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Improving Science Teaching in America's Schools

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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:
  • Science teachers want more autonomy over how and what they teach, including the sequencing of specific topic areas and the selection of textbooks. Great teaching is intensely personal; the less the teaching can be personalized the less impactful it is.
  • Science teachers want more control in terms of the extent to which they are allowed to teach in their own area of specialty (biology vs. physics, for instance) and are able to influence school policy by participating in policy deliberations. They are also concerned about the loss of control over student assessment. Such assessment used to be the prerogative of teachers; increasingly it is too much determined by student performance in "high-stakes testing."
  • Science teachers want to be considered professionals - appreciated for their expertise; trusted for their judgment; valued by school administrators and society more broadly.
The authors' recommendations for action include the following:
  • Provide science teachers with greater autonomy and hold them accountable for their overall performance on multiple measures, not just their students' one-time evaluation on high-stakes tests. That's what's expected of professionals in other fields.
  • Don't link a teacher's performance only to student performance on standardized tests. There's more to a great teacher than that.
  • Include science teachers or chairs of science departments in school and district decision-making.
  • Link high-school science teachers with working scientists, including college-level science professors, through summer jobs in research labs and other connections. Those linkages enhance the sense of professionalism, while providing additional experience, learning, and income as well.

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.)

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