FSU and UF match wits on science shortfall

Florida needs math and science teachers.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2007

Florida State University and the University of Florida are teaming up on a $10-million plan to better recruit and prepare math and science teachers for Florida's public schools -areas where there have been critical shortages for years.

The effort, announced in Tallahassee on Wednesday, is modeled on a program at the University of Texas at Austin that doubled the number of UT-Austin graduates with certification to teach math and science.

Florida could use the boost.

For more than two decades, state education officials have put math and science teachers on their annual critical teacher shortage list. Last fall, 10 percent of new science teachers and 9 percent of new math teachers were deemed out of field because they weren't fully certified in the subject areas they were hired to teach, according to a report from the state Department of Education.

The new program will help UF "head off a scientific 'brain drain' by putting bright scientific minds into teaching positions in public school classrooms," UF provost Janie Fouke said in a written statement.

The initiative will be funded by grants from the National Math and Science Initiative and the Helios Education Foundation, with matching money from the Florida Legislature. The math and science initiative picked UF, FSU and 10 other institutions of higher education from 52 who applied to replicate UTeach, the UT-Austin program.

The next generation of scientists is critical for the U.S. to "flourish in the 21st century," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said in a news release. "We are honored to have been selected to play such an important role in helping to develop those scientists."

Founded in 1997, UTeach has enticed math and science majors into teaching by streamlining education courses, offering privately funded internships and making an in-the-classroom course the first thing they take. It also made an effort to reach out to those majors and simply ask if they would consider teaching.

"The myth was, math and science teachers wouldn't be interested in teaching or they would have gone into teaching," said Tracy LaQuey Parker, director of the UTeach Institute, which is heading up the replication effort. But when the university asked, "A lot said, 'Yeah, we'd be interested in trying it.'"

UTeach doubled the number of math and science teachers produced by UT-Austin to more than 70 a year. Four years after UTeach graduates begin teaching, more than 80 percent are still on the job, Parker said.

Many observers see the shortage of high-quality math and science teachers as a crisis. And some consider it among the reasons American students fare poorly on many measures of math and science competence.

Coincidentally, a national report issued Wednesday by the American Institutes for Research found that students in even the highest-performing states are behind their peers in top-scoring counties. Compared to 46 countries, Florida students ranked No. 13 in math and No. 20 in science.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com