Knowledge Center: For Teachers


No Time to Waste: The Vital Role of College and University Leaders in Improving Science and Mathematics Education


Not since the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite – 47 years ago this week – has the need to improve science and mathematics education in America been as clear and as urgent as it is today. And never has it been more apparent that the pivot point for change and improvement is the nation's teachers and the institutions that train them.

America's competitive edge in the global economy, the strength and versatility of its labor force, its capacity to nourish research and innovation – all are increasingly dependent on an education system capable of producing a steady supply of young people well prepared in science and mathematics.

But all along the pipeline – from the quality of science and mathematics instruction in the early grades, to the performance of our high school seniors on international tests, to the content and rigor of teacher-education programs in our colleges and universities – there are troubling weaknesses, gaps and disconnects.

The complexity, dimensions and already-emerging consequences of the problem were made clear in a report issued last spring by the National Science Board.

Over the past two decades, the report noted, the U.S. science, engineering and technology workforce has grown at more than four times the rate of total employment, in large part because of our ability to integrate large numbers of foreign-born scientists and engineers into the workforce. But in the global marketplace, competition for these workers is steadily widening and intensifying.

At the same time, the proportion of U.S. citizens qualified to fill science and engineering jobs is stagnating. The number of young people preparing for careers in these fields has steeply declined, and a large portion of the current workforce is rapidly approaching retirement age. Complicating matters, America's college-age population will increasingly be made up of Hispanics and blacks, whose participation rates in science, engineering and technology are half or less those of white students.

In the face of these potent and converging trends, efforts to reform and strengthen mathematics and science education have been largely piecemeal and unfocused, and yielded only modest gains. In the past few years, the report noted, classroom access to computers and the Internet has expanded significantly, as has the availability of Advanced Placement science and mathematics courses. Nearly all states have established academic standards in both science and mathematics, and the annual testing of students in core subjects mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act will be extended, in the 2007-08 school year, to include science.

Still, on a number of key indicators, America's system of science and mathematics education continues to perform below par.

This paper focuses on what is increasingly seen as the major stumbling block to fundamental and lasting change – the quantity, quality and classroom practices of science and mathematics teachers – and on what higher-education leaders can and must do address it.

Five years ago, I had the privilege of chairing a task force created by the American Council on Education to study reforming teacher education. The task force's report, To Touch the Future: Transforming the Way Teachers Are Taught, urged college and university presidents to take the lead in upgrading and elevating the importance of teacher-preparation programs.

In the course of its work, the task force found that pre-service programs typically suffer from a lack of regular evaluation, a flabby curriculum, and low entrance and exit requirements. Far too many fail to adequately provide their graduates with what they need to persevere and succeed: a good grounding in subject matter as well as teaching methods, a solid introduction to classroom technology, and support and mentoring -- especially important for those who teach in high-poverty schools and special-needs programs.

To Touch the Future called on presidents and other higher education leaders to move the improvement of teacher-preparation programs to the top of their institutions' agendas. They should insist that the whole of the university, and especially the arts and sciences faculty, take responsibility for preparing teachers. And they should speak out on public issues linked to teaching quality, ranging from teacher pay to federal funding for education research.

Those and other elements of the 10-point action agenda laid out in the task force's report form the basis of the recommendations with which this paper concludes. That agenda is, in my view, every bit as sound and sensible today as it was five years ago, and I urge all of you to give serious and immediate consideration to what you can do, both individually and collectively, to move it forward.

But first, let's take a closer look at the general condition of science and mathematics education from two perspectives: student achievement and teaching quality...

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Source: Ted Sanders, presented at the Invitational Conferenece on "Teacher Preperation and Institutions of Higher Education: Mathematics and Science Content Knowledge; U.S. Dept. of Education; October 5, 2004