According to a 2009 report released by the University of Pennsylvania, the current shortage of math and science teachers in the United States appears to be driven by the dissatisfaction of the science teachers already on the job – many don’t stay on.
Sheila Tobias: These secondary science teachers have the best options outside of school for employment. They’re very confident in the laboratory, they know basic science, and they are welcome in the private sector and government agencies.
Tobias co-authored the recent book Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn’t, How It Can Be. She also conducted an online survey of science teachers, finding that their job dissatisfaction was rooted in lack of autonomy and control.
Sheila Tobias: Control over what they can teach, over what pace they can teach, what exams they can use, and professional prestige.
A 2006 study by the National Academies found the U.S. to be declining in its science and technology competitiveness with other nations. Tobias emphasized the beneficial role science teachers could play.
Sheila Tobias: Keeping them in the classroom is a priority for the country, if we want to beef up our math/science competence in our students.
She added that science teachers are nervous about the current method of science instruction in the U.S.
Sheila Tobias They believe that science just doesn’t lend itself to single right answers. They are very fearful that any kind of paper and pencil bubble-type test is going to punish the very students we’re trying to encourage to stay in science.
Tobias said teachers report that low salary is, in terms of overall job satisfaction, not as much of an issue as autonomy, control, and professional prestige matter more.
Sheila Tobias: I am, as is my collaborator, a critic of things as they are, and we are being so welcomed by the organizations that exist. That kind of welcome reveals to me that people involved in our education system are hungry for new ideas and willing to accept criticism and that’s very rewarding to a person who has been critical of the situation as it is.
She believes the best way to retain science teachers is not necessarily by promoting them into administrative positions.
Sheila Tobias: Because that would undermine the goal of keeping teachers in the classroom. But rather to create science teacher councils or science teacher feedback mechanisms so that their voices and their point of view will feed into the decision making process.
She expressed her interest in rethinking the preparation of teachers:
Sheila Tobias: We are interested in the preparation of teachers, but not quite the way the federal government is doing it. They’re focusing on their science and math training, very important, on attracting them to teach with loan forgiveness and scholarships, very important, but we believe they should also be training teachers to cope with the real world, life situations they get into when they enter the schools. They’re not really apprised of how schools function. They’re not told where the decision-making takes place. They’re not encouraged to think of themselves as professionals.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.