There is little doubt that the future well-being of society depends not just on how well we educate our children, but also on how well we educate them in science, mathematics and technology. Many educators and policy makers are convinced that the United States is falling dramatically behind the rest of the world in this crucial area. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, involving 41 countries, are often cited as evidence of this failure. Even allowing for the weaknesses inherent in standardized tests, both of these studies report startlingly poor performances by U.S. students in science and mathematics subjects.
The performance of American students relative to students at the same level of education in other countries declines with increasing grade level. American students in early elementary grades tend to score above the international average, 13-year-olds near the average and 17-year-olds below it. Even the most advanced U.S. students perform poorly when compared with students in other countries taking similar advanced mathematics and science courses in secondary school. In the general science assessment portion of the international study, only students from Cyprus and South Africa performed at a lower level than American students did. The national data show a similarly poor performance when students' test results are compared with their expected grade-level knowledge.
At least part of the problem can be attributed to an acute shortage of science- and math-trained individuals in the teaching pool. Many classes in these subject areas are taught by teachers working outside their fields of training. The perennial problems of poor pay and lack of respect or professional status have contributed to alarming attrition. Outside education, by contrast, the job market has no difficulty in recognizing and rewarding former science and math teachers' skills.
Leaving aside structural and institutional barriers to improvement, the critical element in education is the relationship between teacher and student. If a teacher has a deep understanding of basic ideas in science and mathematics, sufficient breadth of knowledge to connect simple concepts to real experience and the flexibility to provide multiple means of representing a concept, a good part of the battle is won.
Research scientists and engineers often feel helpless in responding to these widely acknowledged problems. Where can we find teachers with the necessary attributes? In fact, young, enthusiastic science-trained individuals with a passion for their subjects are all around us. They are our students, our student interns and others for whom we are mentors. If there is a magic bullet, a real and lasting solution, it can come from us. We must acknowledge that teaching is an honorable and valuable career choice for young scientists and engineers. We must honestly, and with conviction, encourage promising students to become teachers.
These days, a science-trained graduate can try teaching without making a permanent career commitment. There are several programs designed to present fluid options for those who would like to take a low-risk chance on a teaching career. The National Science Foundation has initiated the Graduate Teaching Fellowship in K–12 Education, a stipend-supported transitional program to encourage science, mathematics, engineering and technology graduate students to learn how to become teachers on the job. Organizations such as Teach for America recruit graduates at the bachelor's level for a two-year teaching commitment and provide training and on-the-job support through a national network of chapters and programs. Many corps members stay on as teachers, but for those who do not, Teach for America provides access to scholarships, loans and even work opportunities with supporting corporations.
Some projections of teacher turnover by the end of the next decade are as high as 70 percent. Each of us must lead at least one promising student to a teaching career every year—making a commitment to the future before it is too late.
W. Franklin Gilmore
President, Sigma Xi