Report: Shortage of Algebra I teachers is missing from the equation

Even without the de facto eighth-grade Algebra I mandate, middle schools across the state have struggled to find enough teachers with a solid foundation in the subject. So what’s going to happen now, with the rapid expansion of middle school algebra?

The Santa Cruz-based Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning just published a brief on the subject, titled “California’s Approach to Math Instruction Still Doesn’t Add Up.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The number of middle school students enrolled in Algebra I classes in which the teacher is either underprepared or assigned “out-of-field” rose from 73,000 in 2004 to more than 74,000 in 2007. In California, about 32% of the workforce assigned to teach Algebra I in middle school does not have a subject matter credential in mathematics and may lack the background and preparation necessary to effectively teach the subject.

Read the four-page brief here.

Educators and policy-makers seem to agree that Algebra I is a tricky subject to teach and learn. So how are kids supposed to learn it from someone with a layman’s understanding of the material?

The center recommends an intensive summer institute for eighth-grade Algebra I teachers that includes 80 hours of initial training and another 80 hours of follow-up instruction (and $2,000 stipends for teachers). They estimate that such an effort would cost $3.6 million, and suggest that businesses, private foundations and industries — who have an interest in seeing students better prepared in math — funnel some of their education reform resources to such an initiative.

According to the brief, California once funded a similar institute, but that it no longer does.

Is it me, or does the state seem to be falling into a familiar pattern: Create a sweeping change (class-size reduction, higher counselor ratios, etc.) and then figure out how to make it work. Maybe policy-makers feel it’s the only way to get things done.

Will it work?

image from batsignal’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Sue

    This is going to be a huge mess – like my eighth grade math teacher…

    I was attending a *very* small and *very* rural school, and mid-year, the 7th/8th grade teacher (and principal) who had also assumed the job of district superintendent, had to give up his classroom-and-principal job to fulfill the superintendent role.

    I think they must have been really desperate because it was mid-year. The new teacher was previously a high school gym teacher, and he had no clue about math or algebra. When he’d make a mistake in the lessons – on a daily basis – I would correct him in front of the whole class. Didn’t matter whether he was working with me and the rest of the 8th-graders, or working with the 7th-graders in the other half of the classroom, I always spoke up.

    I “got” math just from reading the textbook, and had been student-tutoring classmates and younger students for years by this time. He tried once to embarrass me and put me in my place – he offered me the chalk and board, and asked me to explain the concept he’d messed up. That really backfired for him. I spent the next 15-20 minutes in front of the class, working through every problem in our homework assignment. I believe I drove that poor man completely out of teaching.

    The absolute last thing our students need is unqualified teachers attempting to teach algebra. And it’s the last thing we should be doing to those teachers, too.

  • Nextset

    Can some of the math and algebra involved here be taught using internet lessons and or dvds – Is it possible to get some or much of this across using a/v materials? Granted there is and will be a critical shortage of teachers. Can the state and the school districts manage this situation by doing something new – teaching using methods they’ve not be resperate enough to use before?

  • realist

    DVC teaches a number of math classes, including Algebra, various levels, online. Perhaps something can be modeled after this? I’m not sure if middle schoolers can take community college courses, although i know high schoolers can.

    here are the links for beginning and intermediate algebra classes online (although online has its own challenges and may not work for every student):



  • Nextset

    By inflating the “need”, the new rules will create even more of a sellers market for the workers (algebra teachers). They will be able to change jobs perhaps by turning into a different driveway on the way to work if they become unhappy with their working conditions. And don’t think the school can prevent it with a contract. Unsafe working conditions can be cited to break employment contracts.

    Therefore urban or ghetto schools may not be able to hire and keep qualified math teachers, they will be gone to higher class school districts the first time their cars are vandalized – or they are beaten or assaulted at school – or maybe just cursed at? And I suspect cursing may occur as the stress builds up.

    I think OUSD had best seriously explore the Internet and DVD instruction program options – supplemented by triaged live instruction.

    I can still argue that driver’s ed and training classes (among other things) for all are more important to OUSD than Algebra for all. Advanced classes in math are expensive and should be reserved for those who want it – but basic education (for basic functioning in society) is not as expensive and should be provided for all. What Arnold and Co are doing will deplete the budgets without making the majority of OUSD (for example) students more employable.

    Brave New World.

  • jake

    Nextset, please explain how you can simultaneously know so little about the Algebra course contents as to wonder if it could be taught by video, and also argue that driver’s ed and “training classes” (which I assume you mean to be vocational courses) are more important?

    From this, and your vapid analysis of the “sellers (sic) market for the workers,” you reveal yourself to have little working knowledge of the topic on which you are opining.

    So are you simply aiming for snark and smugness? Are you, in fact, trolling for people to argue with?

    If so, it’s boring. Please stop. If not, it’s still boring. Please think honestly about whether your post is a valuable contribution before adding it to this forum.

  • Nextset

    Jake: You really have issues here, that’s too bad. Are you a teacher? Are you a student? This must be really difficult for you.

    One of the things most striking about children educated in a “liberal” environment is their inability to participate in public discourse. They have been conditioned to shout down any point of view they don’t like – and make personal attacks on the other speakers. It is a primary vehicle for them.

    You clearly have this trait. Which is why I suspect you are young and immature – at least career-wise.

    Your posts have been different from the others in that respect.

    Until I see something about your background that indicates that you have anything to say based on experience in life I just can’t bring myself to take you seriously enought to engage you.

    Your emotion (another feature of the immature) in blogging is kind of charming but it gets in the way of discourse.

    Adults have less emotion and more point of view. You rant – and you rant against individuals not against ideas. You seem to believe your emotion makes you important. Not in discourse.

    I hope you aren’t a teacher but that’s the way it goes. People who couldn’t make it in industry are attracted to certain occupations. Anyway, until I see something more useful in viewpoint exchange I don’t take you seriously. Maybe someone else will engage you.

    Back to the thread. There was already a shortage of Math teachers. Requiring much more math for all students should break the bank here. There will be fewer math teachers for any of the districts. It follows that only the wealthier districts will end up with the math teachers. So this new policy is unlikely to advance math progress in the schools unless a way to teach is developed that required less teachers – or uses non-math teachers in a way that moves things along. Thus my thought about the necessity of using more visual aids and fewer teachers to move the subject.

    It’s my position that the US (and the world?) is heading into a depression – the “greater” depression – not just a recession. School budgets aren’t going to improve in real dollars and there will be a need to do more with less – to triage if you will. It’s typical of the politicians to claim that we are going to embark on grand new labor-intensive programs to do what’s never been done before – bring higher math to the masses.

    Sounds just like the totalitarian regimes of the mid 20th Century. Entertain the people…

  • Jake

    Nextset, I have asked you several direct questions about your arguments. I’ve questioned you about your analysis, and about your tone. I’ve read this forum for a long time now, and it concerns me that you routinely interrupt useful dialogue to insert sarcastic, dismissive remarks.

    I am not sure why my comments seem emotional to you. I’ve been criticizing your comments, because I find them unhelpful and disrespectful, but I’m not angry about it. Does it upset you to be criticized?

  • Juliana Jones

    Katy, I really like that you go to CFTL and the Center View as a resource.

  • http://gladesinstitute.org Camp Mawks

    Camp Mawks in Mammoth Lakes is a small math and astronomy summer residence camp for youth. No one teaching at Camp Mawks has a “subject matter credential in mathematics” and we see this as part of California’s problem. We do have PHD’s and MS’s in mathematics, physics or EE. We teach to small groups in a non competitive environment. The camp is sponsored by the Glades Institute.

    We do have a few full and partial need based scholarships available, one for the July 27th session. Visit us online at http://www.gladesinstitute.com

  • Amy

    I would have to agree that finding middle school math teachers is hard. Math can be a difficult subject to both understand and teach. However, if the center is recommending 80 hours of training, and 80 hours of follow-up instruction, they should have a general idea of how to teach. Also, I think it should be required and not just recommended.

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  • http://N/A Sherry

    Algebra is unnessacary to teach to everyone. The only proffessionals that it is a “nessecity” for is a scientist, mathematician, and very few engineers: civil or structural. Otherwise, forcing students in colleges, especially to learn algebra is a waste of thier time and hard earn money for some. The only reason why colleges make it a “need” is to test their own professors on their intilligence to teach.
    So, when was the last time you seen an English Lit. professor teach algebra or use it?