Presidential Awards for STEM Teachers Go Unclaimed

By Jeffrey Mervis — May 16, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Diana Herrington, a math teacher at Clovis (Calif.) High School, watches students in her advanced math analysis class. She is a 1999 winner of a U.S. award for teaching.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Elizabeth Horsch’s work as Wyoming’s coordinator for the award was connected to her work for Inverness, a California research organization.

Eighty-five elementary teachers will be in Washington this week to receive what many science educators regard as the Nobel Prize of their profession. And while White House officials will lavish well-deserved praise on this year’s recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, they are unlikely to mention one disturbing fact: The winners, from 49 states and three other U.S. jurisdictions, represent 21 fewer teachers than the program is designed to honor, nearly a quarter of the slots.

State coordinators, many of them former awardees, offer several explanations for the shortfall, from the quality of the STEM teaching corps, to the program’s lack of visibility, to the uneven judging of candidates, to the rigorous application itself.

None of the reasons is reassuring to those who care about science in the schools, however. And together they paint a picture of a teaching profession under stress, battered by forces that could also undermine efforts by the Obama administration and many others to attract and retain a new generation of high-quality teachers in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The annual award, which comes with a $10,000 cash prize, honors one math and one science teacher from each state, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and Department of Defense schools—a total of 106 slots. Each state is allowed to nominate up to three finalists in each category. The award was first bestowed in 1983 to middle and high school teachers. Elementary teachers were added in 1990, and for the past decade, the awardees each year have alternated between elementary and secondary teachers.

Tough Process

The National Science Foundation manages the program, and the winners gain a national platform to advocate improvements at the local, state, and federal levels. Many do exactly that, according to program evaluations, although their impact on student achievement has never been measured. But 12 of 53 jurisdictions don’t have a presidential awardee this year in math, and nine don’t have a science winner.

The most obvious reason, experts say, is that there are so few teachers willing to complete the application process.

California, with roughly 200,000 teachers eligible for the 2010 award, had exactly three vying for the title of the state’s best elementary math teacher. (One became a state finalist and was chosen a national winner.) In North Dakota, which has a much smaller pool, not a single teacher completed the application in either math or science, so there was nobody that state judges could review. Coordinators in other states, large and small, report a similarly small number of teachers who, after being nominated, actually completed the application.

The core of the application is an unedited, 30-minute classroom video that serves as a template to demonstrate good teaching. Judges rate the applicants in such areas as mastery of the appropriate content, effective instruction, and use of student assessments, as well as on their leadership outside the classroom. Teachers have 15 pages to narrate the video, analyzing their interactions with students. The application, along with background information and letters of recommendation, is reviewed first by a state panel and then, if a candidate clears that hurdle, a national one.

“The application is intense. I’ve applied for a lot of grants, and this was more work,” said Camsie Matis, a 2009 math winner from a New York City charter high school who’s just ending a federal fellowship at the NSF and starting a job as director of STEM education for the District of Columbia public schools. “It took me seven tries to get a good video because of everything that was going on in the classroom. But I’m glad I did; I didn’t realize how helpful it was until after I had finished.”

Most STEM teachers never find out. Some program officials believe low participation rates reflect sagging morale among the nation’s teaching corps. That malaise is fueled by the current round of massive state budget cuts and negative societal attitudes toward the teaching profession, they say.

“It’s tough, with the bad economy and the way people are so down on teachers,” said Diana Herrington, California’s state math coordinator for the competition and a 1999 award winner.

Ms. Herrington says that teachers are discouraged by the increased pressure to help their students pass state-mandated tests and to show improvement each year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Our teachers don’t feel good about what they are being requested to do as teachers,” said Ms. Herrington, a math teacher at Clovis High School in Clovis, Calif., who notes that her smallest class has 39 students. “For most of them, what they are able to do in the classroom isn’t rich enough to deserve a presidential award.”

Elementary Unease?

Elizabeth Horsch, who runs the competition for Wyoming, a state that typically enjoys one of the highest ratios of applications to eligible teachers, believes that the award “has elevated excellence in math and science teaching in the state” by encouraging teachers to raise their game. But the review process also can distort what is otherwise exemplary teaching by forcing it into a pigeonhole defined by the NCLB law, she cautions.

“It asks for evidence that your kids are scoring better on a standardized test. But that’s beside the point. One test doesn’t tell you very much,” said Ms. Horsch, who taught high school chemistry for 30 years before joining Inverness Research Inc., an education research organization north of San Francisco.

Many state coordinators say the chronically low number of applicants was further depressed this year because the 2010 competition targeted elementary teachers. NSF officials say most elementary teachers feel less comfortable teaching math and science than their secondary school counterparts, who are more likely to have majored in the subject in college.

“There are 3 million elementary school teachers in the country, and a significant fraction of them are teaching math and science,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the head of the NSF’s education directorate. “But the number of specialists is much smaller, and the set of people who consider themselves exemplary math and science teachers is even smaller.”

Adding to the problem of a small pool of completed applications is the rigor of the review process itself. In New Mexico, for example, three elementary teachers completed the math application last year, but state judges decided that none was sufficiently proficient to be chosen as a finalist. In more than a dozen states, judges concluded that there were no outstanding candidates in either math or science that warranted selection.

“I cried in front of the whole group,” Claudia Ahlstrom of New Mexico’s education department, who has managed the math competition since 2002, recalled about the first time the state was shut out in math, in 2003. “The whole point of the program is to shine a spotlight on good STEM teaching. So it’s very disappointing when we don’t send anyone to the national level.”

Even so, Ms. Ahlstrom and many of her colleagues in other states are vehement that the presidential award should recognize only the best teachers and that its reputation for quality would be damaged if the standards were lowered.

“The teaching needs to be student- and learning-centered,” she said. “And in this case, the applications were all teacher-centered. The tape showed that the teacher was talking the majority of the time, saying in effect, ‘I’m wonderful, listen to me.’ In contrast, what the judges are looking for are teachers who pique the students’ interest, who draw them into the discussion, and help the students discover the concepts for themselves. It’s a different approach, and not every teacher has it.”

Michael Heinz, a science coordinator for the New Jersey education department who oversees the state’s science competition, said: “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what good instruction looks like. We’re putting people out there as exemplary, so they had better be exemplary. They need to understand the content, why it’s important, and how kids learn. I think that keeping the bar high is a good thing.”

Better Guidance

One state coordinator who requested anonymity says the decision isn’t always so cut-and-dried. The coordinator recalls how the national panel found fault with one recent state finalist who, it said, was using outdated textbooks and a syllabus that didn’t reflect current pedagogy.

“We were very confident about this teacher, who was [national] board-certified and a former state teacher of the year finalist,” said the coordinator. “And then she gets blamed for things that were beyond her control. It was a real slap in the face. And when other teachers in the state found out what had happened, they decided it wasn’t worth their time to apply.”

Ms. Ferrini-Mundy said the NSF plans “to look more carefully at all these issues over the next few months” in hopes of attracting more applicants and providing them with better guidance. “Our main responsibility is to administer an awards program,” she said. “But we’re also trying to spread the word about what it means to be an effective STEM teacher.”

Nefeesa Owens, who manages the program at the NSF, acknowledges that there’s room for improvement. “The way states run things is quite varied,” she said. “I think it’s actually amazing that the system works as well as it does.”

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Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Too Few Teachers of STEM Subjects in Line for Awards


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