The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)

The following letter appeared in the November 13, 1989 issue of Chemical and Engineering News:

Upgrading Science

SIR: Education in the physical/biological sciences and mathematics sectors can be easily (but with bloodletting) upgraded at the precollege level as follows.

Eliminate tenure completely and adopt objective methods of performance review used in industry to weed out the deadwood and reward and attract solid professional talent to primary and secondary school education. Industry no longer has any guarantee of permanent professional employment. This died in the early 1960s. If you can’t produce, out you go — no one good-old-boy system to protect you.

Start attracting enthusiastic, talented people by paying them competitive salaries. If this requires a surtax at the state level, so be it. The time for hand-wringing and bemoaning poor quality technical education must come to an end now! Let’s get our best industrial people together into a task force and get the mechanisms into place that will start the upgrading of our nation’s science and math programs within the next year.

Seymour Broad


The following was my reply, printed in the February 5, 1990 issue.

Teaching Science Teachers

SIR: Seymour Broad’s letter (C & E N, November 13, 1989) presents an interesting, although possibly wrong, solution to the problem of correcting science education in the U. S. today.

I will not address the issue of tenure in terms of the implication that it is used to hide incompetent or improperly prepared teachers. This is more of a political issue than an education issue. The rational that maintaining tenure does so also ignores the fact that many of the better teachers (as identified by the National Science Teachers Association) have a longer term of service than do most teachers. This would indicate that the problems of improving science education lies more at the administrative levels than it does in the classroom.

Broad is correct in stating the need to attract talented personnel into teaching; yet, he does not appear to realize that the majority of funding for teacher salaries comes from local funding, rather than state sources. Additionally, many schools use a salary schedule independent of teaching area. Changing this salary schedule to reflect market supply and demand is also a political, rather than educational, issue. And if there are changes in salaries, such changes will be made at the administrative level rather than in the classroom.

I do not wish to suggest that there are no educational changes necessary. If it just that, without the support of school administrators, little can be done that will have long-term affects. Borrowing the business analogy of Broad, would 3M’s Post-it Notes be successful if 3M did not have the policy of allowing individuals to pursue other ideas? It has been shown time and again that innovation in the business world comes from outside the normal channels of company development. If innovation is to occur in the classroom, similar administrative support must exist.

Let us take Broad’s suggestion to remove all the deadwood and replace them with new teachers. What will happen if we get new teachers into the classroom based solely on their ability in science? There have been arguments that state graduates are not prepared for industrial work, so how can we assume that these same graduates would be prepared to teach? Knowledge of the subject matter is not enough for effective instruction to take place. There must be some consideration for how students learn as well as what they are to learn. This is evident in the studies on how teaching is done. In most cases, teaching is done in the same manner as the teacher was taught. Oftentimes, this means lectures with little laboratory instruction (or if there is laboratory instruction, with limited connections between the two). Since much of what is done in science occurs in the laboratory, these typical instructional processes do not match the manner in which science operates, and, as a result, do not give students a true picture of the subject.

The current emphasis on teacher evaluation does not take this into consideration, either. It is proper to suggest, as Broad does, that more objective means of performance evaluation be adopted. However, current evaluation of teacher performance is often done by measuring student learning. As a November 2, 1989, article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, this process is open to much abuse and does little to meet the goals it was intended to meet. On November 16, 1989, the Wall Street Journal presented an article about alternative student evaluation methods. Such alternative methods can work only if the teacher has a firm understanding of the subject and teaching processes. If we are to measure teacher performance, it must come independent of student learning (though there is a probable correlation between the two).

Changing the way in which prospective science teachers (including those at the college level) are prepared cannot be done overnight. In the meantime, what can be done to help current classroom teachers? In an article by Penick, Yager, and Bonnstetter in Educational Leadership (October, 1986), it was noted that those teachers identified as exemplary continually upgraded their own content knowledge in addition to teaching skills. The critical need here is to help all classroom teachers update their knowledge of science.

ACS, through its local sections, can do much to help improve local science instruction. Are local teachers invited to the section meetings even if they are not ACS members? ACS has provisions for affiliated members. Does the section offer a speaker’s list to the local schools so teachers now who to call when t hey need answers to questions? What activities do sections offer to provide continuing education for local teachers? One of the greatest needs in secondary education is how to deal with the chemical stores developed over the years. Here is an area where industrial safety personnel can work with teachers to solve a major problem.

The call for improvement in science education is not new. The need for a scientifically literate populace is well understood and need not be redefined here. What we need to see is how individuals and groups are working to make that improvement.

Tony Mitchell

Science Education

University of Texas of the Permian Basin

Odessa, TX

6 thoughts on “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)

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