A.F.T., Businesses To Explore Problems in Science Education

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

Washington--Joining the growing movement to establish partnerships between the business and education communities, the American Federation of Teachers (aft) last week announced that it was launching a "special dialogue" between leaders in both fields to explore ways to alleviate the shortage of mathematics and science teachers and to improve curricula in these areas.

Fletcher Byrom, chairman of the board of trustees for the Committee for Economic Development (ced) joined aft President Albert Shanker in making the announcement. The committee, whose board includes 200 prominent business executives, studies social-policy issues as they relate to business.

Mr. Byrom pledged the support of his organization, but cautioned that business cannot "make up for gaps in financial resources, nor can it be expected to assume full responsibility for upgrading science and technical training."

"You should not perceive business as being an altruistic source of corporate dollars," Mr. Byrom said. Nevertheless, he added, there are many ways that the two groups can work together to meet the needs of both.

Through "in-kind" contributions of equipment and expertise, for example, businesses are already coming to the aid of schools while simultaneously helping to ensure a well-trained workforce for the future, Mr. Byrom suggested.

'Model for Further Exchange'

The aft launched the effort, Mr. Shanker said, "in the hope of creating a model for further exchange between its affiliates in over 2,000 school districts across the United States and the industries represented in those communities."

The 550,000-member teachers' group announced the new partnership in conjunction with a meeting of its recently appointed task force on the problems in precollegiate science and mathematics education. The task force, made up of 10 of the union's regional vice-presidents, also announced the results of a survey of teacher supply, curriculum requirements, and cooperative ventures with businesses in 10 areas, most of them large cities.

The survey showed that few of the areas surveyed are experiencing acute shortages of science and mathematics teachers. With the exception of New Orleans, which needs teachers in both disciplines, few of the districts had unfilled teaching positions.

However, many of the 10 aft affiliates reported that at least some teachers were teaching "out of license," since they were certified to teach in other fields.

Moreover, according to the survey, numbers of new graduates from education schools and of qualifed applicants for science and mathematics teaching jobs had declined in most of the areas.

Efforts to strengthen science and mathematics curricula by requiring that students take more courses would worsen the shortage, several task-force members pointed out. If students are required to take more courses in these areas, there may not be enough teachers to teach them, the task force said.

For that reason, easing shortages while at the same time trying to strengthen curricula will be difficult, task-force members agreed.

"I think that all of the task-force members are struck by the complexity of the problem, and the degree to which it will affect teachers and schooling broadly. That means we have to be very careful in developing solutions," said Eugenia Kemble, special assistant to Mr. Shanker.

"There aren't going to be any quick and easy answers," Ms. Kimble said. One problem, she said, is the lack of data on the local level--how schools are feeding into the labor market, for example. Although the design of many of the solutions will have to come from the local lev-el, she said, much of the funding will probably have to come from federal and state sources.

Some of the remedies proposed by state and federal officials--paying science and mathematics teachers higher salaries, for example--have been opposed by many teachers' groups, several speakers noted.

However, aft officials indicated, they will consider whether salary differentials would help to alleviate the current shortage.

"I would certainly oppose the notion that, on a regular basis, math and science teachers should get more," Mr. Shanker said. "But that's different from the question of whether to have incentives during periods of shortage." If financial incentives are initiated, he suggested, they should apply to any discipline in which a teacher shortage exists, but only for the duration of the shortage.

Shifts in the curriculum will also affect teachers, but "it's a little hard to predict what teachers will be up against," said F. James Rutherford, director of science education for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who addressed the task force.

"One of the most difficult aspects of the matter is not related to the economy," Mr. Rutherford said. "The fact of the matter is, science and technology are driving modern culture."

However, he said, teachers should not worry so much about the rapid growth in these fields since "the fundamental ideas take 15 or 20 years to develop, and they're not going to change that quickly."

'New Context'

"What has to change," he said, "is that science must be presented in a new context." The boundaries between the sciences grow hazy, he said, and many new developments are occurring in these cross-disciplinary fields. "School curricula do not recognize that, nor do the materials that are obsolete before they're in print."

To remedy that inflexibility, Mr. Rutherford said, "we must get back in the business of curriculum reform." But, he suggested, more dra-matic changes would be required than took place in the 1960's.

"None of this will work unless we continue to bring into the profession the kind of people who can do the task," Mr. Rutherford said. "The major task of the next decade will be the enhancement of teaching.''

But Mr. Rutherford cautioned that "any solution that says, 'Let's give them [the teachers] $100,000,' is going off in the wrong direction."

Paying science and mathematics teachers more might ease some short-term problems, other speakers contended, but the modest stipends offered would probably be insufficient to stop the steady flow from the classroom to private industry.

"The people who are leaving the classroom aren't leaving because they'll get $600 or $2,000 more," said Nathaniel LaCour, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. "They're leaving because they'll get $8,000, or $10,000 or $20,000 more."

Increasing public awareness of the shortage of science and mathematics teachers, too, may be an important factor in increasing funding for science and mathematics education, noted Robert M. Healey, president of the Chicago Teachers' Union. "In my district, we're coming out of a 10-year enrollment drop," Mr. Healey said. "For 10 years, people have been reading about declining enrollment and layoffs."

Vol. 02, Issue 11

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
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