Top math and science teachers essential
The Register's editorial December 23, 2010
Being good at math and science is like having a ticket to success in a knowledge-based, global economy. Yet U.S. teenagers on average trail peers in many countries in these subjects on international exams. And Iowa, once a top-performing state in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has dropped in the rankings.
Changing this will depend on getting more first-rate math and science teachers into classrooms. So it's encouraging a new report shows the number of students studying to become math and science teachers rising at Iowa's three public universities. Key next steps are making sure future teachers have a deep understanding of their subject, a passion for explaining it, and good rapport with students.
The report from the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership - a collaborative effort led by the University of Northern Iowa - says the number of prospective science teachers at UNI, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University rose from 135 in fall 2007 to 165 in fall 2010. That's a 22 percent increase. The number of math teachers in the pipeline jumped 63 percent to 202
Large school districts, where teacher pay is highest, may struggle to hire strong math and science teachers. For rural districts, it's especially difficult. "Part of the difficulty is those positions each have specialties, especially science. Getting all those specialty areas covered is the toughest thing," said Richard Keith, superintendent in West Hancock, which enrolls about 625 students K-12.
The Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership, in its third year, has combined new initiatives and established programs to recruit more future math and science teachers and better prepare teachers already in the classroom. It has made strides despite problems with funding. Strategies include:
- Recruitment seminars on some university and community college campuses led by dynamic middle school and high school teachers.
- Scholarships for outstanding students specializing in math and science who plan to become teachers.
- Veteran math and science teachers taking part in "real-world externships" - 42 so far - that involve working in their fields in the summer at businesses and agencies. One wrote in the report, "Working in a research facility has helped me discover the employer expectations in the private sector. I can bring this experience to the table with students and discuss how to improve those employability skills."
Iowa's high school graduates need a better understanding of math and science than many have today. One way to see that: While 76.3 percent of Iowa eighth-graders scored proficient or above in math for 2008-10 on the standardized test this state uses, only 34 percent did that well on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Another way: Just 25 percent of Iowa's class of 2010 took physics.
Jeff Weld, director of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership, said strong math and science skills will "determine which of our students will thrive and not thrive."
That's no exaggeration. Academic expectations in these subjects for most students should be higher, and parents must help make that happen. But having enough well-prepared, engaging math and science teachers is essential. Iowa - in both the public and private sectors - should do all it can to support the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership and other efforts to assure that.