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Making the Grade

How do you grow a bumper crop of math and science teachers?

By Jeffrey Mervis
Oct 10, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:36 AM
Illustration by Maya Gouw


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In 2001, Carl Wieman won the Nobel Prize for creating a state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, using lasers to manipulate individual atoms. Now the 56-year-old physicist is trying to manipulate the pieces of a much larger, far more rigid system: higher education in the United States. His goal is to improve the teaching of undergraduate science and math, and he knows he’ll need every watt of his renowned laserlike concentration to get the job done.

“Yes, I think that you can teach old dogs new tricks,” says Wieman, who began working with other science educators several years ago at the University of Colorado at Boulder, before moving this year to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver after being promised $12 million in support of his education endeavors. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Taking on this challenge has required Wieman to set aside his first love—research, a passion that he says was nurtured by his seventh-grade science teacher in rural Oregon. Instead, he is staking out a position in the middle of a growing but often uncoordinated movement to improve the current system of American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (often abbreviated as STEM).

Signs of deficiencies abound. U.S. students may be holding their own in math and science at the elementary level, but international comparisons indicate they are falling behind most of their global peers as they progress through the system. And what they do know is often inadequate. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called the nation’s report card, reveals that nearly one-third of eighth graders don’t possess even the most basic math skills, a fraction that rises to nearly two-fifths for high school seniors. The staggering number of teachers with STEM class assignments outside their field of expertise certainly doesn’t help: In middle schools, 51.5 percent of math teachers and 40 percent of science teachers lack a major or minor in the subject.

But knowing what’s wrong isn’t the same as agreeing on what to do about it. Current reform efforts range from individual labors of love to huge multistate collaborations. Although most reformers say that they want to raise student achievement, many projects focus on interim targets, like attracting more students into STEM fields, training more and better math and science teachers or improving the skills of those already in the classroom, and strengthening curricula. A recent litany of reports laud all those approaches, but most put better teachers at the top of the list.

Reformers must also contend with the reality that education in the United States, unlike that in most countries, is primarily a state and local responsibility. Federal programs provide less than 10 percent of the $500 billion spent each year to educate the nation’s 50 million elementary and secondary school students. Even the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which requires school districts to show that their students are making progress toward acceptable achievement levels in math and reading by 2014, preserves the authority of each state to set those levels and to decide how to achieve them. Teacher certification, too, is largely a state function.

One downside to local control is that it’s harder to scale up programs on a national basis. As a result, districts can find themselves reinventing the wheel, or worse. As one educator puts it, “sometimes we end up reinventing the flat tire.”

That slow progress angers Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable, a group of top CEOs that has pushed hard for improving STEM education. “None of this is rocket science, nor is it new,” she says. “So the question is, Why aren’t we doing these things already? The answer, I guess, is that it’s easier not to.”

A cadre of educators like Wieman are determined to develop strategies to get science education where it needs to go.

As a lifelong academic, Wieman is concentrating on the culture he knows best. Unfortunately, it’s one in which many professors still take pride in weeding out those students deemed unworthy and where the job of teaching science to nonmajors is often assigned to those on the bottom of the totem pole. “These people [faculty members] have succeeded under a system that has existed for hundreds of years,” he says, “and they assume that everybody else thinks like they do and learns in the same way.” Studies have shown that many liberal-arts majors finish their science courses less interested in the subject matter than when they began the semester, a consequence of teaching practices that fail to engage the students.

To change that outcome, Wieman and others employ a variety of educational tools. One popular device is a portable interactive teaching technique pioneered two decades ago by Harvard University physicist Eric Mazur. Instead of waiting until the final exam to find out what students know, professors repeatedly interrupt each lecture to pose a question about the topic being discussed. Students answer via handheld electronic “clickers,” and the professor then uses the answers to home in immediately on any problems.

“I’ve looked at how to improve the quality of K-12 teachers,” says Wieman, who also chairs the Board on Science Education for the U.S. National Academies, “and I think that we have to fix the universities first. Our goal is to get to the point where people start asking universities: How come you’re not doing it this way?”

The Boulder campus is also home to a complementary effort to turn STEM majors into math and science teachers. Faculty from the half-dozen science departments on campus have joined with the university’s school of education to employ undergraduates as peer tutors in large introductory courses. The program whets their appetite for teaching and, once they’re hooked, blends pedagogy with content knowledge. This fall six new graduates will enter the classroom. In the meantime, preliminary results show that both the tutors, called learning assistants, and the students learn more science than those in a regular class.

The University of Texas at Austin is a leader in this movement. Its UTeach program has nearly quadrupled the number of science and math majors headed into the classroom in the past decade (from 21 in a 1996 graduating class of 12,000 to last year’s total of 74), and there are nearly 500 undergraduates in its pipeline. Begun in 1997, UTeach is also making STEM faculty rethink their traditional view of precollege teaching as a second-rate career. “Other deans of science at major research universities would tell me: ‘Our students are better than that. Teaching is not a job for our graduates,’ ” recalls Mary Ann Rankin, the moving force behind UTeach. “We’ve exploded that myth.”

UTeach’s track record so impressed the Texas-based ExxonMobil Foundation that in March it launched a $125 million National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) to scale up the program at dozens of universities. (Part of the NMSI money will also be spent on expanding a model program begun in Texas in the 1990s that trains teachers for advanced placement courses and pays students who pass those rigorous tests.) Each grant-winning university will receive up to $2.4 million over five years if it adheres closely to the Texas model.

Despite the spread of such programs, the vast majority of the nation’s annual supply of new teachers graduate from more traditional programs that offer less rigorous instruction in science and math. For them, and for the more than 3 million teachers already in the K-12 workforce, learning more math and science means in-service professional development or a graduate degree.

Ken Gross, a University of Vermont mathematician, chose the latter approach in 1998 when state school officials asked him to help improve the mathematical literacy of their largely rural workforce. The three-year graduate degree program that Gross has developed for elementary school teachers begins with the concept of mathematics as a second language. “In the equation 2 + 3 = 5, the numerals are adjectives that modify nouns, and we’ve agreed that all the numbers modify the same noun,” he explains. “But the equation 1 + 1 = 15 could also be true if the first number modified ‘dime,’ the second modified ‘nickel,’ and the third modified ‘cents.’ We don’t teach that concept, but it’s the key to understanding the language of math.” Gross says he’s not watering down the math, just making it more user-friendly for teachers who may have deliberately avoided mathematics as undergraduates.

Many academic scientists are working with both populations—enhancing the skills of existing teachers and training those not yet in the classroom. At the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, for example, mathematics educator Jim Lewis has developed The Mathematics Semester—a concentration of pedagogy and mathematics courses for undergraduates preparing to be elementary school teachers—as well as Math in the Middle, a graduate program for middle-school math teachers.

“Some argue that a master’s degree in math education should only be offered to those who majored in math,” Lewis says. “But I think that sets the bar too high. Our goal is to offer a professional master’s degree for teachers, some of whom needed only two math courses to become certified, through courses that are beneficial and challenging and appropriate for their jobs.”

Both Gross and Lewis believe they are making headway. Gross cites an unpublished study that found a cohort of fourth graders in schools with Vermont Mathematics Institute–trained teachers performed significantly better in math four and six years later than a matched group attending schools without such teachers. Lewis is proud of graduates who have demonstrated improved mathematical understanding.

But STEM professional development efforts are notoriously difficult to assess and perhaps even tougher to implement consistently. An official in the Department of Education, which has supported Gross’s project, says, “We’re not in a position to say that this works. But we think that the teachers understand the math better and are better able to teach it.” Last year, an evaluation of a decadelong $250 million program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the skills of some 70,000 science and math teachers in 31 states concluded that such efforts could make a difference—if they were done well, with high-quality materials, supported by policies, and sustained over many years.

That’s apparently asking a lot, however. None of the 88 projects in the NSF’s Local Systemic Change initiative met even the most basic goal of delivering the promised 130 hours of additional training. Iris Weiss of Horizon Research says her team couldn’t comprehensively measure the effects on student achievement because the NSF didn’t initially require school districts to address that question and because the projects served such a wide range of grade levels. A second evaluation found that those districts reporting student gains couldn’t separate the effect of the project from those of other factors.

The self-guided professional development by the science faculty at Concord High School in New Hampshire has never been formally evaluated. But Thomas Crum­rine’s students have benefited from techniques he’s learned during his 7 a.m. meeting with colleagues every other Friday for the past five years. While using interactive clickers during a unit on the conservation of matter, Crumrine found that 86 percent of his students incorrectly thought that the mass of a pile of iron nails in an open container would remain the same as the nails rusted, failing to take into account the additional oxygen. “In the past, if that question had been asked on a test, I would have been saddened but probably would have moved on to the next unit,” he says. Instead, he stopped the lesson, inserted a discussion about rusting and oxidation, and then continued.

School officials in Richardson, Texas, wanted a math program that could lift up low-performing middle schools and close a yawning achievement gap across racial and socioeconomic lines when they asked for help from the city’s largest employer, Texas Instruments (TI), in 2004. After considering several models, TI developed its own program. Tapping national experts in math education, the company provided professional development for teachers. They also supplemented the existing curriculum with lessons that incorporated technology—much like the interactive clicker system that Wieman and others use with undergraduates—and trained teachers to use it. For its part, the district doubled the amount of time spent on math and gave teachers shared planning time to prepare additional lessons.

The new program, called Math Forward, draws upon the work of Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, who believes that effective math teachers have an understanding of their subject that goes beyond what they have learned in course work and what they are required to teach in the classroom. This mathematical knowledge for teaching, as she calls it, allows them to resolve, for example, student misconceptions that aren’t addressed by the textbook. But training teachers in the concept isn’t enough, says Ball: “Interventions have to affect what happens in the classroom. Otherwise, they don’t do any good.”

Richardson officials say they have such tangible results. A program at one Richardson middle school in 2005 and 2006 helped one-third of the students who had failed the state math assessment the previous year pass the test the next spring. Last year the program was expanded to five middle schools and an algebra 1 component was added, and this fall its monitors will follow the original cohort into high school. Meanwhile, TI plans to go national. “We’ll offer it to any school district willing to make the necessary commitment to implement it with integrity,” says TI’s Lisa Brady Gill.

Scaling up a successful classroom intervention is tricky. Just ask Sharon Lynch, a professor of education at George Washington University, who’s been studying the use of three middle-school science units by the Montgomery County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. The federally funded project began in 5 schools and hopes to reach 35 of the 38 middle schools in the district.

Lynch found that only two of the three units actually “worked” in the sense of producing modest but statistically significant gains in student understanding. The third unit has since been dropped, and Lynch is unsure whether the remaining two lessons will be implemented consistently and whether the district can support the units properly after the grant ends.

The $5.2 million cost of Lynch’s federally funded project, which included extensive use of classroom observers, may push it beyond the reach of most efforts to monitor school reform. And the decentralized nature of U.S. education pretty much ensures that interventions will remain local, not national. “Frankly,” she says, “I think the idea of scaling up anything in the United States is a ludicrous notion.”

Bev Marcum, a biology professor at Cali­fornia State University in Chico, is more optimistic about prospects for improvement. Marcum directs the Hands-On Science Lab, a campus facility for elementary school children that features experimental stations staffed by undergraduates. The lab is a tool to train future teachers, a site of professional development for teachers, and a fun place to learn science.

In fact, the teachers at one school in this hardscrabble farm community have revised their entire science curriculum to make use of the concept. Last year Citrus Avenue Elementary School began offering Science Fridays, during which the school’s fourth, fifth, and sixth graders spend 90 minutes rotating among a half-dozen stations, just as they would at the university lab. “Our biggest problem is finding time to do lab-based science,” says Richard Aguilera, a former principal who four years ago decided to return to the classroom, “and our large ethnic population [the Hmong of Southeast Asia] poses a special challenge. So the hands-on lab approach is just great.”

What is the effect on student learning? The only research on the lab has shown that it improves teacher confidence and increases their knowledge. A rigorous study documenting the lab’s impact on student achievement awaits another day. “I don’t have enough resources to do [anything] credible,” Marcum admits. “And without it, I don’t want to make any elaborate claims.”

Coming up with that evidence is the challenge facing Marcum, Wieman, and other reformers. They agree it’s the only way to achieve the system of science education that the nation needs.

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