regular teacher.

Even this underrepresents the disaster that is math and science teaching - many of my colleagues are plainly incompetent. California requires that math teachers either possess a 4-year degree in mathematics or pass a trivially easy qualifying examination, the PRAXIS-2. My estimate of the difficulty of the test is that it would make a fair entrance exam to determine readiness for an AP Calculus class in a student, but well over half of the teachers taking this test fail it.

Sadly, classroom teaching skills seem as abysmally lacking as subject competence. Numerous classrooms I've visited have the atmosphere of a dungeon, with teachers enforcing strict silence as they hand out unexplained assignments day after day. These people aren't being hired for their charm.

I have come to the conclusion that three causes are most to blame for this travesty, and I address them below. Fixing math and science education will be an expensive and demanding task.

  1. Teaching has become a refuge for the incompetent in the universities

    This is a sad trend I observed in my time in college, hammered in every time I took a generally required class. It was invariably the majors in education or child development with the most inane questions, the blankest looks, and the lowest grades. Many an education major has taken up teaching as a refuge from failure at a "real" major. Further, potential teachers are encouraged to major in teaching or liberal arts, both easy majors where little is taught, rather than to seek expertise in a field.

  2. Teaching conditions are often miserable

    My hiring interviews all resulted in job offers, effective immediately. Most schools wanted me to teach five sections of a remedial pre-algebra class, for students who had failed math in previous years. The job I ended up accepting included one of these classes (and four other classes, hence my acceptance), and teaching it was a miserable experience. The class contained 40 students crammed in an overly small room, none of whom had adequate preparation and all of whom were accustomed to failure. Counselors at the school told me that well over half of the students could be expected to drop out of high school. Little math could be taught, and I had to put most of my effort into minimizing vandalism.

  3. Teacher pay is miserly, particularly in math and science

    Everything readers are a pretty geeky bunch, and you likely have a feel for the pay that a technical job can be expected to fetch. I make roughly $30,000 a year in recompense for my 12-hour days. A friend who owns a programming company has extended a standing offer of twice that as a starting salary, despite that I have no professional experience whatsoever. In theory, the educational qualifications for a math or science teacher are comparable to those to be a programmer or an engineer. Is it any wonder that teaching has become a refuge for the incompetent?

The solutions to these problems are both evident and expensive. The standards for teachers should be raised tenfold, they should constantly be held accountable, and mediocrity cannot be tolerated. Sadly, you get what you pay for. Raising standards for the profession at the moment would achieve no purpose except to enrage the teachers' unions and result in more unfilled positions. Both salary and expectations should be raised to those of comparable technical jobs, or students will continue to suffer the kind of math teachers you all remember being exposed to...