President Obama has set an aggressive course for the sciences in America -- with the appointment of renowned scientists to top positions in his administration, inclusion of $21.5 billion for research and development in the federal economic stimulus package, and a significant increase in science funding in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, among other actions. For America to maintain its leadership in the sciences in the future, however, we must also ensure that we grow scientists in sufficient numbers, and the current performance of our schools requires a dramatic transformation.
In the latest ranking of student performance in science among 15-year-olds, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 36th. In contrast, Canada ranks 4th, and three of the top seven are Chinese: Hong Kong-China (3rd), Macao-China (5th), and Chinese Taipei (7th). In addition, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 30 percent of U.S. students in their first year of college are forced to take remedial science and math classes because they are not prepared to take college-level courses.
Part of the problem in our schools is both recruiting high-quality math and science teachers and retaining them. According to a 2007 National Action Plan by the National Science Board, the United States "faces a chronic shortage of qualified teachers who are adequately prepared and supported to teach STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) effectively. Local school systems encounter many barriers to recruiting and retaining high-quality STEM teachers. STEM-trained professionals often do not choose to teach, and too few educators acquire STEM training. Teachers, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, often do not acquire sufficient STEM content knowledge or skills for teaching this content during their pre-service preparation... For STEM-trained professionals, the current job market offers non-teaching career opportunities with substantially higher salaries and often better working conditions than those professionals would receive in teaching careers."
In a fascinating new book by noted education writer Sheila Tobias and veteran science teacher Anne Baffert, entitled Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn't, How It Could Be, the authors make a startling discovery. Based on their communications with nearly 500 science teachers across the United States over the past two years, they found that attrition by U.S. high-school science teachers is not primarily a function of money. More pressing are concerns about loss of autonomy, control, and stature.
Among their key findings are the following:
The authors' recommendations for action include the following:
Science Teaching as a Profession, published by Research Corporation Books, is available for downloading free of charge at www.rescorp.org. It deserves to be carefully read and discussed.
With the emphasis that President Obama has rightly placed on science, it is now incumbent upon Americans to insist that science teaching be upgraded as well.
James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org.)