MONTGOMERY — Citing hundreds of Alabama public school math and science teachers who aren’t certified in at least one of the classes they’re teaching, Gov. Kay Ivey recently said she worked to get money for a teacher scholarship program in the 2018 education budget.
Late in the budget-drafting process this past spring, $325,000 was added to next fiscal year’s education budget for scholarships for potential math and science teachers. The hope is to increase that amount in future years.
It was the Business Education Alliance, led by former State Superintendent Joe Morton, who lobbied for the scholarship program and informed Ivey of the number of instructors in classes they’re not certified to teach. He said he was told by the Alabama State Department of Education, per a 2016 federal report, there were 842 math and science teachers in elementary and high schools who were “not properly certified” in at least one course they were teaching.
“It doesn’t mean that they’ve had no math or science. It just means they don’t have the requisite numbers to meet state certification,” Morton said.
ALSDE officials early Tuesday said they didn't know what report or numbers Morton was referring to and didn’t have recent data on uncertified educators.
Later, the department said the information came from a U.S. Department of Education report, based on information submitted from the state.
“It is subjective because this is the USDE, and they base it by teacher assignments and how schools are structured,” said Debra Gosha, ALSDE coordinator of educator recruitment and placement.
For example, K-6 elementary teachers are certified to teach most subjects, but some schools are “compartmentalized” so that teachers specialize in a particular subject. If they begin teaching another subject, that’s considered “teaching out of field,” Gosha said.
Gosha also said the USDE numbers don’t account for teachers who have an emergency certification and are actively working toward certification. There are multiple pathways for teacher certification in Alabama.
“I don’t think (the numbers are) completely reflective of all the possibilities of the level of certifications,” ALSDE spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert said.
At the same time, the department recognizes every child should have a certified teacher, she said.
“We know there is a shortage of teachers in certain positions, and school systems still have to schedule those classes and hold those classes,” Valdes-Hubert said.
School systems for years have struggled to find certified teachers, especially in advanced and specialized courses. Last year, the State Board of Education voted to let systems hire non-certified but experienced instructors on a part-time basis.
Gosha said the teacher shortage is especially bad in high school math. That’s also reflected in the USDE numbers. She said less college students are majoring in math education, and more high schools are being built.
“There are just not enough math teachers to cover student enrollment,” she said.
The issue is particularly noticeable in less-populated areas of the state.
“Alabama is a rural state, and it is hard to convince a 22-year-old to go live in Wilcox County,” Gosha said.
Eric Mackey, leader of the Alabama superintendents’ association, said his group didn’t have any numbers on teachers without certification but knows they’re out there.
“If we took all the certified and qualified math teachers and matched them against the number of math classes being taught, they don’t match,” Mackey said. “There are simply not enough teachers.”
The teachers may have certifications in related fields. An advanced science teacher asked to teach one math class is probably qualified to teach it, Mackey said.
“If they are certified to teach physics, they can probably teach a math class,” he said.
Morton, state superintendent from 2004-11, said shortages in math, science and special education are “perennially high.” Often, people with math or science educations take their degrees elsewhere.
He said the non-certified teachers could be one or more credits shy of being considered qualified in a specific subject.
“That doesn’t mean they’re bad people or bad teachers,” Morton said. And they’re needed to fill in when a certified teacher can’t be found. He said 842 out of about 40,000 public school teachers isn’t a lot.
Still, he said, teachers should be certified in their subjects just as engineers, nurses or airline pilots are certified in their professions.
“There is a benchmark that people need to meet,” Morton said.
In an interview early this month, Ivey, a former teacher, said she wasn’t aware of the certification issue until she was approached in April about the scholarship program.
“The more I listened and learned, I clearly knew that we need all our teachers who are teaching math and science to be certified to teach it,” she said.
“… The hope is we can continue this for a total of six years, increasing that amount each year and fill the pipeline of qualified teachers.”
The BEA’s scholarship proposal is three-pronged. First, scholarships for college juniors majoring in math or science. They’ll get two years of tuition assistance if they commit to teaching for at least two years. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education is administering those scholarships. Second, Morton said, will be to offer existing teachers the chance to return to college to take classes they’re missing. Third, offering education training to those in the private sector who have an interest in teaching.
Morton said the scholarship program will need to double in 2019 to $650,000 and remain at that level for about five years to fill the need in classrooms.
The next step, Morton said, will be to get qualified teachers in hard-to-staff schools, including rural and inner cities.
“But first, we have to get them in the pipelines,” he said.