NSTA Head to Retire in 2008

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Gerald F. Wheeler, who has shaped the influential National Science Teachers Association’s policies and professional-development activities for more than a decade, has announced his plans to retire next year as the organization’s executive director.

Mr. Wheeler, 65, said he would leave his position in August 2008, which will allow the NSTA, based in Arlington, Va., to conduct an extensive search for his replacement.

With more than 55,000 members, the NSTA describes itself as the largest professional association in the world serving science teachers. It represents not only science teachers, but also district supervisors of that subject, scientists, and others interested in science education. Mr. Wheeler, who has been the executive director since 1995, said he is retiring and has no immediate plans to move to another organization, though he plans to stay focused on school issues.

“I plan to stay involved with NSTA and involved in science education,” Mr. Wheeler said today in an interview, adding, “I’m looking forward to moving beyond the day-to-day activities and focusing on the bigger picture.”

The NSTA provides a broad range of guides and professional-development help to educators. It distributes print and online materials and stages conferences, seminars, and other activities. Many of those resources are now provided online, a fact of which Mr. Wheeler said he is proud. The organization has also sought to take a more active role on Capitol Hill in lobbying federal lawmakers to pay greater attention to K-12 science, even as districts have faced intense pressure to increase reading and mathematics scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Recently, the NSTA has promoted legislation to improve “competitiveness,” or bills aimed at fortifying the U.S. economy by fostering a stronger science and math teaching force, among other steps.

“We have a strong presence in the conversation for science reform,” Mr. Wheeler said.

‘We Have a Vision’

P. John Whitsett, the president of the NSTA, praised Mr. Wheeler for improving both the finances and long-term planning of the organization. The NSTA now has 110 employees and a budget of about $23 million. He also credited Mr. Wheeler with having encouraged the association to focus heavily on assisting the classroom practices of science teachers and on improving student achievement.

“He’s been the heart and soul of NSTA, and his vision has been a bright spot for the organization,” said Mr. Whitsett, who is also the curriculum coordinator for the 7,500-student Fond du Lac school district in Wisconsin. “We’re at the point now where we have a vision of what we’re about.”

A former K-12 science teacher and college professor with a Ph.D. in physics, Mr. Wheeler also previously served as a president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. The NSTA has hired a search firm to help it fill the position of executive director.

Last year, the NSTA was criticized for its decision not to distribute 50,000 free DVD copies of former Vice President Al Gore’s film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which the movie’s producers had offered the organization. The documentary’s supporters questioned whether the NSTA’s decision was influenced by its acceptance of corporate funding, including money from oil companies.

But Mr. Wheeler and other NSTA officials said distributing the film would have violated the organization’s policies against not endorsing specific products or individuals. The 13-member NSTA board later voted to uphold its policy and not distribute the film directly. The association provided links on its Web site describing how teachers could obtain free copies of the movie. ("Critics Accuse NSTA of Having Conflict Over Film," Dec. 6, 2006.)

The NSTA is now taking steps to clarify its policies on accepting corporate funding, Mr. Wheeler said, though he believes the organization made the right decision regarding Mr. Gore’s film.

Mr. Whitsett said the NSTA executive director inspired confidence during that furor. “It required a lot of energy and resources to deal with it.” Mr. Wheeler, he added, “provided leadership through the whole thing.”

Vol. 26, Issue 43

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the year Gerald F. Wheeler became executive director. He has held that position since 1995.

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