Federal

National Standards Urged for Math, Science Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — February 26, 2007 4 min read
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A federal commission has issued draft recommendations calling for the creation of national licensing standards for teachers in mathematics and science, in what would mark a clear shift away from a system controlled by individual states and universities.

Either the federal government or a national policy organization would establish guidelines for certification and teacher training, under the proposal. States and school districts could be given federal financial incentives to follow those standards, according to the report’s recommendations.

That idea was one of many offered by the Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, a panel formed last year by the National Science Board. The board sets policy for the National Science Foundation, an independent federal research agency.

The draft report to the board was released last month. A final document is expected later this year, possibly in May or June, said Shirley M. Malcom, a co-chair of the commission.

The report also calls for establishing a “national coordinating body” to guide federal spending in math and science and connect federal activity with “P-20 councils,” state and regional groups that would coordinate efforts in those subjects from prekindergarten through graduate school.

Ms. Malcom said she was aware that for decades numerous national studies have touted strategies for improving math and science, only to be deemed unworkable by elected officials and other policymakers. She said she hopes her commission’s suggestions, when made final, would offer enough flexibility to state and federal officials to make an impact.

“I’m hoping that whatever we create can stimulate a dialogue,” said Ms. Malcom, the head of the directorate of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington.

Financial Incentives

On the issue of teacher training and certification, in particular, she said: “If you’re going to have people teaching to core competencies or standards, you’ve got to have some agreement about those standards. There are things that we can all agree on.”

The draft document calls for greatly increased efforts to recruit and retain teachers, including stronger state and federal financial incentives for math and science teachers. Many elected officials support the idea of financial incentives, but union leaders, wary of how such a system might be implemented, have been largely opposed.

But the report also says that setting up a more uniform teacher-accreditation process is necessary to make it easier for states and districts to find high-quality educators and for teachers to move between states. Universities should also be encouraged to adopt teacher-preparation curricula to adhere to national certification guidelines, it says.

Qualified and Mobile

As a possible alternative to having the federal government set licensure guidelines, the draft report suggests having the National Governors Association take a lead role in coordinating those activities. Ms. Malcom said NGA involvement would make sense, given the association’s work on state-level education policy.

21st-Century Math and Science Education

A draft report by a commission of the National Science Board makes a number of recommendations for improving education in math, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM topics. The report suggests:

• Creating a “national coordinating body” to oversee federal spending on STEM topics and coordinating those efforts with state and regional initiatives.

• Establishing national teacher-accreditation standards to be overseen by the federal government or the National Governors Association.

• Asking higher education institutions to follow curricula for teacher training based on national standards.

• Including schools’ tests scores in science as part of their “adequate yearly progress” reports under the No Child Left Behind Act.

• Requiring states to create “P-20 councils” to coordinate STEM education undertakings from prekindergarten through graduate school and work with the federal government.

• Providing federally financed incentives to states to supplement the salaries of teachers who meet proposed national teacher-quality standards.

SOURCE: National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

The proposal for more uniform, national certification standards drew a mixed reaction from advocates with different roles in the teacher-training process.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, was wary of too strong a federal role, which he said would represent “quite a dramatic” departure from the current system.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires teachers in core academic subjects, including math and science, to be “highly qualified,” meaning, in general, they must hold bachelor’s degrees in the subjects they teach and meet other state certification and competency requirements.

But states and universities have flexibility to set requirements for completion of teacher-preparation programs, and states can use different exams with different passing scores for certification.

Mr. Wise, whose organization accredits hundreds of teacher education programs, said he believes state licensing policies and teacher-training curricula are sound. The central problem in his view is that many programs struggle to attract undergraduates and others willing to become math and science teachers.

“While standards can play a part, the problem is not the standards,” Mr. Wise said. “The number of people going through formal [education] programs is utterly inadequate.”

In addition to various certification policies, members of the commission, in a conference call last week, acknowledged that they saw another barrier facing qualified math and science teachers who want to move between states: different teacher-pension policies.

Eric Hirsch, the executive director of the Center for Teaching Quality, a Hillsborough, N.C., organization that advocates improving teaching conditions and training, agreed that certification concerns were sometimes outweighed by other factors.

“There’s a financial disincentive to moving,” Mr. Hirsch said. “It’s one more challenge to making teaching a portable profession.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as National Standards Urged for Math, Science Teachers

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