Dropping Out

Teachers Trade Low Pay for High Tech

Manor math teacher Anita Tidwell drives a school bus on the side for extra income.

photograph by Kevin Fullerton

The technology industry is posting a huge sign across Texas that says, `Help Wanted,'" Gov. George W. Bush declared in April as he rolled out his proposal to attract more high school students into advanced placement, college-credit courses. "Will we have educated, motivated, and ready-to-work workers?" Bush asked. "I believe the answer is `yes.'" Yes, except for one thing: Many of those ready-to-work workers are public school teachers - the ones whom the state desperately needs to create a skilled workforce. In increasing numbers, teachers are trading in their low-paying teaching careers for more lucrative jobs in the high-tech market. So much for recruiting high school students. Now, virtually all school districts in the state are posting their own "Help Wanted" ads, because the superheated high-tech economy is contributing to the districts' increasing vacancies. Offering high salaries and career-ladder opportunities, the technology industry has become a giant sponge soaking up Texas' young, college-educated workers, especially those proficient in algebra, physics, and chemistry.

And according to Paul Rilli, a 35-year-old former algebra teacher who recently left teaching to join Dell Computers, the state's educational system is putting up feeble competition for new employees. As Rilli describes it, a more truthful job listing for a secondary school teacher in Texas would read something like this: "Wanted: Persons who have accomplished five years of specialized education in advanced mathematics or science leading to a professional degree. Willing to work days beginning at 7:30am, and continue working nights at home. Employee will spend minimum of six hours per day encouraging teenagers to learn material which may or may not interest them. Experience in crisis management, social development, and stand-up comedy helpful. Pay: $20,000 to start, salary increase dependent on students' performance."

Rilli, a former financial manager who was inspired to pursue teaching partly by his Italian grandmother, whose dream it was to have a teacher in the family, says his first year working with kids was "incredible," but it quickly wore him down, and he realized he had no hope of buying a home on his $23,000-a-year salary. "Other beginning teachers were all saying the same thing," says Rilli, "that, `It's just too frustrating, we can't do this anymore. We're not getting paid for it, but we're working some crazy hours; the expectation on us is too much'... A lot of them wanted to make the move that I made," says Rilli, who doubled his salary by hiring on at Dell.

Last year, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) released statistics showing that Rilli is indeed part of a statewide trend that is seeing certified teachers leaving public education. Numbers do not exist which show how many working teachers leave the classroom for the private realm, but the SBEC report does reveal in no uncertain terms that the demand for secondary teachers is far outstripping available personnel.

Between the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years, as Texas public school attendance rose by 80,000 students, schools added 28,000 full-time teaching positions to their payrolls, while in the same period only 18,300 new teachers were certified. Moreover, the report shows, of the 1,950 teachers certified in science and math, only about half ever reached the classroom. And results from a five-year study of teachers who were certified in 1991-92 showed that about one-third of secondary school teachers teaching the "foundation curriculum," which includes science and math, had left the school system. That resulted in a shortfall of 1,152 math teachers and 254 science teachers for the 1996-97 school year, forcing schools to cover algebra and general science courses with teachers who are not certified in those areas: At the junior high level, anywhere from one-third to one-half of all math and science courses are being taught by non-certified teachers, according to the report.

Last year, when the Texas Education Agency circulated a questionnaire with ACT exams that asked students about their career goals, only 87 students in the entire state indicated they planned to become math teachers, a labor pool which would not fill positions in the Houston school district alone.

The shortage of math and science teachers affects school districts to varying degrees, depending on their location. In West Texas, where rural school districts fall on the lower end of the pay scale, physics and chemistry teachers are about as rare as falafel sandwiches. But even the Austin Independent School District, which ranks near the top of the pay scale and is in a magnet region for young professionals, barely manages to keep its math and science classrooms stocked with teachers. Even at AISD, math teachers are a precious commodity, says human resources administrator Pam Hall.

Some districts that lie on the outskirts of the Austin metropolitan area are feeling a palpable drain on their human resources as high-tech industry grows. "I can put my finger on no less than four or five key players in math and science who went directly into industry just last year," says Del Valle school district human resources director R.W. Simmons, who tries to maintain a pool of about 20 teachers in those areas. "I mean, it's a huge leap when you start talking about a $15,000-20,000 raise." The beginning teacher salary in Simmons' district is $23,500, one of the highest offerings in the state (thanks, ironically, to local taxes from high-tech companies), while entry level positions in engineering, accounting, and computer science at nearby corporate offices and fabrication plants pay in excess of $40,000, Simmons says. He adds that while math and science teacher shortages are an old problem, "it is becoming critical, especially in a community where we have to compete almost head-to-head with the semiconductor market for the similar kinds of degree backgrounds."

Area school officials do not know the scope of the teacher exodus for private industry, as teachers don't always name their next destination. But many nod their heads knowingly when the point is raised - aware, even if only anecdotally, of teachers who have gone on to greener pastures. "No doubt about it, it's a problem," acknowledges Bowie High School principal Kent Ewing. "High-tech companies are finding more and more that teachers are excellent employees."

Industry spokespersons could not comment on whether greater numbers of former schoolteachers were entering their ranks, but a Dell spokesperson confirmed that "the types of jobs that math and science teachers do probably would make them an excellent asset to a high tech organization." Companies recruit people who can learn and adapt on the fly, who are effective team-builders, and who are comfortable in front of other people, the spokesperson said.

Ann Fickel of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association says she is not aware that defection from schools into corporations is a huge issue, but the teacher shortage is very real. "The bigger problem at this point seems to be getting them into the classroom to begin with," Fickel says. "The people coming out of school with those kinds of majors [science and math] are not going into teaching. Certainly, though, there are some people who are leaving the classroom to get into the industry."

Shrinking Minority

Indeed, deficiencies in the numbers of math and science teachers can be traced all the way back to university teaching programs, where they comprise a tiny minority of graduating teacher classes. This spring, the Education School at UT-Austin graduated 13 math teachers and four science teachers out of a class of 318. And 13 math graduates is unusually high, says UT student teaching coordinator Kim Barre.

Down the road in San Marcos, Southwest Texas State - one of the largest teaching colleges in the state - produced 61 teachers specializing in math, 28 in biology, six in chemistry, and one in physics, out of a total of 1,180 graduating teachers between January 1996 and January 1997. SWT Associate Dean Paul Paese says teaching colleges are falling behind in all categories of graduates, but especially in science and math. "If we take all the colleges that can certify teachers," he says, "we only produce enough graduates to fill about half the needs in the state."

And Judith Loredo, chair of the Division of Education at Huston-Tillotson College, reports that more science and math majors are going into business and industry. To Loredo, it's just elementary good sense not to follow those specializations into teaching. "It's kind of hard, after accumulating student loan debt, to later have to work two jobs to pay it off. They're going to go where the money is instead," she says.

Former algebra teacher Paul Rilli recently left teaching to work at Dell Computers

photograph by Kevin Fullerton

"Naturally," adds UT's Barre, "people who are qualified to teach those [science and math] areas usually have other technical skills, and they simply can go into other fields. They could even work for one of these tutoring companies and make a great deal of money, where they can do their own hours." Barre says that attrition rates in her program are terrible, with a dropout rate above 50%, much of that occurring when students begin their classroom observation. That's when candidates with other options are most tempted to back out, Barre says.

The Governor's Science and Technology Council, which recommended the initiative Bush is promoting - to quadruple the number of advanced placement-qualified teachers by paying their way to weeklong summer training courses at universities - acknowledges the shortage of science and math teachers. According to the governor's office, however, engaging teachers in advanced-placement programs will help schools retain and attract them. Statistics from the Advanced Academic Services office of the Texas Education Agency show that the number of teachers attending advanced placement summer training has more than doubled in the past three years, and school officials assure the governor that plenty of teachers are available to meet the initiative's goal of tripling state high school student enrollment in advanced-placement courses.

Bush proposes spending about $17.8 million on the program; that would cover teacher training costs and a portion of students' advanced placement exam fees, but not the incentive stipends and bonuses recommended by the Council for teachers whose students perform well on the exams. Local school districts will have to pick up the tab for those. "We hear from teachers that they are attracted to the Advanced Placement program because it has smaller class sizes and good students who want to learn, and allows more time for lesson development," says Bush spokesperson Linda Edwards. "These are the classrooms teachers entered the field to teach."

The Governor's Council says that results are encouraging at high schools that have already expanded advanced placement programs on their own initiative. The Dallas ISD, for example, quadrupled the number of students passing advanced-placement exams, and now has nearly one-fifth of its junior and senior high students taking classes for college credit. At Edinburg North High School in the Rio Grande Valley, where only five students in a school of 2,700 bothered to take advanced-placement exams in 1993, 500 students took a crack at them this year after the district began encouraging teachers to attend training at UT-Austin, and made greater efforts to interest teenagers in college.

More Money, Please

In general, professional educators say they are not opposed to Bush's Advanced Placement initiative, modeled as it is on successful programs that have demonstrably motivated students to ratchet up the intensity of their learning and strive for college. The Texas State Teachers Association, however, warns that the proposal is a dodge around a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed: teacher salary.

"We see the governor's proposal as not facing up to the fact that we rank 37th in the nation in teacher pay," says TSTA spokesperson Annette Cootes. "This won't come to fruition until they face this basic shortcoming. It's like trying to build a skyscraper without a foundation." Cootes' own nephew, incidentally, is a former teacher who left public education for a computer networking job.

SWT's Paese, too, is skeptical whether merit incentives are enough to retain and recruit talented professionals who have so many other career opportunities. "I would applaud anything the governor wants to do to improve the AP system," he says, "but I don't know that [the current initiative] is going to be a solution to the problems we have now. It's a lot deeper than that."

Those deeper problems consistently emerge in conversations with Rilli and other teachers who have either left the profession or are on their way out. Low pay, of course, is the primary detraction. Young teachers are not just slightly underpaid - they're working-class stiffs who are living a full economic notch below their collegiate peers. Rilli, for example, could not afford to rent an apartment on his own, let alone consider buying a home. Invariably, beginning teachers are shacking up with roommates and working second jobs at nights or on weekends to make car payments and repay student loans [see sidebar].

"My guess is about 50% or more of our teachers have income beyond their contracts," says Del Valle's Simmons. "They're working at everything from jewelry stores and Foley's to convenience stores.... The disparity between those who can afford this community and those who can't is widening into a canyon... and we're catching our degreed, certified teachers on the wrong side of that canyon."

Manor math teacher Anita Tidwell, who shares a house with three other people, agrees that teachers are more likely to fall into the "have not" category. "I love teaching, and I could support myself with a teaching salary, but if you look at wanting to buy a home or buy a car, well.... Every teacher knows that unless you plan on marrying well, it's going to be trailer home city forever," says Tidwell, who has just completed her fifth year in the classroom and plans to teach only one more term before moving on to educational administration.

Salaries for longtime Texas teachers rise only slightly, even if they earn an advanced degree, Paese points out. In states such as New York, career teachers who continue to educate themselves can achieve salaries of $80,000; but a career Texas teacher can hope for about half that much. The merit pay bonuses recommended in the Bush proposal won't come anywhere near bridging economic "canyons" of that magnitude. But ultimately, the low pay is not what drives teachers out of the profession. It just provides the final excuse to leave when the stress becomes too high. "For the amount of stress, the amount of continuing education, the amount of preparation that we have to do, before school, after school, field trips, all the TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] pressure, it's just not worth the money," says Tidwell. Less than half the people she knows who graduated with her five years ago are still teaching, she says, and two of them now work for Motorola.

As for Rilli, he says he became frustrated at a system that seldom acknowledges teacher's accomplishments or special effort. During Rilli's first year of teaching, he volunteered to help re-design algebra courses used by Austin middle schools to make them consistent across the district and compatible with advanced high school courses - a curriculum-tweaking process known as "vertical alignment." And he was dismayed that the project wasn't even reflected on his standardized annual evaluation.

"As a teacher, you're given a blank copy of your evaluation form at the beginning of the year and you're told, `Well this is what we're going to be looking for; we'll schedule a day and time,' and that's it," says Rilli. "I don't think it says much for the other little projects you do, like the vertical alignment that I was doing - that's not on anything, there's nothing to show that other than the word of people who were there. Whereas if you're doing a job at Dell or any other company, if you do a project, it's clearly stated on your evaluation." When the job offer came from Dell, Rilli says, "It blew me away, because what teaching had done is lower my self-worth. I didn't think I could get a job for that much, because you're thinking, I guess I'm not worth much."

A school counselor familiar with Rilli's work says it just doesn't make sense for talented young school teachers not to consider other options. "He's probably one of the best math teachers I've ever known," says the counselor, who did not want to be identified. "It's sad to see quality people like that leave the profession.... The kids just loved him." But, the counselor adds, "nobody who's healthy and wants to work is going to keep taking a beating for $50 a day in the classroom."

Under the new Bush initiative, public schools' more ambitious teachers may well find some respite from classroom problems, but the pressure to earn merit pay and carry a heavy workload will probably continue in advanced placement classes. And those are the very ingredients that are turning teaching positions into transient jobs, and that compelled Diana Folsom-Heath to leave her seventh grade science classroom after four years to take a job as a network administrator making a considerably higher salary. Tired of working long hours to meet increasingly burdensome administrative requirements, Folsom-Heath located her new job through a friend who is also a former teacher. "After a little while you get tired," she says, "and you just want your life back."

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