Arne Duncan on Differential Pay, Stimulus for Science Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — March 20, 2009 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke today before a major professional organization, the National Science Teachers Association, at its annual meeting in New Orleans, delivering a message that members of the audience were likely to find appealing.

I only have a transcriptfrom NSTA, but I’m willing to bet that the secretary drew some applause when he spoke about paying science—and math—teachers more, as a way to lure them into the profession and keep them there.

“We need to respond to the market by paying more to teachers in high-need subjects like science and math,” Duncan told the audience. “I’m a big believer in differential pay. I want to reward excellence by paying teachers and principals who do a great job in the classroom.

“I want to reward them for going into struggling school districts,” he continued. “That’s where the challenge is. If you’re going to take on a tough job, you should be rewarded.”

Much of the discussion about the Obama administration’s agenda so far has focused on the idea of performance or merit pay—basically, paying teachers more for raising student test scores, or other measures. (See this story and this one for recent background.) But differential pay, or rewarding educators in high-need or hard-to-fill subject areas, is popular with groups like NSTA. Many potential science and math teachers, the argument goes, have more lucrative opportunities in the private sector than, say, English or history teachers might. Differential pay, as you might guess, can be controversial, if other subject-area teachers feel they’re being left in the dust.

The education secretary said he anticipated that a lot of NSTA members would be interested in what the $100 billion in federal stimulus money for education would do for them. While he couldn’t give many specifics, he did say that the money will: A) likely pay for the modernization of outdated science labs, though the decisions will be made locally; B) save science teaching jobs; and C) fund reforms in science education though the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” pot. Money could also flow to science education through Title I, special education, and school improvement money, he added.

Speaking more broadly, Duncan said that U.S. schools have failed to keep up with other nations in terms of promoting innovative science education and challenging students. Referring to the former Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, and its impact on the space race, he said: “America won the space race, but—in many ways—American education lost the science race.”

He seemed especially worried about the struggles of low-performing students, at one point referring to a study finding that U.S. students in urban areas performed at roughly the level of students in developing nations in science.

“This kind of extreme inequity in education is not unique to science, but it has enormous repercussions in the workforce, where science-based industries are desperate for skilled workers,” Duncan said.

It’s difficult to convince students of the value of science, Duncan suggested, if you’re boring them. He stressed the importance of using “inquiry-based” lessons, which essentially means having students learn science through hands-on experiments and the same kinds of processes used by real-life scientists.

“You need to challenge yourselves and each other to move the curriculum beyond dinosaurs and volcanoes—and I know that many of you already have—but we need to take the best ideas to scale in tough inner-city districts like this one—as well as rural areas that cannot find qualified teachers in every subject,” he said.

“You need to make inquiry-based science relevant to kids—stimulate their curiosity—connect it with their lives. Together we need to change the national dialogue about science—to prepare our kids to be honestly critical and technically competent.

“Science is all about questioning assumptions, testing theories, and analyzing facts. These are basic skills that prepare kids not just for the lab—but also for life. We’re doing kids a disservice if we don’t teach them how to ask tough and challenging questions.”

Duncan also alluded to the broad efforts to improve math and science instruction in Chicago, where he headed up the school system before moving to Washington. You can read a bit more about those efforts here.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the speech. Also includes a Q and A with teachers at the end, in which Duncan talks about the narrowing of the curriculum and the movement toward national standards. He was also asked for more specifics about differential pay and performance pay. Duncan mentioned a mix of possible pay approaches, such as rewards for working in high-need schools, for test-score gains, for national board certification; and rewarding all employees at schools, rather than just individual educators, for results.

Duncan also said, not surprisingly, that he’s been focused so far more on the stimulus than No Child Left Behind reauthorization. He said he intends to focus on the law more later this year, and that he’ll collect ideas from educators around the country about NCLB.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.