Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Need for Science and Math Teachers (Who actually know science and math!)

Building on the theme of some recent posts, the future of the United States depends on its science and technology base, and a continued lead over the rest of the world in these areas. In addition to the fact that more and more of the higher paying jobs, and those that will be evolving in the information age, are technical in nature, the major issues and problems that dominate the political landscape are largely dependent on science to figure out the solutions. We have a problem with this from the start, unfortunately. In order to continue to build the science and technology based economy, or compete in an ever-increasingly competitive technical world, or to find solutions to science-related problems, we need scientists. We won't build the numbers of scientists unless we have teachers who can teach younger generations of students the basic science needed in college, or inspire students to pursue science in college and beyond. And we are reaching the point in many school districts around the nation where we don't have the teachers to complete this first, vital step in the process.

In a report put out by the Department of Education, 36% of high school math teachers and 27% of high school science teachers did NOT major in math or science in college. This means about 1 in three students around the country are being taught by non-experts. Many districts do have staff development programs in place, as well as mentoring programs, but fundamentally many teachers are working hard to do their best, but with limited knowledge and training in the field they are teaching. This is not an ideal situation.

It is difficult to imagine this will improve any time soon. In 2004-05, for example, 22 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in U.S. colleges and universities were in business; 11 percent were in social sciences; 7 percent in education; and 6 percent in psychology.

Just 1 percent of undergraduate degrees were in math or science. This makes for a limited pool of subject-trained members of the job market. For those small numbers who go into teaching, about half will leave the teaching profession altogether after 3-4 years. Low pay (compared to other professional fields) for the some times overwhelming amount of work teachers must do
chase out large percentages of new teachers. For instance, "in 2003, the median salary for full-time high school math and science teachers was $43,000. That compares to median salaries ranging between $50,000 and $72,000 for professionals with comparable educational backgrounds such as computer systems analysts, engineers, accountants or financial specialists, in the same year, according to the National Science Board."

In the final analysis, the lack of strong, scientifically trained teachers will continue to hurt younger students coming up through the pipeline. This will almost certainly have further negative effects on our ability as a nation to solve serious, complex, science and technology related problems. It will have a long-term effect on the stability of our economy. It will have long-term efffects on our standing in a technical, globally competitive world and marketplace. And I don't see it improving when our leaders decide to further cut funding at some of our best science resources and training grounds, the national labs. The next President absolutely needs to work on this problem, because it is, in my opinion, one of the absolute keys to the future our nation will be able realize.

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