To the Editor:
Regarding “Senate Panel Explores Ways to Spur Progress on Math and Science” (Feb. 22, 2006):
With increasing frequency, U.S. notables bespeak themselves of the coming threat to America’s scientific pre-eminence from our weak production of math, science, and engineering graduates. But these same notables exhibit—in their lame recommendations—a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. The lack of science and math teaching talent is a bell-curve phenomenon.
Let’s take one field as an example: physics. Fifty-seven percent of physical-science teachers neither majored nor minored in the field, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Richard M. Ingersoll.
This should surprise no one. The mean combined (verbal and quantitative) Graduate Record Examination score of applicants for graduate study in physics and astronomy—1272—was the highest of all 51 areas of graduate study tested between July 1, 2001, and June 30, 2004. The mean GRE for all education majors: 984. (The mean for all applicants was 1066.)
Physics majors are on the far right tip of the GRE bell curve. People with the aptitude to excel in physics are rare. People with the aptitude to be education majors are, let’s just say, rather more common.
That’s the hard reality about aptitude for subject matter. But public education is governed by its own hard reality: Every teacher must be paid according to seniority and to education course credits. It will take another Sputnik-like crisis to jolt America’s ineffectual elites to action on the science education front.
When they do act, it probably will be a top-down, central-planning “solution”—something to allow a dysfunctional system to limp along until the next perceived crisis is brought on by its irrational monopoly structure. Is not technocratic central planning what both political parties are about, Republican (No Child Left Behind, a vastly expanded federal role) and Democratic (ever more money)?
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Math and Science: Why We Lack Teaching Talent