Science teachers need more than pay; they need guts!

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.

3 Responses to “Science teachers need more than pay; they need guts!”

  1. Paul Cottle Says:

    Science teachers not only need good pay and guts, but they also need great professional development. Our state’s success in reading education was driven by a substantial commitment to training our teachers to use research-based techniques to teach kids to read. We must make an equivalent commitment to professional development in science. There are great research-based programs available to train teachers to help their students learn science better. Our state must find the political will to commit the resources necessary to deliver these programs to every teacher who teaches science.

    Evolution has center stage right now, but the need for professional development is even greater in the physical sciences. We must take science as seriously as we take reading.

  2. Lane Taylor Says:

    Hi, been reading your blog for a while now, and this topic is one in which I am very interested.

    I am the VP of Kansas Citizens for Science, and we are working on developing some in class materials with the hope that the local school districts will allow us to provide some guidelines for teachers on how to deal with the ‘controversial’ topics when they are brought up in the classroom.

    This is a new idea (we’ve been busy keeping an ye on political races) and we are still in the brainstorming phase. Feel free to drop on by kcfs.org. Ask our site administrator for access to the business forum, or PM me there after you register, I’m ‘Stuck in KS’ on those boards. If you’re interested.

    We’ve urged our members to write letters to the FL board to adopt the improved science standards.

    Cheers,
    Lane

  3. Vince Says:

    I’m a science teacher here in Palm Beach County. At the start of the school year, the school board contacted me and told me that I was eligible for $7500 incentive as a critical shortage teacher at a TitleII school. Additionally, they classified me as a new teacher. I did work for them in 2001-02 but thought that their definition of a new teacher included my scenario where I had not taught for them in over 5 years. I received half the bonus and paid some bill w/all of it. Over 3 months later, they want it back or I can pay approximately $260 per paycheck. After receiving and spending the bonus and in conjunction with my salary, I set up a lifestyle based on these aforementioned conditions. Now, with them asking for this money back, I’m now in a hole where my salary barely exceeds my expenses. The school board had access to all the information they needed to offer or not offer me this bonus. I trusted that they knew what they were doing and I feel that they put me in this hole. Is there anything I can do?

    Thanks
    Vince