Education Opinion

Bob the Science Guy--and the STEM Crisis

By Nancy Flanagan — September 15, 2010 2 min read
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Flier from NCTQ, in this morning’s e-mail:

It's hard to imagine: a teacher candidate who, after studying just three credit hours' worth of physics and answering most of the physics questions on a general-science exam incorrectly, lands a job as a fully-certified high school physics teacher. But in far too many states, it can happen. NCTQ finds that, by allowing certification in "general science," rather than a specific subject, most states fail to guarantee that high school biology, chemistry and physics teachers have mastered the content they teach. In addition, 39 states and the District of Columbia allow secondary teachers to obtain general-science certifications or combination licenses across multiple disciplines. These, and many more details about this little-known aspect of the STEM crisis, are included in our paper. We encourge [sic] you to pass it along to the media, fellow educators and policymakers.

Well, let me do my part to stem the STEM crisis--Which is what, exactly? The lack of high-paying jobs in technical fields now available to graduates with degrees in math and science?--and share this alarming news with my fellow educators in a Strange Land. But first--let me tell you about my friend Bob.

Bob taught science for more than three decades in a small school (about 450 students, K-12) in northern Michigan. Bob majored in chemistry, but followed the prevailing wisdom in ed schools in the late 1960s, and got a minor in social studies, theoretically making him more attractive to rural districts--pretty much the only place you could get a teaching job, at the time. This was Bob’s daily schedule:

First hour: Chemistry/Physics (in alternate years)
Second hour: Biology
Third hour: Earth Science
Fourth hour: Eighth grade Physical Science
Fifth hour: Seventh grade Life Science

Although he also had a masters degree in chemistry--his true passion--Bob really was a full-time Science Guy. His classroom was littered with animal skulls, strange botany experiments, interesting rocks and machines. He was the first teacher in the district to get a personal computer, and a prodigious reader, who introduced me to Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould.

When No Child Left Behind passed, Bob found it hilarious that he was “Highly Qualified” only one hour a day, every other year. His principal, two decades younger than Bob, suggested he take the state test in Integrated Science, to confirm his mastery of the subjects he’d been teaching for 35 years. Bob considered this--and other ways to obtain HQ Teacher status in Michigan--the elevation of form over substance. He retired, moved even further north, and began his new occupation of year-round hunting, fishing and book-reading.

There certainly are secondary schools that can afford to hire and sustain full-time positions in chemistry, physics, biology and earth science. But Bob’s wasn’t one of them. In a town where the teachers (and the DNR) were the only folks with college degrees, there were no retired physicists or geologists hanging around willing to share their content mastery for an hour a day, either.

I would argue that what made Bob an excellent teacher was the very fact that he was a generalist. Every kid in that school system learned about science from a man who was broadly knowledgeable, showing them the function of scientific principles in their everyday life and modeling curiosity about the way the world works.

I also wonder just how far NCTQ believes this specificity in content knowledge must go: Should social studies teachers have individual, test-based certificates (and not the inferior “combination licenses”) before teaching economics, world history or civics? Can the same person effectively teach geometry, algebra and statistics in the same day? If not, a large percentage of schools will find themselves gerrymandering their schedules in pursuit of the elusive goal of “content expertise.”

Wouldn’t it be nice and simple if a single test in content expertise could accurately identify the best teachers?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.