Have We Learned Anything?

There was an interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor the other day (“Wanted: More science and math teachers in the US”) that caused me to wonder: should I laugh or should I cry? The premise of that article is that there is a drastic shortage of qualified science and mathematics teachers in this country and schools will need some 200,000 such individuals over the next decade.

I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education with an emphasis in chemical education and I have thirty years experience, yet I cannot get schools in this area to look at my resume or vita. Is the fact that I am “old” and have experience a factor in my not being hired? I have thirty years experience plus a commitment and dedication to teaching but no one is interested in hiring me. Why? Is it better for school systems across the country to hire “rookies” with virtually no experience and hope that they last?

More to the point and as the title of this piece implies, when are we going to learn what it takes to improve science and mathematics education in this country?

First, the good news; the article notes that about 1/3 of new science and math teachers typically leave the profession after three years. That’s an improvement; when I started teaching in 1971, it was about 50% over 5 years. But the reasons were about the same (lack of support, poor pay, or poor working conditions). The only problem is that not much else has changed in the thirty-plus years since I started.

The article notes fewer than 6 out of 10 science teachers are certified in the areas that they teach. Those are essentially the same numbers as ten and even twenty years ago.

The article noted that one of the teachers hired had to take courses on how to teach, not just to meet certification requirements but to understand how one successfully teaches science. Now, these are not the type of courses that critics of educational schools so often deride. I agree that there are a number of courses that education majors take that they could probably do without (I have taken one or two such courses) but courses in the methodology of teaching are as important to successful teaching as a core foundation in the subject that you are teaching. As with the statistics about the lack of certified teachers, the preparation of those teachers coming into the classroom is no better than it was ten or twenty years ago.

To me, the central point of the article was its statement that

“The United States is not only facing a dearth of future homegrown scientists and engineers, she and others say, but increasingly, everyday citizens need science literacy.”

And those in science education have been making the comment for the past twenty-plus years. We are still trying to find ways of getting qualified people in mathematics and science into the classroom and yet it doesn’t seem that our efforts have made much difference or impact. This is not the first time someone has suggested ways to improve science education and it is not the first time I have addressed the issue; see “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”.

Why is it then that we keep addressing this same problem?

First, the focus is wrong. Instead of continually seeking new teachers, we should be working with the ones in place. As I noted in my 1990 piece, the ones who are making the best impact on science education in the classroom are the ones who have been teaching for several years. We routinely place our new hires in the lower rated schools and often without mentors. Even if they want to try something new and innovative, many times they do not have the support or equipment needed to implement the changes. The information they often have about teaching is “textbook” oriented but the classroom to which they are often assigned is as far from the textbook as anything imaginable.

It is no wonder that they leave the profession. We also do not give them the opportunity to teach the subject that they have studied. Instead, the new hires get the freshman classes and have to wait for the older teachers to retire before getting a chance to teach the “good” courses.

The second major problem is that we are trying to improve science and mathematics education without supporting science and mathematics instruction. The crisis in science and mathematics today is on the same level or higher than the 1957 crisis caused by the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik. In fact, the crisis today may be greater today because 1) there was a plan in place to respond to the Soviet’s launch and 2) there is no “visible” threat today that compares to the “visible” threat of Sputnik orbiting the earth every 96.2 minutes. The threat today is more subtle because our ability to think and analyze is limited, which is why there is a crisis.

The response to Sputnik was a massive infusion of Federal funds. But over the course of the 1960’s and early 70’s, funds were reduced to a trickle. In addition to supporting various curriculum projects (outlined in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”), the funds were used to support additional education (I know several individuals who obtained their Master’s degree with NSF funding) and the upgrading of laboratory facilities (this also included buying equipment and chemicals). These funds were critical to the curriculum projects because the curriculum projects were very much laboratory-oriented.

As the funding dried up and ran out, schools quit buying chemicals and equipment and the laboratory portion of the curriculum slowly disappeared. The effect of this is seen in the evolution of the chemistry textbook over the past forty years.

Most of today’s chemistry textbooks are 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of the textbooks and curriculum projects of the 60’s and 70’s. The initial textbooks were very much laboratory-oriented and required lab work by the students to provide the evidence for the theories presented in lecture. While laboratory exercises and experiments were phased out because of increasing costs (many people would be surprised to know that a rise in the price of crude oil often leads to a rise in the price of chemicals for research, development and production), the teaching of theory continued. But without the experiential knowledge gained in the laboratory to support the theory present, theories were taught as if they were facts (and that has caused several other problems).

The solution to the problem, in fact, the solution to the problems with teaching today is demand accountability from our teachers. This is not new (as I noted in the “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”). It is easier to have our students take exams and measure how well they do on the exam but teachers will respond, as was noted in the Wall Street Journal article that I alluded to, by teaching (to) the test and even giving out the answers.

There is a crisis in science and mathematics education. It is not a new crisis but one that has been developing over the past twenty or so years. The answer is not simply to hire new teachers with scientific or mathematical backgrounds and teach them how to teach. We knew twenty years ago that we had to change the nature of professional development programs. It is good to see that the teachers mentioned in the article that precipitated this piece are getting support for their efforts; when I started teaching in 1971, I was required by contract to take similar courses but I received no support. It will take more than offering salaries that entice qualified science and math majors to venture into the classroom and stay for a career; it will take a change in the mind set of the public that our schools are the place where our most valuable resource is educated to move us into the unknown that we call the future.

5 thoughts on “Have We Learned Anything?

  1. Just an observation from the math side of this issue: I teach in a liberal arts college where typically 25-50% of our mathematics majors are really math education majors. They all, without fail, find jobs after graduating. But just as the stat you quoted predicts, about 1/3 of these end up leaving the profession within 3-5 years after graduating; or in some cases they will change majors from math ed to mathematics in the last two years of college, because their student-teaching gives them a good glimpse of what’s coming up the road, and they get out early.

    What’s very concerning to me is which 1/3 ends up leaving. What I’ve noticed is that the 1/3 that leave the profession are almost uniformly coming from the top tiers of students, academically speaking, in our program. These are students whose work ethic, native mathematical talent, and overall potential for the workforce qualify them for all kinds of good jobs — and they realize this. They get into teaching because they love math and want to teach it; but once in the system, the system burns them out, and they quite rationally jump ship and get a nice high-paying job in the private sector or else go to graduate school. Of the 2/3 that remain in the profession, some of those are also top-tier students, but a much larger proportion are students who are lower-achieving and don’t have the work or math skills to make it anywhere else.

    If it were this latter group of students that were leaving the profession, I wouldn’t be that concerned and (as the dad of two girls starting school soon) even a little relieved. But the schools are failing to retain the best and brightest and most capable of students, and that’s a really big problem.

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