Fixing Science Education

In the comments to last week’s science majors follow-up post, commenter Jim G calls me out:

OK, I agree with that 100%, and I’m sure everyone who reads this post has observed the phenomena you mention dozens of times or more. But I wonder whether you have a proposal, or if you’re just pointing out the problem. With no snarkiness intended, to change this we need something a bit more concrete than “it’s the fault of the kids/parents/media/poverty,” or “someone needs to spend more money” to fix it.

Really, I’m curious. I don’t want to clutter up your blog with my own theories; but this is your blog and your selected topic, so perhaps you could spend some time outlining your policy suggestions.

It’s a fair question. So, what would I do to fix science education?

The key to fixing science education, like all education, it to make sure that we have the best teachers possible, which means getting people with good science and math skills to become educators. As I see it, there are three obstacles that need to be overcome, one cultural, one financial, and one quality-of-life issue.

The cultural obstacle, as has often been noted here, is that the culture of modern academic science regards a career in anything other than academic science as a dismal failure. We steer our very best students toward graduate school, and we send them the message that anything less than a tenure-track job at a research university is a failure. As a scientific community, we need to recognize that there is value in dealing with a wider public than other scientists.

Science teachers, and science communicators are essential for building the foundation of support that academic science needs. We should encourage students whose interests lie in those areas, and not try to force them into more research-oriented career tracks. Especially since the academic job situation is pretty grim, and they can do better elsewhere.

The financial obstacle is obvious: teachers are not paid enough for a career in education to be a competitive career option for students with the mathematical skills to make good science teachers. It’s not the only factor– starting salaries for college faculty aren’t all that much better, after all– but it’s a big issue. In order to become a teacher, you not only need a Bachelor’s degree in the subject you’re going to teach, but you also need a Master’s degree in education, which requires approximately two more years of schooling.

In an effort to be quantitative about this, let’s look at some numbers for different professions whose required skill sets are comparable to what would be required for a good science teacher (there are a host of personality factors that enter in here, of course, but this should give an idea of the problem). For comparison purposes, I’ll use starting salary numbers taken from PayScale.com– I can’t swear that they’re accurate, but they are convenient, and should at least provide a good basis for relative comparisons.

According to PayScale’s figures, the median starting salary (less that one year of experience) for a teacher in the United States is around $34,000. It varies a bit depending on grade level– elementary is a bit under $33,000, middle school just over $34,000, and high school more like $34,500– but we’ll use $34,000 as a round figure.

What other careers might a person with the math skills and technical acumen to be a good math or science teacher choose to pursue instead? An obvious choice would be financial/ accounting sorts of jobs. The median starting salary for an accountant is just over $40,000. A CPA gets just shy of $47,000, and a “financial analyst” has a median salary of $45,000.

Information technology is another good possible area– you need to have a fairly scientific mind-set to do computer work. “IT Specialist” offers a median starting salary of $43,000. “Web Designer” comes in at $37,000, “Web Developer” just over $40,000. A web software developer gets $46,000, a software developer/ programmer not quite $57,000.

Engineering is another possible area. Civil engineers have a median starting salary of $48,000, Mechanical Engineers $53,000, and Electrical Engineers close to $70,000 (depending on the degree– a MSEE gets $71,000 according to PayScale, a BSEE more like $62,000.

And then there’s the law– the median starting salary for a lawyer is listed as $58,000. You might object that becoming a lawyer requires one to attend law school, but again, becoming a teacher requires a Master’s degree, which takes roughly two years of additional schooling, compared to three years of law school. That’s not that big a difference in overall education.

The point here is clear: people with the math skills and technical acumen to be good science teachers have lots of career options that give them more money right up front. Going into something other than education is likely to boost starting salaries by close to $10,000, or almost 30% of the total.

If we want to improve science education before college, we need to attract good people to teaching science, and right now, the salaries aren’t all that competitive. If we want to draw in more good science teachers, we need to pay teachers more money, because right now, the other options look substantially better.

Raising teacher salaries will require a substantial infusion of cash. It also probably requires re-thinking the way we fund public education in this country. The property tax model that we currently use inevitably leads to huge discrepancies in the resources available in different districts, and leaves the neediest schools in a bad way. Local control is a lovely idea, but in practice, it produces bad results.

This leads into the third obstacle, which is quality of life. When I graduated college, I pretty much ruled out a career in public education not for financial reasons (my starting salary as a professor, with six years of education beyond that needed to teach high school, was in the mid 40’s), but because my father taught in a public school for thirty-odd years, and I saw the shit he had to put up with.

I wasn’t remotely interested in becoming a teacher, because of the myriad headaches involved in the job. I grew up hearing about disruptive students, meddling parents, ineffective bureaucrats, penny-pinching administrators, and local nutcases trying to meddle with the curriculum. I watched my father and his colleagues deal with classroom discipline and the horrors of cafeteria duty, and I wanted no part of that.

It’s no accident that nationally, almost half of new teachers leave the job within five years. Being a public school teacher is an enormous hassle, and people leave because of a lack of support, a lack of respect, and a lack of discipline within the student body.

It’s not enough to just draw good people into the field of science education, we need to keep them there. That’s partly a matter of money– making sure that they have the resources they need to do their jobs properly– but some aspects of the problem are social and cultural.

We need to do more to make schools a reasonable working environment. Not just for the teachers, but also for the students, who suffer every bit as much as the faculty, if not more. It’s well known that there widespread problems with bullying and classroom discipline, and we need to make a systematic effort to stamp those problems out, by removing problematic students entirely if necessary, and providing them alternative options.

My personal feeling– backed up only by anecdotes, not data– is that the classroom discipline problem is similar to the “20/60/20″ model that people talk about with respect to academic honesty. There are, supposedly, something like 20% of students who will attempt to cheat no matter what, 20% who will never cheat under any circumstances, and the other 60% will cheat if they think they’re likely to get away with it. The goal of academic honesty initiatives is to push that middle three-fifths toward the good extreme as much as possible.

Similarly, I think a lot of school discipline issues can ultimately be traced to a small number of students who will be disruptive no matter what. Their continued presence enables and emboldens the majority of students who aren’t necessarily inclined to act out on their own, but will if the opportunity presents itself. And as a result, the small number of students who are really interested in learning suffer disproportionately.

The situation in a lot of schools could be dramatically improved by taking a hard line on the core instigators– get them out of the classroom, and the others will fall in line to a much greater degree. The problem is, the most disruptive students seem to also have disruptive parents, and any attempt to discipline or remove them kicks up an amazing fuss. It’s easier for administrators to just cave in, and let the bad apples remain.

We need to do a better job of supporting teachers and the core group of students who are there to learn, and find something else to do with the trouble-makers. Forcing them to be in school makes everyone miserable– they don’t want to be there, and they make life difficult for everyone else. We need to shift them somewhere else, either to alternative schools or some sort of vocational training, and free up teachers to spend time and resources on students who will use them appropriately.

This is a delicate issue, of course– I’m not trying to make a sweeping Charles Murray-style claim that these students are ineducable. Some of them will come around with the right sort of approach (which can be provided more efficiently by collecting them together in alternative schools), others are more likely to thrive in a less academic setting. We need to make sure that we do right by all the students, even the apparent head cases.

The regular curricular hassles experienced by science teachers also go here. Having to deal with parents and school boards agitating for the teaching of thinly disguised religion in science classes is another of the headaches that science teachers shouldn’t have to deal with. We ought to have uniform science standards on a national level, set by scientists and based on the latest understanding of science, and get rid of the absurd patchwork of state and local curricula that we have now, which cripples the effective teaching of science.

So there are some fairly concrete recommendations for how to fix the problems of science education. You may now commence telling me how I’m wrong about everything.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    September 29, 2008

    that we have the best teachers possible

    Science and engineering need the best students possible – the Severely and Profoundly Gifted. Public education specifically destroys them that the great Middle and the loathsome Left Tail not suffer discrimination. Toss a textbook at the Gifted while the rest of the class makes math journals.

    disruptive students, meddling parents, ineffective bureaucrats, penny-pinching administrators, and local nutcases trying to meddle with the curriculum

    EMPOWERMENT and mangerial productivity bonuses! All opinions are valid. Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering. Inert intelligence is the paradigm of institutional racism.

    America once knew how to win a street fight. Now all it can do is bleed.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    September 29, 2008

    that we have the best teachers possible

    Science and engineering need the best students possible – the Severely and Profoundly Gifted. Public education specifically destroys them that the great Middle and the loathsome Left Tail not suffer discrimination. Toss a textbook at the Gifted while the rest of the class makes math journals.

    disruptive students, meddling parents, ineffective bureaucrats, penny-pinching administrators, and local nutcases trying to meddle with the curriculum

    EMPOWERMENT and managerial productivity bonuses! All opinions are valid. Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering. Inert intelligence is the paradigm of institutional racism.

    America once knew how to win a street fight. Now all it can do is bleed.

  3. #3 Upstate NY
    September 29, 2008

    I think you’re just about right about everything.

    I quibble with your salary comparisons. Yeah more money would bring in better teachers — I turned down interviews for (private) high school jobs for mainly that reason.

    But you compare teaching to professional jobs which have more responsibility and oversight on day-to-day work. When you teach, generally, you do so without a boss checking up on your results daily. If you mess up teaching, usually no one knows, and you can hide it. That’s not the case if you’re an accountant and don’t quite finish your books on time, or an engineer that doesn’t finish plans. Teachers show movies.

    To go along with higher teaching salaries, can principals start videotaping and reviewing classes?

  4. #4 TheJster
    September 29, 2008

    Nice post, and I think you bring up exactly why we are at a loss for teachers. I’m a recent graduate from a pretty nice University, with a BS in Biology. After leaving school, I though about teaching, really, but I realized I could get a Job, straight up, as a Systems Administrator for a local company. I have no formal training in this, but I am getting paid much better than I would if I got my teaching creds and got a Job at a High School. (Side note, I get paid more than that payscale website says the average is for my job, but I do live in California [high cost of living] and very close to the heart of the silicon valley]).

    Anyway, I give any teacher the highest level of respect for having such an important, stressful, underpaid job – I just don’t think I could do it

  5. #5 lazybratsche
    September 29, 2008

    As a recent college graduate, I have to agree entirely. I just got my B.S. in biology, and am working for a few years as a tech before starting on the PhD path. Personally, I would be happy to teach at a high school level (after grad school) if the things you mention were fixed. I’d even be interestd if either the pay OR the environment was better. But as things are right now, there’s no way I’d even consider a job in education.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    September 29, 2008

    From your description, public high schools have the same problems they did when I was in high school more than 20 years ago. More than one of my teachers warned me against going into high school teaching, and we had problems with parents insisting that their little Johnny or Susie couldn’t possibly be as bad as the teachers were claiming. And I was in a fortunate situation: my high school class had enough “smart” kids to form a critical mass and hold our own against any bullies.

    The one key advantage that private schools have over public schools is the fact that they can get rid of their disruptive students.

  7. #7 RBH
    September 29, 2008

    Upstate New York wrote

    To go along with higher teaching salaries, can principals start videotaping and reviewing classes?

    Erm, I’ve been married to a high school teacher for 42 years. Over those years she’s had innumerable principals. I can recall only one who was more than marginally competent to evaluate teachers’ performance in the classroom. Her current supervisor’s experience consists of three years of primary school teaching and a degree in “educational administration.” Earnest, but incompetent in teaching methods and practices.

    What her school has done, though, is install a colleague mentoring program where some senior teachers are selected to mentor new teachers. She’s one such mentor. It’s early days, but that seems to be a worthwhile route to improving teacher performance. Beats having a principal with a year or two (or zero) of classroom experience doing it. ‘Course, it’s one more damned thing to do along with five preps and a homeroom assignment per day, along with cafeteria or bus or hall duty. How the fuck a school thinks it’s making good use of professionals by having them babysit kids at lunch is beyond me.

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    September 29, 2008

    In what states does a beginning teacher have to have a Masters? I don’t know of any. Our BS in Biology Secondary Education produced teachers certified in Illinois. Most of our graduates ended up being hired at the high schools where they did their student teaching. Incidentally, our secondary education degree required a higher gradepoint average in science and math courses than was required of our pre-meds. I am in general agreement with most of what you have to say. I do think community respect for the teaching profession needs to be justifiably improved. Over the years there has been some truth to the idea that if you could not succeed in any other major, you could get a degree in education.

  9. #9 joemac53
    September 29, 2008

    I’m a 33 year veteran of teaching math and science at the high school level. There are other rewards that go with teaching, but a young person starting out with lots of loans to pay off will go where the money is most of the time.

    My oldest kid went to a very expensive school in Boston with lots of aid (the only good time to be poor is just before college for your kids). She became a teacher and is now in her fifth year. I don’t know how she does it.

    I graduated with a math degree and a desire to work with kids, so I became the typical teacher/coach. When some people went on vacation, I drove a truck, fished commercially, painted houses or fixed cars. My motivated students go to high-powered schools and the not so motivated ones take other routes. To all of them I explain that I hope to see them all the time when they “grow up”, and that they should act in such a manner that I will always be proud of them and happy to see them. Most of them understand this.

    Sorry to spout like this, but the name of my little fishing boat is “Uncertainty” with the word on one side of the outboard and the inequality on the other. Some folks stop me when I am at the boat ramp to inquire if I know what it means. My status as an educator just doesn’t shine through.

    I also volunteered (along with a few other older males) to take all the “bad” kids out of the school to an off-campus place where they could be taught about the real world of lobster pots, mechanics and home repair. We outlined a program that would allow the kids to earn their way back to the high school. We didn’t get past that point, and these old fart teachers are about to retire.

    Thanks for making this thread!

  10. #10 dave
    September 29, 2008

    RBH: “How the fuck a school thinks it’s making good use of professionals by having them babysit kids at lunch is beyond me.”
    Easy: They don’t think they’re employing professionals, they think they’re employing babysitters. <dws>After all, it’s only injecting knowledge into kids’ heads, how hard can it be?</dws>

  11. #11 Jarrett
    September 30, 2008

    @dave: They don’t think they’re employing professionals….

    I think this commenter pretty much says it all.

  12. #12 Chad's Dad
    September 30, 2008

    To Upstate NY

    The district I retired from has put the teachers’ grade books on line. This has become a fairly common practice in NY school districts. Talking to my colleagues who are still in the trenches about this is interesting. They no longer have a prep period. Instead they spend that period answering emails about why someone’s son or daughter received a low grade. Talk about pressure to produce. I think the end result will be that many teachers will simply make their tests extremely easy to avoid the emails. The more I talk to my teacher friends, the more I hear about the death of individual classroom creativity. What I enjoyed most about teaching was the opportunity to come up with ways to grab students’ attention so that they wanted to learn. Now it’s everyone will be on page 32 on day 35 and teach the lesson this way. This is a large result of the above-mentioned pressure. Many good teachers are leaving the profession because they feel creatively stifled.

  13. #13 Brian
    September 30, 2008

    I was with you, right until you got to the part about separating out the unruly students, or at least the students who don’t want to be in school. I think we have to keep in mind that the fact we have a publicly funded education system means that all of our children are entitled to and must receive an education.

    I know you’re not saying that the “bad” students shouldn’t be educated, but I’d like to see a bit more thought as to how we can find the approaches that will work for them. I agree that just as not every science major should go on to get a Ph.D., and that not every high school graduate needs to go to college. Of course, career earning potential increases dramatically with a college degree.

  14. #14 Mary
    September 30, 2008

    I know television doesn’t seem like the most appropriate place to look for insight on this topic, but I’m watching season four of The Wire right now, and it’s so relevant to your post that it almost seems as if it was made to address it. A disgraced former police officer starts a new career as a math teacher at an inner city junior high. His class is disruptive and badly prepared, and the administration pushes him to teach to standardized tests, for the few who have a hope of learning anything. It’s a pretty powerful depiction of the quality of life issues that you raise. In the meantime another of the former cop characters gets involved in a program to remove the problem students, the junior criminals, from the classrooms and educate them separately — or rather socialize them, because you have to do that before you can educated them. As fiction, it’s a good thought experiment. Finally, we follow another major character who’s involved in the politics, responsible for a broken school system running a huge deficit, with constituants who really couldn’t care less about education. Oh, and a couple of the kids are major characters too, dealing with problems at home a lot bigger than tests or grades. The whole thing raises a lot of the same issues as your posts, and invites some of the same conclusions, but in an incredibly vivid and convincing way. It stands alone pretty well, if you don’t want to watch the other seasons, which are about the justice system and the drug war and race and unions and politics — but I highly recommend them too.

  15. #15 lylebot
    September 30, 2008

    Heh, I was going to bring up The Wire too. As Mary says, Season 4 has a subplot in which the most disruptive kids in an inner city middle school are put into their own class away from the rest, with positive results for both groups. It’s fiction, of course, but I understand that one of the show’s co-creators actually tried it when he was a teacher in the Baltimore inner city schools, and that it’s based on his experiences.

    It ties into politics, too, as Mary says. I don’t want to spoil what happens though. It’s definitely worth watching.

  16. #16 Mary
    September 30, 2008

    I know television doesn’t seem like the most appropriate place to look for insight on this topic, but I’m watching season four of The Wire right now, and it’s so relevant to your post that it almost seems as if it was made to address it. A disgraced former police officer starts a new career as a math teacher at an inner city junior high. His class is disruptive and badly prepared, and the administration pushes him to teach to standardized tests, for the few who have a hope of learning anything. It’s a pretty powerful depiction of the quality of life issues that you raise. In the meantime another of the former cop characters gets involved in a program to remove the problem students, the junior criminals, from the classrooms and educate them separately — or rather socialize them, because you have to do that before you can educated them. As fiction, it’s a good thought experiment. Finally, we follow another major character who’s involved in the politics, responsible for a broken school system running a huge deficit, with constituants who really couldn’t care less about education. Oh, and a couple of the kids are major characters too, dealing with problems at home a lot bigger than tests or grades. The whole thing raises a lot of the same issues as your posts, and invites some of the same conclusions, but in an incredibly vivid and convincing way. It stands alone pretty well, if you don’t want to watch the other seasons, which are about the justice system and the drug war and race and unions and politics — but I highly recommend them too.

  17. #17 lylebot
    September 30, 2008

    Oh, and it also ties into academia. A couple of the minor characters associated with the disruptive kids subplot are academics (a professor at UMD and a doctoral student in education).

  18. #18 Wilson
    September 30, 2008

    @dave (#11): I agree with what you said, but – excuse my ignorance, and I did try to Google it – what is ‘dws’?

    @Brian:

    Separating out the unruly students doesn’t mean depriving them of education and I can find nowhere that suggests that Chad meant that at all!

    In fact, I interpreted it the opposite way: separate out the unruly students so that we can find ways to give them the education that will help them. Their educational needs probably need to be more personally tailored to them; to their personalities, backgrounds, social circumstances.

    The not-unruly (the ruly?) students, we already know how to teach.** In Chad’s scheme, the unruly ones would get more resources than average, as we figure out how to teach them.

    **Sort of – I heard tell that molecular biologist John Medina, the author of the book Brain Rules has opined that, based on neurological research, if someone wanted to make an educational environment that minimized the chance of learning anything, it’d probably look a lot like a modern school.

  19. #19 dave
    September 30, 2008

    “dws” = “dripping with sarcasm”.
    And having thought about it a bit more, I don’t think “knowledge” was the right word to use. “Information”, maybe; “knowledge” implies some sort of understanding, which is inappropriate for the point I was trying to make.
    Stepping back into the reality-based world: I’ve never been in front of a classroom, but from trying to explain math to a wide variety of students (along with having been one recently enough to remember a bit about what it’s like and having discussed it with educators), it seems like inserting the information is the easiest part of it; if everything else gets dealt with properly (which includes, but goes *way* beyond, what the person in front of the classroom is doing), getting the information in happens by itself.

  20. #20 CCPhysicist
    September 30, 2008

    Brian (#13):

    Chad didn’t say they should be thrown in a ditch, he said “We need to shift them somewhere else, either to alternative schools or some sort of vocational training, and free up teachers to spend time and resources on students who will use them appropriately.”

    Our school district does just that, although it is a bit slow to respond in most cases. It even offers a magnet school or two for kids who don’t function well in a regular classroom but don’t carry guns. (We love getting those kids at our CC, because they usually are naturally independent learners who chafe in a regimented industrialized learning environment. They come here knowing the value of a learning plan for the next two years and often do better than kids who did what they were told for 12 years.)

    Just like in my classroom, where students are generally supportive when the annoying kid in the back is sent outside to talk on his Borg Phone, where he won’t bother the ones who are there to learn.

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    September 30, 2008

    Chad didn’t say they should be thrown in a ditch, he said “We need to shift them somewhere else, either to alternative schools or some sort of vocational training, and free up teachers to spend time and resources on students who will use them appropriately.”

    Our school district does just that, although it is a bit slow to respond in most cases. It even offers a magnet school or two for kids who don’t function well in a regular classroom but don’t carry guns.

    That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

    There are undoubtedly ways to reach almost all of the kids who are disruptive in regular classrooms, but it may not be cost-effective for every school to provide the necessary options. Pulling these kids together from a larger geographic area, though, may make it possible to provide them a decent and appropriate education without disrupting the education of the rest of the students.

  22. #22 IBY
    October 1, 2008

    Amen to that, especially about the ones where teahcers have to deal with meddlesome idiots. I have heard way too many horror stories from teachers. I know they are just anecdotes, but when I hear it, it seems pervasive, I can’t help it, but think they need to sort out some problems. I heard my High School got a lot better at the year I first arrived, though, thanks to a certain principal.

  23. #23 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 1, 2008

    I’ve just negotiated a pay cut to enable the impovershed charter school to be able to keep employing me to teach 9th grade Chemistry, 10th grade biology, and 11th grade Anatomy & Physiology.

    We’re still on basics: how many neutrons in an atom of B-11? Is pizza an element, compound, or mixture? What distinguishes a ribosome from a mitochondrion?

    I don’t want to dwell on meddlesome idiots, who are — like dark matter — pervasive, baffling, and seen to distort the trajectories of everything.

  24. #24 Rhett Allain
    October 3, 2008

    One suggestion I like to make for educations is time. Teachers now get 1 planning period. During this time, they are expected to grade papers, do hall monitoring, lunch room duty and so forth. They are also expected to come up with new and creative ways to help kids learn. They simply need more time. More planning periods (or whatever you want to call them).

  25. #25 Bob
    April 12, 2009

    A couple of the minor characters associated with the disruptive kids subplot are academics (a professor at UMD and a doctoral student in education).

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