Education | Schools Facing a Shortage of Science Teachers

Article excerpt

PROVIDENCE -- Schools like Alvarez High School in Providence have a difficult time attracting qualified science teachers because there is such a small pipeline for them - in part because elementary students don't find these subjects compelling.

"Fifteen years ago, I would have had 20 students applying to become secondary science teachers," says Paul Tiskus, chairman of the education studies department at Rhode Island College, which trains the majority of the state's teachers. "Last year, we had four. This year, we have six."

Tiskus thinks it's because talented math and science majors are drawn to more lucrative and stimulating jobs in private industry, which can offer top-notch research opportunities.

But Gary Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, contends that situation is more of a "retention problem" than a shortage problem.

Wheeler, who cites the work of Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania, says that schools, especially urban and rural ones, do not offer enough incentives to make math and science teachers feel valued.

"We lose 25,000 science teachers a year," Wheeler said. "Only 7,000 are due to retirement. It's that teachers don't feel valued for their judgment or their intellect.

"Ingersoll calls it the leaky bucket," Wheeler said. "A lot of underperforming schools have such a poor school environment they lose math and science teachers to better-performing schools."

At Alvarez, 100 students have gone without a qualified physics teacher for the past four months. The students finally spoke out with the consent of their fill-in teacher, Debbie Krous, a social studies instructor who admits that she knows nothing about physics.

"Debbie Kraus is a strong teacher," said Providence Supt. Susan Lusi. "Our feeling was, 'At least we have a good teacher in the classroom.' "

But students said that they are being set up for failure in college, where they will be unable to compete with their more affluent peers. One student said this situation would never happen in Barrington.

Lusi offered the following explanation: Alvarez had hired a physics teacher last summer but at the last minute he took a job at Mount Pleasant High School, also in Providence.

"There was a glitch," Lusi said Friday. …

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