A RECENT convocation of the National Academy of
Sciences, a group not easily pushed to overstatement, scientists and educators called the state of high school science and mathematics teaching in this country "scandalous." What's more, they agreed, most students graduating from high school are "scientifically illiterate."
The shortage of teachers is critical: In New York and Minnesota last year, according to Academy president Frank Press, not one university graduate qualified to teach high school science actually did so. In the Washington area, universities are graduating only a handful of high school math and science teachers, a trickle not large enough to supply the major school districts in Maryland, Virginia, and the District.
Pirating teachers has become a national way of life. High-tech industries, desperate for engineers and other technically skilled workers, are not only raiding college faculties but offering new graduates $10,000 more to start than the $14,000 they could get teaching in area high schools. Colleges and industry in turn are stealing teachers from high schools, according to area educators. As a result, those left behind to teach the young in the public schools are often neither sufficiently competent nor enthusiastic to inspire their students to the wonder of the quark or the beauty of an equation.
The crisis looms at a time when America's economic future depends on the expansion of its high technology industries--computers, robotics, laser optics, genetic engineering. And yet not nearly enough people are being trained to fill these jobs. In Massachussetts, Itek Corporation chairman Robert P. Henderson recently told a congressional hearing, the inability of these industries to find enough technically trained workers to fully staff their facilities had lost the state half a billion dollars in personal income revenue.
No one is quite sure why or how this crisis in science education happened. Television, Vietnam and the upheaval of the '60s, which forced lower school standards across the board, are commonly blamed. But it is certain, as Dr. Wade Gilley at George Mason University puts it, that while the high technology express rumbled into America, "We as a nation were asleep at the switch."
As a result, we have begun a national scramble to catch up. The National Science Board, which directs the National Science Foundation, has set up a panel of experts to find some answers, fast. And the Department of Education has put its own National Commission on Excellence in Education in place. Meanwhile local schools and industries have been left to assemble their own patchwork solutions.
The decline, some would even call it disgrace, of a nation that has long prized its technological ingenuity, can be read in recent statistics from the National Science Foundation:
In 1981, half the newly hired math and science teachers in high school were not qualified to teach those subjects. Forty-three states reported shortages of math teachers; nearly as many lacked enough physics teachers. More alarming, the average education major today scores significantly lower on standardized aptitude and achievement tests than other college students.
The performance of students, not unexpectedly, is equally dismal. The number of college freshmen needing remedial help in math jumped 72 percent from 1975 to 1980. On SATs and national assessment tests administered by the U.S. department of education during the past 10 years, 17-year-olds have scored increasingly badly in math and science. Many give up entirely by senior high: one half of all high school graduates in the United States take no math or science beyond 10th grade.
What is more, many experts are beginning to worry, not only about the quantity of science and math education, but also the quality. Henry Pollak, head of math and statistics research for Bell Laboratories, the nation's premier industrial lab, said recently, "Since 1940 the amount of math known has doubled every 10 years so that we now know about 16 times more math than we did then, but none of it has found its way into the schools."
In the Washington-area, public school systems, although admittedly better off than many places, have already begun to feel the crisis. "We're in a state of mild panic right now," admits James Shinn, director of employment services for Fairfax County schools. Despite the system being one of the most affluent and most highly regarded in the nation, Shinn expects to open this fall with uncertified substitutes filling several math and earth science teaching slots. The county's saving grace, he says, is that the quality of their substitutes is so high. Most are quite proficient in their fields, but lack the necessary teaching credentials for state certification.
In Montgomery county, where dwindling enrollments have caused massive school closings, there is a temporary surplus of math and science teachers, according to John Pancella, coordinator of secondary science for the schools. In Prince George's, the school system's recent $30 million budget cut forced the firing of more than 500 teachers, 16 high school math and science teachers among them. Those with provisional certificates were the first to be laid off.
"I don't want to imply there isn't a problem,' said Carl McMillen, director of personnel for the Prince George's system. "There has been for the past several years. . . . As time goes on, if the student population increases, there will be a continuing and worsening shortage in math and science teachers, particularly in physics and chemistry."
Conrad Seeboth, supervisor of mathematics for Prince George's, is equally pessimistic: "In the junior high, middle school, and elementary levels, we definitely need to beef up the competence of some of our teachers." Already, the system is trying to retrain some of its teachers by offering courses in algebra and geometry. "Many of them haven't had those subjects since high school," he said. "They're very rusty."
In the District, officials have sent a desperate appeal to area universities to fill several math and physics teaching posts before school begins. Although exact figures are not available, Mary B. Harbeck, supervising director of science, said she recently lost two "excellent teachers," one to industry, the other to a college. "The shortage really exists in good teachers," she said. "There are people available who are certified, but not qualified."
To ease the problem, most area school districts are pushing to find teachers within their own systems who are near certification in the critical fields and help them become qualified. In Montgomery and Fairfax, this includes some financial help for teachers' coursework at area universities.
Even in Montgomery, where the school system's reputation, prime location, and relatively high salaries make it attractive to teachers, school officials worry about the near future. "I have an aged faculty," said Pancella. "My concern is in four or five years." Fairfax director Shinn agrees. In five years, shortages will be really severe, he said. "The supply will shrink, and we're frightening people out when we say there is an (overall) surplus of teachers."
The recent graduating classes of area universities indicate the kind of future shortage Shinn fears. At George Washington University, there were no graduates in secondary math and science education. At the University of Maryland, one of the largest teaching institutions in the area, out of 179 secondary education graduates, seven were qualified in math, only four in science, while 43 majored in early-childhood education, and 19 in art.
George Mason University vice president Gilley estimates that half the jobs in Fairfax County are in high-tech industries. Yet people to teach youngsters to fill those jobs are not being trained in sufficient numbers. At George Mason only two students graduated in secondary math education last year, none in physics or chemistry.
George Mason, however, recently has begun a new partnership with county industries, which it hopes will "build a critical mass of first-rate faculty," said Gilley.
The new Institute of Science and Technology at George Mason will attempt to tap the highly paid talent, and expensive equipment, of the county's 424 high tech firms, those specializing in computers, software, and research and development among them.
Executives will be offered part-time teaching posts and help develop the university's science curriculum; they will in turn have access to the university's pool of manpower, professors and students, to carry out understaffed projects, said Gilley.
Such a solution, however, may do little to ease the drain of teaching talent below the college level. Gilley points out that in the past decade the number of technological companies in Fairfax has jumped from 135 to 424, and the number of jobs in these industries has more than doubled. "Firms are locating here now almost weekly," he said.
So where does that leave the coming generation of young people, who cannot possibly compete in the marketplace of microchips and robots if they are not somehow encouraged in science early on? The Washington area reflects what is happening nationally. There is a growing gap of information between rich and poor, the educated haves and have nots. In Montgomery County, for instance, more students than ever before are enrolling in advanced science courses and entering science fairs. While in the District's inner-city, said science director Harbeck, "We have some young people--and some adults--who think the landing on the moon was a big science fiction extravaganza on T.V. They just don't believe it happened."
"The danger," wrote Academy of Sciences president Frank Press recently, "is not in failing to train the gifted who wish to be scientists and engineers; they still seem to receive the requisite education and opportunities. Rather, it is in raising a generation of Americans who lack the education to participate in a technological age; in failing to assure the scientific literacy of Americans, whatever their future vocations."
How America can be so transformed, it is hoped by many, will be outlined by the National Science Board's new Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology. The 20 men and women on the panel were chosen for their credentials in industry, defense, science and education. They consider their mandate, according to commission executive director Richard S. Nicholson, to write a national science education policy.
Some believe not only the economic health, but the safety of America's future depends on it. In West Germany and Japan, where the governments have persuaded their citizens of the importance of technology and encouraged increasing numbers of young people to enter engineering and other technical fields, industrial productivity has increased far more rapidly than it has in the United States.
America's lag in technological education has perhaps more frightening implications in the state of the country's defense--not missiles and bombs, but the people who will control them.
"We can't compete with a driver of a tank from the Soviet Union who has two years of calculus when we have to write our manuals at the sixth-grade level in comic book style," Nicholson said.