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At Stony Brook University, David Bynum trains top-level science students to teach and requires that they spend lots of time observing and teaching in classrooms.
“I found there’s a lot of collaboration. You’re going to conferences and talking to people in the lab next door. The people in your lab are very willing to help with anything,” Miller says. “Now that I have a glimpse of what research is, I’m eager to show students that it’s fun to do.”
Innovative teacher-training efforts like Western Michigan’s could be one solution to what experts consider a national crisis in science and mathematics education. In a 2009 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, American students ranked 17th of 34 developed and emerging countries in science literacy, and 25th in math literacy. To bring U.S. students up to the top of the pack in science achievement and “enable our students to compete in the 21st century economy,” President Barack Obama has called for 100,000 new high-quality STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers in the coming decade.
Education experts agree. Some schools succeed at teaching science and math, but too many of the nation’s science teachers know too little about their subject, about effective teaching methods, or both, says Deb Felix, the senior program officer for HHMI’s precollege science education initiatives. To be a great science teacher, she says, “You’ve got to know science and you’ve got to know effective teaching methods.”
Science and math teaching methods and standards are undergoing a major overhaul to include more “inquiry-based” learning, in which students apply scientific thinking and experimentation to solve actual science problems (see Web extra sidebar, “A 21st Century Cookbook”).
Educators are still figuring out how to train teachers to teach science and math this way. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to recruit teachers and get them up to speed on the latest science and pedagogy. So, funders of teacher-training programs—including HHMI, the largest private funder of science education in the nation—are experimenting. The particulars vary, but the goal remains the same: to train and put in place the talented science and math teachers that the nation desperately needs.
To ensure future teachers have the training they require to be comfortable and effective teaching science, HHMI is encouraging undergraduate institutions to focus on ways to promote high-quality science teacher training, says David Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate programs. “Just as good pre-med programs provide a framework in which the student can demonstrate the competencies required for success in medicine,” he says, “so too should science teacher training engage the undergraduate in intentional professional development.”
Luring the Talent
In the midst of a national shortage of qualified science and math teachers, school districts don’t always have the luxury of worrying about educational fine points. Sometimes they have slots that need to be filled now. To recruit good science and math teachers, school districts have offered signing bonuses, housing assistance, and tuition reimbursement. Policy makers have forgiven loans and created initiatives to lure science and math teachers to districts that need them, especially high-need urban and rural school districts, where students are poor, academically struggling, or both, and teachers don’t stay long.
A large supplier of STEM teachers nationwide is Teach For America (TFA). Education’s version of the Peace Corps, TFA takes recent graduates of elite colleges, puts them through a five-week boot camp on how to teach, and places them in high-need districts for two years. During the 2010–11 school year, TFA’s corps included 2,980 middle- and high school STEM teachers. And more than 2,300 of the organization’s current corps of 9,300 teachers teach elementary school, which includes at least some science and math instruction, according to an overview of TFA’s STEM initiative provided by spokesperson Carrie James.
TFA relies on selectivity to provide good teachers: the 2011 corps of teachers had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.6, and only 2,980 of 16,850 STEM applicants were accepted. But critics argue that their training is too short. Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas at Austin and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento, reviewed 11 outside studies on TFA and concluded that TFA teachers taught their students reading and math as well as or better than other uncertified beginning teachers but not as well as fully credentialed beginning teachers. The TFA teachers, like others, got better with experience. But after three years, 80 percent of them had left teaching. That’s about twice the attrition rate of conventionally trained teachers, the authors wrote in a 2010 report from the Education and the Public Interest Center at University of Colorado and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. To be fair, however, TFA teachers agree to teach for two years, and TFA’s own research shows that 61 percent of its corps continues to teach the year after the two-year commitment ends.
Photo: Brian Park