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Senate plans a break for teachers' math scores

In the face of a teacher shortage, senators find a way to let non-math teachers keep teaching.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001

In the face of a teacher shortage, senators find a way to let non-math teachers keep teaching.

TALLAHASSEE -- How much math should a history, English or music teacher have to know?

State senators struggled with that question Friday as they debated how to solve a major teacher shortage facing Florida. In the end, they approved a plan to allow new teachers to stay in the classroom for three years, even if they flunk a 10th-grade-level math test generally required for certification.

The teachers could work under a temporary teaching certificate while they brush up on math skills, and they could not teach math above the fourth-grade level.

Senators added the provision to teacher-recruitment legislation sponsored by state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, chairman of the Senate's education budget committee.

His legislation includes what the state teachers union considers to be a far more controversial provision to allow "adjunct" educators to teach part-time in schools without taking any tests or education courses before entering the classroom. The adjuncts would have expertise in a certain area and hold a bachelor's degree, among other qualifications.

But that provision got no attention as senators got into a spirited discussion of teachers' math skills. Sullivan argued strenuously against giving teachers three years to pass a state math test.

"If mathematics has any benefit, and I believe it does, we should at least require people who are around our children to master the most fundamental aspects of mathematics," he said.

"The question is, who is it that graduates from college and can't add, subtract, multiply and divide and know some basic algebraic concepts? . . . It is wrong to turn the responsibility of educating our children to people who can't pass a 10th-grade test in mathematics."

Teachers already can work under temporary certificates for three years, but they have to demonstrate "mastery of general knowledge" -- which means passing state tests in reading, writing and math -- within a calendar year of employment.

State Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, proposed increasing that to three years. He said the extra time will help art, music, physical education and other teachers who may not excel in math, but don't have to teach it. Those teachers would have to pass the other sections of the College-Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST), which include reading, English language and an essay section.

State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, a lawyer, said he teaches law school classes, but he struggles trying to help his eighth-grade son with math.

"This (proposal) just says that if you're a good teacher in one area . . . we don't want to immediately throw you out the door," Smith said.

The Florida Education Association supports increasing the time to pass the math test, said Marshall Ogletree, a lobbyist for the teachers' union who used to be a math teacher in Pinellas.

Ogletree said the CLAST math test is harder than Sullivan described, and it would be especially difficult for someone who has been out of the classroom and wants to return.

The provision would likely affect those older, returning teachers, Ogletree said, as well as teacher candidates from private universities. Students in public universities and community colleges generally must pass the CLAST test to move on to junior- and senior-level courses.

Even those students are having trouble with the math section, which the Department of Education acknowledges is a ninth- or 10th-grade-level math test.

Department figures show that last June, only 44 percent of students taking the math CLAST test for the first time passed it. In contrast, between 67 and 78 percent of the students passed the reading, English language and essay sections.

Between now and 2010, Florida will need about 162,000 new teachers, 36 percent of them in elementary education. Legislative analysts say that the state will be short some 2,400 teachers a year because Florida's education colleges, and out-of-state recruiting, won't cover the demand.

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