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To Improve Math and Science Education, Don’t Neglect Veteran Teachers

By Leon M. Lederman — January 26, 2010 4 min read
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President Barack Obama’s announcement this month of more than $250 million in new private-sector commitments to a public-private partnership that seeks to improve the teaching of science and mathematics is welcome news. (“Obama Unveils Projects to Bolster STEM Teaching,” Jan. 20, 2010.) But lingering misconceptions about teachers and their development may limit the initiative’s effectiveness. Consider one recent development.

In November, a national task force chaired by Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota released recommendations designed to improve the quality of the teaching force in the nation’s largest school districts. While the panel convened by the Strategic Management of Human Capital project acknowledged the importance of sustained professional development for teachers over their entire careers, most of its recommendations focused on recruiting, hiring, and targeting new teaching talent to staff the neediest schools. In discussing professional development, the task force was most specific in describing the early-career work of developing strong new teacher-induction and pretenure evaluations. It largely ignored the question of how to help veteran teachers improve their instruction.

Many years spent trying to improve science education in this country convince me that this represents a serious oversight.

For more than a decade, from 1990 through 2002, schools in my home state of Illinois benefited from a successful program to support working elementary school teachers, including the most senior veterans, in improving their math and science instruction. The experience gained through that program—the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science, or TAMS—points to the fact that positive outcomes are likely to result from the implementation of a rigorous program of classroom-based teacher training.

With modeling and in-class support, working teachers can successfully change their instructional practices."

During its 12-year life span, the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science served more than 5,000 teachers in eight school districts across the state, including the Chicago public schools. The academy taught elementary teachers math and science content and pedagogy through a series of in-depth workshops totaling 60 hours of training. Its instructors coupled those workshops with in-classroom training and support as the teachers implemented new instructional methods.

The program produced positive, measurable results at scale. Students taught by TAMS-trained teachers consistently showed higher performance on state tests in math and science than their peers in similar classrooms where teachers lacked such training. Over time, students in schools with TAMS-trained teachers showed greater gains on state math and science tests than their peers in nonparticipating schools. Qualitatively, TAMS trainers consistently observed teachers at all stages of their careers learn to take time to think, to let their students think, to slow down, to let the students inquire without too much interference, and to take lots of time for reflection. (A detailed history of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science and a summary of its impact can be found at www.projectexploration.org/web/pdf/tams2009.)

While many in government, nonprofits, and the foundation world have focused their reform ideas on attracting new blood to the teaching profession, the TAMS experience shows that working teachers, including the most senior classroom veterans, are eager to learn new strategies to help their students master the math and science they will need to succeed in further education and in life. With modeling and in-class support, working teachers can successfully change their instructional practices. Their classrooms can become more open to the inquiry and hands-on experimentation that breed true scientific thought and understanding.

This model is in line with the best thinking about teacher professional development. While experts agree that the best teacher training focuses on content, provides concrete strategies, and puts trainers directly into classrooms working side by side with teachers, such training is hard to find in U.S. schools. Yet we offered exactly that kind of training to teachers in some of Illinois’ neediest schools for more than a decade. And it worked.

In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences last April, President Obama signaled his commitment to improving the quality of math and science education across the United States. He noted the stunning lack of qualified math and science teachers currently in schools, and challenged states to enhance teachers’ preparation and training to meet 21st-century demands for a scientifically sophisticated workforce. The U.S. Department of Education is providing competitive grants for such efforts through its $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, and the $250 million in support the president announced Jan. 6 will roughly double the investment in his “Educate to Innovate” campaign.

The president’s stress on the great need for improvements in math and science instruction, and the positive force of his national commitment, create an ideal atmosphere for a new effort modeled on the success of Illinois’ Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science.

Positive experiences with math and science from children’s earliest schooling increase both their knowledge base and the likelihood they will choose career paths related to those fields. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with our K-12 students’ performance in math and science, funding should be found for new, TAMS-like efforts, whether state by state or as a national project.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as To Improve Math and Science Education, Don’t Neglect Veteran Teachers

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