Science and Math Deficit Suburban Schools Need More Teachers

Article excerpt

Byline: Emily Krone

A single job opening at a suburban school can generate dozens - even hundreds - of applications.

Still, even suburban schools can struggle to find teachers with math or science backgrounds.

"The problem is acute, and it's getting more acute," said Paul Kelter, a former chemistry professor who leads the department of teaching and learning at Northern Illinois University's school of education.

"The bottom line is there's a general lack of literacy in science and math, and it starts quite early," Kelter said.

Nationwide, 36 percent of seventh- to 12th-grade public school math teachers and 27 percent of science teachers did not major or minor in their subject area, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

In the physical sciences, nearly 60 percent of teachers did not major or minor in their subject area - or any other physical science.

And even when teachers have extensive math or science training, it can be a challenge to stay abreast of rapidly changing fields.

The majority of math and science teachers in Illinois do not feel prepared enough to instruct their students in fast-growing fields of math, science and technology, according to a 2006 survey by NIU of more than 1,200 Illinois teachers.

"There are many needs of course in schools, but the need for qualified math and science teachers is especially daunting," said Dom Belmonte, director of teacher preparation for the Golden Apple Foundation.

Golden Apple, along with the Illinois Math and Science Academy, recently won a $341,000 federal grant to address the "quiet crisis that America's declining scientific and engineering talent pool represents," a statement from Golden Apple said.

The crisis is no longer quiet.

In his State of the Union Address two years ago, President Bush announced a plan to bring 70,000 more highly qualified math and science teachers into the classroom.

Programs across the state have popped up to address the issue.

Golden Apple, Illinois Math and Science Academy, Fermilab, the Museum of Science and Industry and local teaching colleges have partnered with suburban districts to improve math and science instruction.

Andrea Ingram of the Museum of Science and Industry said of her organization's teacher preparation program, "We really try to zero in on that population of teachers who are fish out of water teaching science - which is the majority of teachers teaching science in middle schools in Illinois."

Supply and demand

The primary challenge of finding teachers with strong math and science backgrounds is that, proportionately, there aren't many Americans with strong science and math backgrounds.

During the 2004-05 school year, 22 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in U.S. colleges and universities were in business; 11 percent were in social sciences; 7 percent in education; and 6 percent in psychology.

Just 1 percent of undergraduate degrees were in math or science.

If college entrance scores are any indication, the current crop of suburban high school students won't reverse the trend.

Only half of current seniors at local suburban high schools tested as college ready in math on the ACT college entrance exam as juniors. Just 34 percent made the grade in science.

The limited supply of qualified math and science professionals drives demand for them, and drives many of them away from teaching.

Simply put, most math and science teachers can make more money doing something other than teaching.

"There is a salary scale that is much higher for scientists and mathematicians, so those who are quite well prepared to do math and science take those other jobs," Kelter said. …