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Can Scholarships Incentive Failure?

October 28, 2011

This is a paragraph from MTSU’s MTeach Website

Are you interested in teaching Physics and Mathematics?  Are you a Physics or Mathematics major with a concentration in Education, and are you interested in certification in both areas?  The Noyce Physics-Mathematics Teacher Scholarship offers up to $10,000 a year for a maximum of two years.  In exchange, the recipient will agree to teach for two years in a high-need Tennessee school for each year of scholarship awarded.

I don’t have data to back this, but almost all of the MTeach students that I know (those focusing in physics) are struggling to do well in their classes. Some of those students are failing my physics class. Others have just let me know personally that they are scraping by in their intermediate / upper-level math and physics couses. These students are surprised and concerned, because they’ve typically always done well.

I think one big reason they are struggling is because they are taking on more math and physics class than they can handle. Taking 2 physics courses and 2 math courses and 1 or 2 education courses sounds like a nightmare. (Aside: I never took more than 4 classes per semester while in college, and I often took just 3 classes). I think the reason they are taking more math and physics classes than they can handle is because it involves $10,000. I’m not positive, but I think the scholarship is now $15,000 dollars to do both math and physics. It’s also possible that students are being strongly advised to do this, and independent of the money, they feel like this is what they are supposed to do. Whatever the reason, students are doing it, and seemingly struggling as a result.

Surely, an environment in which students are scraping by on a bloated academic schedule in order to get a scholarship can’t be the best environment for future teachers. Right? I mean, I’d rather invest $15,000 for a good physics or math teacher than $15,000 for merely an accredited teacher in both areas. There’s a big difference between taking classes and immersing yourself in the content of a class. I worry that that $15,000 is forcing students to take to many classes, for which they superficially learn a lot of things instead of deeply learn a few things.

Let’s face it. These scholarships are really important to many students. One student in my intro physics class works 30-40 hours per week on top of being a full-time student. If this student passes my physics class, they are eligible to apply for the scholarship. If not, they have to wait another year.

Throwing money at problems, especially teaching, can have unintended effects. Overall, the MTeach program is in its infancy; there’s so many program logistics that will get tweaked and changed. Someone over there should look at the hard data to see how out math/physics students are faring. If they aren’t faring well (like I suspect), we’re going to have to figure out why, and ask the question, “Is our scholarship policy incentivizing failure?”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 3:28 pm

    I think the idea that we ought to encourage students to shoot for being accredited in two subjects at once is sadly mistaken. It’s difficult enough to become truly proficient in one subject, and learn all the pedagogy a good teacher needs.

    I’m not sure where all this emphasis on dual-certification is coming from. I get that we need more math teachers and more physics teachers, but what’s the benefit of having that in the same person? Is it considered more efficient?

    • October 28, 2011 4:26 pm

      In talking with a student today, it seems to (from student side) have to do with job security for being a physics teachers. If they can teach both physics and math, they are more valuable asset to a school.

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