Published Online:

'Let's Face It, Precollegiate Teaching Is Not An Attractive Profession'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Education Week: To what degree is teaching part of the problem in math and science education?

Mr. Aldridge: The major problem is that you have people in situations where they are not qualified, with teaching materials that are outdated, teaching the people who are going to become scientists and engineers. They don't have any of the modern electronics, computers, and that sort of thing in the courses and in the labs. And for 95 percent of all the kids, the courses are inappropriate.

Mr. Pewitt: We had better not forget that. All these special-interest groups that come to focus on this thing tend to look at their end of it and forget about the kids.

Mr. Rutherford: And we haven't been looking at that category of teachers in the schools on whom we are making new demands.

Mr. Aldridge: We have 200,000 science and mathematics full-time-equivalent teachers right now, and 60,000 are unqualified. ... These are people who essentially don't have preparation in the fields in which they teach.

We are probably going to double the requirement for science and math in schools, and that will require the doubling of the number of teachers, 200,000 more teachers, people trained in the fields where there is already a high demand in industry, and where the number of young people entering or coming out of college is on the decline. So the probability of having these young people, even if you increase salaries, is essentially zero. You are not going to get them.

And with the current decline in the secondary-school population, you have greater numbers of teachers who are surplus. Those teachers will be reassigned to the science and math classes, and the problem is going to become monumental.

Mr. McCurdy: In Oklahoma, we found that there was a 64-percent decline in the last 10 years in the number of teachers preparing for certification in mathematics and science, and that 50 percent of the teachers currently teaching are not qualified. I think that is the case nationwide.

Ms. Rowe: It is true for Florida.

Mr. Rutherford: And in those statistics, when they say "qualified," they mean a very minimum level.

Mr. McCurdy: You have someone who had college geometry now teaching junior-high math.

Mr. McClelland: The absolutely fundamental thing is that nobody on the outside can do anything if there isn't a good teacher in the system. In the university world, there is no prestige attached, by and large, to being a good teacher or preparing people to go out and teach, particularly at the high-school level. In chemistry, for example, most chemistry professors who are regarded as the great models are not even interested in the people who quit with a bachelor's degree. If they don't go on to a Ph.D., the professor says, "That person isn't even a chemist."

This very much filters back down to the high-school level because those people who go into the universities and want to make their careers as outstanding research people and fight for the government grants, and have lots of graduate students, they have no real interest in training high-school teachers. They will say it is terrible that there are no high-school teachers out there with good training, but they don't want any part in preparing them.

Ms. Rowe: Another thing about the science people: In our institution, for example, the person who has a full major in chemistry who plans to teach would be less well prepared for his work than a person who goes into industry. We have much less lab time now in our courses, because of university budget cuts. There is less direct experience with the phenomena of science. You don't really have to worry so much about the major who goes into industry, because he is going to be apprenticed to a senior person, and he is going to have a fairly focused line of work.

But a kid who goes out to teach is rarely going to get a whole program where he teaches chemistry. Ordinarily, chemists have to teach physics as well, or teach math, or sometimes biology. Also, there is no senior knowledgeable person in many schools to give any technical supervision on the job. So your training problems are far more complex for these prospective science teachers, and we don't engineer our programs to deal with them.

Mr. Rutherford: That's right.

Mr. McCurdy: Can I use the over-used term? We are eating our seed corn. Isn't that really where we are going?

Mr. Pewitt: Let's face it, this country has not made teaching at the precollege level an attractive profession. We have lost that part of the population with no career choices, other than to go into teaching: women. Now the world is better for women, and we have lost them from teaching, and society has not compensated.

The other thing is the demographics. We have more teachers than we really need for the student population. We are going to have to deal with the fact that we have teachers in place. This business of training new teachers is training teachers for a need 10 years down the road. I don't want to throw away a decade of American kids while we wait for that need for new teachers. That is why I have been less than enthusiastic about scholarship programs for prospective teachers, because that is not a problem for a number of years, although it will be the problem in time.

The central agenda is still to deal with this great herd of people who are coming out of high school who are simply unprepared to go into the world.

Mr. Usiskin: Teaching is not the greatest job in the world. What I have to tell prospective teachers in advance and what they are surprised at more than anything else about teaching is the physical labor involved.

They expect, when going into teaching, that it is going to be a cognitive job, and it is going to be a mental challenge. It is going to be fun because they are good at mental challenges. What they wind up finding out in student teaching--that is the first time that they really find that out--is that they are physically wiped out.

Mr. Rutherford: But that is a dollar problem. You shouldn't be teaching 25 hours a week. You should have an office. You should have a telephone. You should have some assistance. You can make a perfectly rational argument that you can't run a system where there are no people around to provide logistical support. You can get those things, but you have to be prepared to pay for it. If you don't, you are not going to get them. So far, society has been saying we are not willing to pay for it.

I think another solution is [Albert] Shanker's. He wrote a very interesting column recently talking about examinations and about the fact that in certain states the performance of the teachers is equal to and may be a little less than the students'--that situation, he said, is intolerable.

So, yes, why not have first-rate examinations on the premise that, at the very least, teachers should know the substance that they intend to teach? He said, of course, if you did that, many of the current crop of teachers coming through the system would not pass. If you applied it fairly to the people now in classrooms, you would wipe out a large fraction of all people teaching, which he says is probably what needs to be done in the long run.

Every time the school people give in, in state after state, school after school, and permit a subject to be taught by a person who is clearly not competent, they lose their credibility. It is better that they should not offer the class. Then when the parents come around and say, "Look, my kid wants to go to Princeton, and he can't go without a third year of math," you say, "That is really sad. What are we going to do?"

EW: Do you all agree that the answer is mainly to retrain teachers not now prepared to teach math and science?

Mr. McCurdy: No, I don't. There are three problems. We have a retraining problem, we have a retention problem, and we have a recruiting problem. I think the recruiting problem is long-term.

I am not sure that you can take people who are driver's ed teachers, or football coaches, or sociology teachers, or whatever, and make them competent to teach math or science.

Mr. Pewitt: Retraining teachers is important because we have more teachers than we have kids right now.

Ms. Rowe: In which field, or do you mean across the board?

Mr. Pewitt: Look at the numbers. If I sit as an elected member of the school board, I am faced with the choice of laying off teachers who are maybe not qualified but who are already in there. I have to face that situation, laying off people who are not qualified in order to hire qualified people, and you know what the politics of that is. There are 17,000 school districts out there, and they all face it.

Mr. Aldridge: I believe that the fundamental problem is retraining the teachers. I think it is not always a political matter in reassigning those teachers. It is a consequence of the fact that they are minimally prepared. Sometimes, they are certified under broad field certification, which allows them with six or eight hours of coursework to teach physics legally in those various states, allows biology teachers to teach chemistry, and so forth.

But there is another problem in retraining people who are not at all oriented toward science or math, in that you worry about their dedication and interest and what they are going to do for young people who might want to become scientists or engineers. That is a fairly serious question.

As far as the scholarships are concerned, I agree with Doug Pewitt except for one thing. If the states increase requirements, as they are now doing, then it is going to require either a massive influx of new people, which will require scholarships, or use of the technology in ways that we have not yet considered.

Mr. Pewitt: You miss a fundamental point here. There is a finite number of kids, and that number is not going to change. The number of hours they are in school is not likely to change, despite the recommendations to increase the number of hours. If you have the same number of kids, the same number of hours, and you have the same number of requirements for teacher- contact hours, you do not increase the pool of teachers by increasing science and mathematics requirements. You displace something else and just increase the problem of unqualified teachers.

So you are not going to open up that to all these qualified kids. You are just going to be displacing your stock of teachers.

Mr. Aldridge: The fact is that the 7th-grade population begins to increase in 1989, and that is six years away. So, allowing four years for teachers to get their degrees, you are within two years of that need.

Ms. Rowe: The physics and chemistry enrollments are dropping in Florida, which means that we don't need those teachers unless you increase the requirements.

Mr. Pewitt: Having been one of those physicists in the great Ph.D. boom, and then the bust, I fear the federal government interjecting itself massively in a training program where at the end people are going to come out and fall off a cliff, and there is nothing there. It is an inappropriate federal response to a problem to entice people into a profession where there is nothing there on the other end, except unemployment. That is what I fear, and I think we ought to go very cautiously.

Mr. Rutherford: I would like to address the question about the retraining of teachers. I agree that that needs to be done. I think what doesn't need to be done is to imagine doing it the way we have always done it. There they are, and they are not prepared. So we will send them back and give them some chemistry and some physics, either in a summer institute or something. That is very expensive, and it isn't clear that that is the way it works, just knowing some more physics.

The kind of retraining that would be useful for them--given what they ought to be doing, which is reaching kids who are now being bypassed altogether--is that simultaneously they should be learning the subject and the curriculum that they will teach. The notion that you can just know a science in the abstract, and then you will have these marvelous teaching skills, has been demonstrated to be untrue.

So in the first place, if you make the proposition that the training takes place not the way the discipline departments in the universities recognize it, but in a new way that connects to what we want them to do on the job, just as industry does, that would help. Number two, it is not clear that teachers have to have an intensive experience, but it is clear that it has to be related to their work. One can use videotape, reading, and other things, rather than expensive courses.

What I am trying to say in a clumsy way is that we know from industry and other areas that there are a lot of ways for people to learn on the job that do not involve going back and taking academic courses, which are expensive. We need to look at that, and we need to look at better use of technologies in retraining the teachers.

At the same time, on the retraining side as it relates to the supply-and-demand problem, there are some ways of decreasing the demand by thinking in different ways about the amount of science that is taught. Science in my judgment ought to be taught every year, but not necessarily every day. So you can take a smaller number of people and train them for specific jobs. I am trying to say that the teacher-retraining thing ought to be looked at in the context of purposes and curriculum structure.

Mr. Usiskin: The retraining problem is very serious at the elementary-school level. As much as we need to train biology, chemistry, and physics teachers, or retrain them, there is an amount of retraining at the elementary-school level that is a much greater problem than the retraining of people who went into high-school teaching and who had a subject major.

The elementary-school teachers of today are expected to know everything, and they can't. They have an impossible task. It seems to me that a solution for the future may be that we need some science-concerned teachers. I don't want to call them specialists, because they are never going to be science majors. We are going to have to take elementary-school teachers and turn them into science-concerned teachers in order to get science in the curriculum. We may have to do that with some teachers of mathematics below the junior-high-school level, in grades K through 6.

EW: If you had your 'druthers, would you retrain the teachers who are in the schools now or seek ways to increase the supply of teachers highly qualified in math and science? Would you do something to make the field so attractive that you would get people who did not need to be retrained? How effectively can the system function if the caliber of people entering, and already in, the profession is itself a problem?

Mr. Usiskin: The people who go into math and science teaching tend to be brighter in the academic sense. You don't get the same kinds of test scores when they were in high school. It is not the same population as the elementary-school teacher.

I am saying that you are accustomed to a quality of individuals teaching these courses. I see the most common retraining as being among high-school teachers who are usually from history or driver's education, and not from math to science or science to math.

Ms. Rowe: That is not true.

Mr. Aldridge: The data don't show that to be true. What is actually happening is people who have some training in chemistry or mathematics or physics, but not enough to normally be assigned that class, are given those assignments, usually not as a full load. That is the information we have. So it is biology people teaching chemistry, and that kind of thing.

Mr. Rutherford: I think you are right in a way in your question about retraining. The problem is to make teaching a good job, which is fundamental. It is just a lousy job right now, and there is a hell of a lot more to do with it than just pay.

Mr. Aldridge: Right.

Mr. Rutherford: It may never happen unless the country decides, when all the dust has settled, that they are going to turn their 4th of July speeches into reality, and that is going to mean very much larger salaries, different working conditions. That is going to take a while, if it ever happens. In the meantime, instruction is going on, and the people who are there in the classroom are not going to be replaced quickly.

I would also say that retraining is not a Band-Aid approach in the sense that a well- ordered system would constantly be training and retraining people. That would just be part of it. But not these marshmallow things that the schools give, which they call inservice training.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories