200,000 Reasons for Concern:A Profile of Those Who Teach Sciences

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When Howard Harris talks about his salary, he alludes in exasperation and embarrassment to some of his students, who earn a higher hourly wage in part-time jobs at nearby Disney World. He holds a master's degree in chemistry and heads the science department at Oviedo High School in Seminole County, Fla., where he has taught for seven years. He earns $18,000 a year.

Other, less obvious, things bother him, too. When he teaches anatomy, instead of two students, five and six must share specimens, because his budget doesn't allow him to buy all of the shark and cat carcasses he needs. "A lot of kids miss things," he says. And he cannot perform many advanced experiments, because there is no money for sophisticated microscopes.

This past school year, Mr. Harris taught approximately 100 students. Because the Florida legislature recently tripled from one to three the number of science courses needed for high-school graduation, he will teach 150 students in the fall. In all, the 1,630-student school will offer 34 sections of science when it opens in September. But the annual science supply budget, $6,000, will be unchanged from this year.

Mr. Harris's principal recently asked him why he stays in teaching.

The question is relevant, because for every Howard Harris, there are many able mathematics and science teachers who will not tolerate the frustrations of teaching today. In a steady migration, many of the best in those fields have left the profession, usually for more lucrative jobs elsewhere. And the schools have not been able to attract enough able candidates to replace them.


Though there are outstanding mathematics and science teachers in the nation's classrooms, the profile of the typical public-school teacher of those subjects is not an encouraging one, people studying the situation say. Nor is it appreciably better in many private schools.

According to figures from the National Science Teachers Association (nsta), the equivalent of about 107,300 full-time math teachers and 92,100 full-time science teachers taught in public and private schools during the 1982-83 school year (the figures combine part-time slots). Thousands of those teachers--60,000, says the nsta--had little or no training in the subjects.

"We are in the awkward position of having to have people in physics who don't have a very good understanding of what they are doing," says Jack M. Wilson, executive officer of the American Association of Physics hers. One reason is that state standards for math and science teachers are in some cases very low, according to several studies.

In 14 states, including Texas, which alone employs 7.5 percent of the nation's public-school teachers, school systems are allowed to assign any teacher to teach math and science, no matter how little training a teacher happens to have in those subjects.

And, faced with a rapidly shrinking supply of math and science teachers, schools are taking advantage of this option. Nearly 40 percent of those teachers who taught one or more math classes in grades 7 through 12 in North Carolina during the 1980-81 school year did not have a math certificate, according to a study by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. Earlier this summer, North Carolina changed its policy. In the future, teachers must be certified or working towards a certificate in the subjects they teach.

At least half of the states allow a teacher with a certificate in one science subject to teach any other science subject, regardless of the teacher's lack of training in the other subjects. "There are teachers teaching three or four, sometimes five, different subs a day, subjects they've had virtually no training in," says Trevor G. Howe, professor of education and director of education placement at Iowa State University at Ames.

Moreover, the number of semester hours of college training required to teach math and science speciality subjects at the secondary level starts in some states at as low as 12, writes Elizabeth H. Woellner of the University of Chicago in the 1983-84 edition of Requirements for Certification.

Elizabeth Useem of Northeastern University reported in a 1982 study that 50 percent of the "new" math certificates granted by Massachusetts in 1981 were awarded to veteran teachers of other subjects who had taken a few math courses and "added on" a certificate in math. Wrote Ms. Useem: "These 'add-ons' are not truly qualified to teach more than introductory courses."

In Georgia, teachers certified in some other subject can add a math ''endorsement"--an additional area of certification--for one year by taking as few as 10 quarter-hours of college math. "School superintendents have often asked our department to design a few brief workshops to somehow turn these unprepared people into math teachers," James W. Wilson, professor of math education at the University eorgia told a Council for Basic Education symposium in April.

"Certification is essentially meaningless," said Bill G. Aldridge, nsta's executive director.


There are other reasons for the apparent low quality of many math and science teachers.

Many states require little or no science coursework of an elementary-school teacher--and that which is required in schools of education is often offered in less-demanding courses such as "General Science for Elementary Teachers."

Moreover, in many states, an elementary-school certificate allows a teacher to teach up to the 8th grade. So junior-high students are frequently taught science courses by certified elementary-school teachers who have at best minimal training in science.

Many experts believe that science and math specialists--whose four-year undergraduate study usually includes 50 percent general education, 25 percent pedagogy, and 25 percent courses in the major--are now adequately trained. Others disagree.

"[Math teachers] may be equipped to use the textbooks they are given, but they are not equipped [by education schools] to develop curriculum units of their own. They know about the content of the courses in the grades they teach, but they are not familiar with--and may not consider it their business to know about--the math taught in other grades or in other school subjects. In short, they have not been educated to be math educators," Jeremy Kilpatrick and Mr. Wilson of Georgia wrote in a paper prepared for a February 1983 conference, sponsored by the National Institute of Education.

In general, math and science teachers who major in education receive between 30 and 35 semester hours of college instruction in those areas, 5 to 15 hours less than those who major in math and science.

Nor do many math and science teachers seem to keep up to date in their fields once they begin teaching. Based on a December 1982 survey, the nsta estimates that only 16 percent of the physics and chemistry teachers who taught these subjects more than half time during the 1982-83 school year had upgraded their skills through workshops or college courses within the past three years. For math teachers, the figure was even lower, 5 percent. And 40 percent of those who responded to a similar survey in December 1981 said they had not attended a course or workshop since they began teaching, which was an average of 16 years earlier.

For their part, science and math teachers say their jobs are not easy. Like Mr. Harris of Seminole County, many are poorly paid and hampered by inadequate budgets. A recent nsta survey found that 60 percent of science teachers have had their supplies and equipment budgets cut in the past few years.

One consequence of tight budgets is bigger classes and therefore less individual instruction. "In a 'hands-on' subject like chemistry, where you have to teach kids things as basic as how to hold a test tube, how can you possibly do a decent job with 35 or 40 kids?" asks Mr. Harris. "Two minutes per day per student is not enough."

Other teachers say they must compete with such distractions as part-time jobs for the attention of increasingly disinterested students, and that they get little help from parents. "When you teach 150 students a day and 20 of them are absent each day and others come in saying things like 'I had to close Wendy's last night, I couldn't get the assignment done,' the learning process slows down. What you planned to cover in one day takes two or three," says Hank J. Ryan, who has taught physics and chemistry at Mounds View High School in suburban Minneapolis for 18 years.

In addition, in a period of sharp enrollment drops in many parts of the country, many senior teachers have shifted from other subjects into math and science under union-backed seniority rules--at the expense of better qualified but less senior math and science teachers.

The result, says F. James Rutherford of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is that "there are no jobs. In San Francisco they have not hired a teacher in eight years. They have a shortage of math teachers, but they don't hire math teachers."

Ms. Useem of Northeastern University found in her 1982 study, for example, that in four of seven school systems in the Boston area, senior elementary teachers with K-8 certificates had "bumped" less-experienced junior-high math and science specialists. These replacements were clearly less qualified than the specialists they replaced, administrators reported.

"It's hard to see how students are served by such a policy," says Mr. Williams of North Carolina State University.

Finally, a number of school systems, including Pittsburgh's, have reported that there are virtually no math and science teachers on their substitute lists. (Nationally, teachers miss an average of eight days each school year.) But a recent study in North Carolina found that nearly 2,500 people in administrative and other positions in the state's schools are certified to teach math or science but are not doing so.

The shortage of competent math and science instructors is not serious in all subjects or in all areas of the country. Many states report an adequate supply of biology teachers. Small, rural schools typically have a harder time finding science teachers than suburban schools

Also, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that 75 percent of the exted increase in children ages 5 to 14 will occur in the Southern and Western states, suggesting that the demand for math and science teachers will be greater in those regions.

But many agree with Mr. Howe of Iowa State that the shortage of competent math and science instructors will probably worsen in the next few years. A variety of indicators suggest as much:

The education schools have graduated fewer and fewer teaching candidates since 1971. Only 20 percent as many math candidates were graduated from Iowa colleges in 1982 as in 1971, according to a recent survey by Mr. Howe and Jack Gerlovich of the Iowa department of education. Only 32 percent as many

science candidates were trained. The figures reflect national trends.

Meanwhile, the high-school population has declined nationwide by 15 percent during the past 10 years.

Many math and science majors are not going into teaching. Only 20 certified math teachers were graduated in Texas last year, and 11 of them took jobs outside teaching. In North Carolina, 50 percent of those trained in math or science in 1980 did not teach, and 30 percent of those who took positions as science teachers did not return for a second year. At the University of Missouri, the largest supplier of teachers in that state, 75 percent of the students certified in math or science in 1981id not go into teaching.

By asking a representative sample of principals how many more classes they would have offered if needed resources and or teachers were available, the nsta has estimated that 6,325 full-time teaching positions were unfilled during the 1982-83 school year and that 790,000 students were not offered math and science courses due to a lack of resources and/or teachers.

(Other nsta survey information indicates that approximately 16.6 million students were enrolled in math and science courses in grades 8 through 12 nationally during the past school year.)

The number of 19-to-25-yeards, the age group from which most beginning teachers come, will drop by 25 percent in the next 12 years, the Census Bureau reports. In contrast, the school-age population will grow by 5 percent by 1990.

The salaries of public-school teachers have declined in real terms over the past decade. The average 1982-83 salary of $20,531 buys 12 percent less than the average 1971-72 salary did. According to figures from the American Federation of Teachers, entry-level salaries for New York City teachers in 1982-83 averaged $11,821 for science, math, and engineering graduates, while salaries of graduates with those credentials who went into the private sector averaged $24,500.

The average age of math and science teachers is high--41.6 years, according to a December 1982 nsta survey. The average age of New York City physics teachers is 55, and Ms. Useem found that only 7 of 158 math and science teachers in seven Boston-area school systems are under the age of 30. Many math

and science teachers will be retiring within the next decade or so.

The December 1982 nsta survey also found that 2.5 times as many science and math teachers left teaching for other jobs between 1981-82 and 1982-83 than retired. In Mr. Harris's area of Florida, math and science teachers are taking jobs as computer salesmen, stock analysts, supervisors at Disney World, and support personnel in the space program at Cape Canaveral.

But now, as the flow of able science and math teachers into the field seems to be drying up, states are moving to raise either their high-school graduation standards or their college admissions requirements in math and science. It appears that such additional requirements may exacerbate the current shortages of math and science teachers. Says Mr. Aldridge of the nsta: "If we think we've got a shortage problem now, wait until school systems try to staff all the new courses that are being mandated."

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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