Incentive scholarship: attracting graduates to math, science teaching

Patricia Grafe had already decided on a career in teaching when she applied for admission to Texas A&M University last year. She planned to teach English. But the Houston native has since changed her mind, persuaded by an ''incentive scholarship.''

Her decision means that public schools in Texas will have a straight-A student teaching math and science for at least the first four years after her graduation - the length of her obligation.

Texas A&M is one of several universities beginning to provide incentive scholarships, grants designed to coax qualified students into math or science teaching careers in the public schools. A number of states are also offering these scholarships.

''(The scholarship) made the difference,'' Ms. Grafe says. ''I plan to continue teaching after four years is up, and most likely I'll stick with math and science.''

The shortage of science and math teachers is serious in a number of states, critical in others. By some estimates, more than 40 states have such shortages. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of 118,100 students receiving baccalaureate degrees in education in 1980, only about 760 had concentrated on mathematics and 670 on science.

In a three-pronged attack, state legislatures, private foundations, and colleges themselves are all beginning to fund incentive scholarships and loans. In the case of the loans there is often a ''forgiveness'' provision that cancels a student's debt if he or she remains in a teaching position for four or five years.

In Pennsylvania, the state's Higher Education Assistance Agency is providing grants ranging from $1,500 to half the cost of tuition this fall to more than 60 students who agree to teach math or science in Pennsylvania schools. Arizona college students who agree to teach math and science in the state's public schools will be entitled to a $2,000 scholarship per semester for every two semesters they agree to teach.

In all, at least 33 states have passed or are considering legislation that would authorize loans or tuition subsidies to encourage students to enter the teaching profession, often as math or science instructors, according to a recent survey by Education Week, a national newspaper for school administrators and teachers.

The federal Education Department is looking into ways of modifying the Higher Education Act to include incentives for bright college students planning to enter teaching. The act is set to expire in 1985.

Incentive scholarships are acceptable to many for two reasons: The need for science and math teachers is a well-defined problem, and the incentive scholarships being offered are ''new'' money, rather than funds diverted from need-based scholarship programs.

''Businesses and foundations wouldn't necessarily contribute money for scholarships based on financial need, but with our program there is a definite payback for them - they get students who are educated in math and science, the kind of employees they most need,'' says Bryan Cole, associate dean of the College of Education at Texas A&M.

He adds that many corporations acknowledge that the practice of luring top math and science teachers away from education and into the private sector amounted to ''biting off your nose to spite your face.'' Subsequently, he adds, many businesses are more willing to contribute money to incentive scholarship programs.

Incentive scholarships appear to address only some of the causes of the teacher shortage. ''We can offer many more incentive scholarships than we are now, but if the students fulfill their obligation and their salary stays unreasonably low, we've still got the same problem,'' says Kenneth Reeher, executive director of Pennsylvania's Higher Education Assistance Agency.

The possibility of a revolving door of science and math teachers who teach for five years and then move on to more lucrative positions in the private sector has both positive and negative implications, according to Michael O'Keefe , vice-president of the Carnegie Foundation.

''It takes a few years to become a good teacher, and it's possible that just as someone is coming into his own as a teacher, he'll move on to a position in industry.'' On the other hand, he says, if it means getting five years of math and science teaching out of the brightest students who otherwise would not even consider becoming teachers, then perhaps incentive scholarships are worthwhile.

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