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.