Calling Would-Be Science Teachers

Report by college and business leaders advocates more math and science majors as well as better teacher prep programs.

June 12, 2007

A group of academic and business leaders added their collective voice Monday to the many recent calls for a significant upturn in the number of science and math teachers the United States needs to inject into elementary and secondary classrooms by 2015.

The report by the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) is distinguished from the many other recent reports on the subject, the forum's leaders said, by the group's emphasis as much on increasing the number of undergraduate majors in scientific fields as on getting more scientifically adept people into teacher preparation programs. One of its major initiatives is to double the number of college graduates earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by 2015.

The report, “An American Imperative: Transforming the Recruitment, Retention and Renewal of Our Nation’s Mathematics and Science Workforce,” proposes an emphasis on recruitment, retention and teacher preparation to improve math and science education and research.

It includes plans for the creation of a national consortium to step up teacher recruitment efforts, improve the prestige and pay of teachers with expertise in STEM fields, and create programs to effectively train and develop teachers’ skills. The forum, a group made up largely of university presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs, estimates that American elementary and secondary schools will need 280,000 new science and math teachers between now and 2015 to keep up with teacher retirement and attrition, as well as growth in the population of school-aged children.

Those findings echo the findings of several reports in recent years. But the forum's report is unique in suggesting that improved science and math programs for students in primary and secondary schools should depend on the collaboration of colleges and universities with businesses and government to improve the size and quality of the national corps of science and math teachers.

As part of the forum's initiative to double the number of college graduates with degrees in STEM fields, the report calls for higher education to collaborate with school districts, state governments, the federal government and businesses to recruit, retain and provide professional development to science and math teachers.

Unlike other studies proposing solutions to the growing need for science and math teachers, including the College Board's 2006 report, "Teachers and the Uncertain American Future," and the Department of Education's "Before It's Too Late" from 2000, the forum's report stresses the important role that colleges and universities, as well as businesses and foundations, play in improving the quality and quantity of teachers in public schools.

Rather than proposing programs that focus on student testing or enrichment, Brian K. Fitzgerald, the forum's executive director, said at a Washington panel discussion on the report that “very little progress” is possible in science and math education without solving "the teacher problem.”

The national consortium will allow for higher education and businesses to lobby at the state and national levels for strong teacher preparation programs that are coordinated with college and university programs in scientific and mathematics fields.

Science and math departments are typically unsuccessful in collaborating with their own universities' teacher preparation programs, said Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Recognizing these problems, Austin created the UTeach program to identify strong undergraduates majoring in STEM subject areas and makes it easier for them to be trained and licensed as teachers in those disciplines. Since its founding in 1997, the program has graduated more than 350 students, 90 percent of whom currently teach or are planning to teach. It is also the model for the National Math and Science Initiative, a $125 million program sponsored by ExxonMobil that will promise up to $2.4 million each to 10 colleges and universities that replicate the program.

In addition to funding programs like the National Math and Science Initiative, the business forum hopes that companies will work to advertise for and recruit public school teachers and encourage their employees to consider leaving their companies for teaching jobs. In 2005, IBM began a program to provide financial support to employees who leave the company for jobs teaching math and science.

The ultimate goal of the proposals is for “every student to have a confident, inspirational and effective teacher in the classroom,” Warren J. Baker, president of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, said at the discussion. Baker, co-chair of the forum's Securing America’s Leadership in STEM project, with Raytheon CEO William H. Swanson, was instrumental in writing the report.

Though Baker acknowledged that improving science and math education was important for the economic interests of U.S. companies, he emphasized the importance of STEM education to solving problems like climate change, which he said could be the current generation’s Sputnik in terms of inspiring students to consider careers in science and math.


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