This news article in the St. Petersburg Times provides a decent analysis of one possible reason Florida’s students do so poorly in science: shortage of qualified teachers. I like the nod the reporter made to the draft of the new science standards. He slipped in a mention of evolution’s inclusion and praised the standards’ improvement without bothering to go into all the controversy nonsense. But then the story moves on to outline the problem:
The state Board of Education annually puts middle and high school science teachers on its critical shortage list. Last fall, 10 percent of new science teachers, and 7.5 percent of all science teachers, were not certified in the appropriate field. That’s nearly 700 teachers.
Just last week, Florida State University and the University of Florida acknowledged the problem, announcing a $10-million program to boost the teaching ranks for science and math.
“We’ve got a huge gap,” said Christopher D’Elia, a zoologist who is interim regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “There has been a real challenge nationwide finding teachers who are adequately prepared in their discipline.”
The article mentions low student performance on the annual FCATs and an American Institutes for Research study. I hadn’t heard of the American Institutes’ report, so I looked it up and saw that, yes, Florida is in the basement compared to other states.
In science, nine states are at the Below Basic level: Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Alabama, Hawaii, California and Mississippi.
And the report summary states what ought to be obvious:
The paper argues that the United States needs to substantially increase the scientific and mathematical competency of the general adult population so that the voting citizenry can better understand and reach a consensus on policies that address many of the world’s most pressing problems.
That’s a high, rugged mountain to climb, though. The report goes on to show how bad off the U.S. is:
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF, www.nsf.gov/statistics), the average U.S. citizen understands very little science. For example:
• Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not believe in evolution.
• Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not even know that the earth goes around the sun.
• Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.
On the other hand, according to the NSF, the general public believes in a lot of pseudoscience.
• Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.
• Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.
• Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.
• A third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and that UFOs are aliens from space.
• A quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.
It seems to me that there is an element left untouched in the newspaper article. The focus seems to be on pay, but science teachers need much more than a few extra bucks. They need courage and support. Not only do science teachers need to be properly trained and qualified, but they also have to unapologetically teach real science, which means standing up to passionate parents and their kids who believe in all that pseudoscience. In just a handful of hours each week, the science teachers have to try to punch through all the misconceptions that pervade the students’ lives. The teachers have to withstand the pressure of ill-informed, politically motivated school boards, and in some cases the teachers’ own school administrations. All teachers, regardless of subject, have a lot of pressures to deal with. But the science teachers sometimes have additional obstacles to negotiate. If a teacher isn’t up to the challenge, you get situations like this:
“Money is not always the driving factor behind their decisions,” said Tracy LaQuey Parker, who directs the UTeach Institute.
But are those incentives enough? Not for Sunny Jiang, who earned a Ph.D in marine science in 1996 from USF. She didn’t consider a career as a K-12 science teacher, she said, because kids are expected to do little more than “swallow a science lesson and spit it out.”
“It’s different at the graduate level,” said Jiang, now a professor at the University of California at Irvine. “Students are challenged and taught in a way that encourages them to ask questions.”
Teaching kids to think is a brave endeavor. A science teacher has to have the training and the guts to do the job right.