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G.A.O. Questions Science-Teacher Plans

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Washington--A new report from the General Accounting Office has found "no evidence" that federally sponsored programs to improve the knowledge of existing science and mathematics teachers will improve their effectiveness, as defined by students' achievement.

That conclusion, however, is challenged by staff members at the National Science Foundation, who contend that the authors did not take into account all the available evidence.

Issued last week by the investigative arm of the Congress, the 85-page report did suggest, however, that programs to retrain teachers from other fields as mathematics and science teachers is one effective way of alleviating a teacher shortage.

The report, "New Directions for Federal Programs to Aid Mathematics and Science Teaching," is based on an analysis of past evaluation and research studies, as well as on an examination of recently established retraining programs. Unlike many gao reports, which are completed at the request of a member of the Congress, the study was "self-initiated" by staff members at the agency in light of the widespread interest in the topic, according to Robert York, project manager for the analysis.

The study looks at four issues: the nature of the problem and its remedies, the prospects for upgrading existing teachers, the viability of retraining programs, and priorities for evaluation in mathematics and science teaching.

Shortage Questioned

Unlike many of the analyses of science and mathematics teaching that preceded it, the gao report does not accept without question the assertion that there is a serious shortage of math and science teachers in the public schools.

"We find the data documenting these shortages--mostly opinion surveys--to be very weak and believe teacher shortages to be basically undocumented today," the report contends.

Similarly, concern over the quality of science and math teachers now in the classroom is "largely inferential, based upon the prominence of uncertified teachers among the new recruits to mathematics and science teaching as well as the modest academic credentials of teachers generally," the report notes.

One method of improving instruction in these fields--and one that figures prominently in federal legislation under consideration--involves sending existing teachers to institutes or courses in the subjects they teach. This approach, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was used in the 1960's and 1970's. Roughly half of the mathematics and science teachers then teaching participated.

But according to studies noted in the gao analysis, those teachers who enrolled in the institutes were already better prepared academically than those who failed to apply.

Furthermore, the report says, only one study has shown that teachers' participation in the institutes was reflected in improved achievement by their students. The apparent absence of a link between teachers' knowledge and students' achievement does not mean the connection does not exist, the authors note, but only that it has not been proven.

But, they write, "... research to date clearly has failed to show a straightforward relationship between teachers' knowledge and the subsequent learning by their students in mathematics and science, at least for teachers in classrooms in the early 1970's."

Some nsf staff members, however, took exception to that claim in their comments on a draft of the report. "These conclusions are unwarranted and based on an incomplete consideration of recently published research on this matter," the nsf reviewers say.

They point to one "meta-analysis," published in 1983 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, that looked at the results of 65 published studies on the topic. That survey showed that "student outcomes are positively associated with the preparation of the teacher, especially science training. ..."

Mr. York said that he and others working on the report looked at the meta-analysis but that the evidence cited did not change their overall conclusion.

Retraining Programs

Information on retraining programs is sparse, the researchers found, in part because the programs are in general quite new. However, using a variety of sources, the authors located 17 such programs sponsored by states, local districts, or universities.

The analysis indicated that retention rates for state and local programs were significantly higher than were the retention rates for university-based programs. This is so, the authors suggest, because states and districts screen candidates more carefully and offer the programs at little or no cost to participants. Another reason may be that "the fact of being selected by their superiors may provide a certain status in the eyes of the participants and their peers, which enhanced other motives," according to the study.

The report's authors argue that it is "reasonable" to assume that most participants who complete the programs will subsequently be certified to teach, thus assuring the attainment of that program goal. To date, however, there is insufficient evidence to judge the on-the-job performance and retention of the re-trained teachers.

The report is available from the U.S. General Accounting Office, Document Handling and Information Services Facility, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20760; (202) 275-6241. The first five copies are free; additional copies cost $3.25 each.

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