The key to fixing America’s math and science education–described as a crisis that is “dangerous to national prosperity and security”–is improved teacher quality, according to the final report released by a nonpartisan commission convened to investigate the quality of math and science teaching in United States schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley directed the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century to consider ways of improving recruitment, preparation, retention, and professional growth for math and science teachers in K-12 classrooms nationwide.

The report, titled “Before It’s Too Late,” summarizes the commission’s findings and recommendations.

“If you detect a note of urgency in that title, then our basic message to you and to the American people is already clear,” said former Sen. John Glenn, the commission’s chair, at a press conference held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Test scores across the country are increasing, but when American students are compared to those in 41 other nations, their performance lags, Glenn said, citing the Third International Mathematics and Science study.

“Our American fourth-grade children were among … the top two or three countries in the world,” he said. But “by the time American students had graduated from high school, they were almost last. They are about two or three from the bottom in that list of nations.”

Yet, we’re competing economically and technologically with the people from those nations.

“Globalization has occurred,” Glenn said. “It’s no longer a futuristic theory; it’s here.”

He also said the military security of the United States depends on math and science education. So do medical advances, new pharmaceuticals, automobiles, airplanes, new engines, safety, environmental concerns, and more. In fact, the federal government recently passed special immigration legislation to let foreigners fill technology jobs because the U.S. doesn’t have enough qualified people.

The report states that 60 percent of all new jobs in the 21st century will require skills that are possessed by only 20 percent of the current work force.

“These figures compel me to upgrade our previous word of ‘unacceptable’ perhaps to a stronger word of ‘dangerous’–and I think we must address the problem forcefully and persistently,” Glenn said.

After spending more than a year studying and listening to experts and debate among the commission members, the report recommends that America launch an all-out effort to recruit and retain talented math and science teachers to correct these problems.

Although many teachers are doing a good job of teaching and motivating students, the report said, many are not. Too many teachers are underqualified or have insufficient content knowledge. Too many are leaving the profession altogether.

One-fourth of our math and science teachers never received a degree in the subjects they are teaching, and 30 percent of new teachers leave within three years, according to the report.

“This need for teachers, especially in the math and science area, is a crisis,” said Riley. “Our increasing reliance on computers, the growing globalization in business, other consequences of the information age all are placing greater demands on our schools and our students.”

To combat these problems, the commission’s report offers a three-goal strategy.

First, improve the quality of math and science education now by radically and systematically improving the professional development of new and veteran teachers.

To do this, the report suggests creating math and science teaching academies within existing schools and institutions of higher education. These teaching academies, which would not require massive investments to develop, would produce a new crop of well-versed teachers not currently in the math and science fields, Glenn said.

In addition to teaching academies, offering summer institutes will help new and veteran teachers hone their skills and improve their knowledge in a concentrated session.

Second, increase the number of teachers put into math and science classrooms by hiring qualified mid-career professionals with an interest in teaching those subjects.

Third, improve the working environment for teachers, and make the teaching profession much more attractive for all K-12 math and science teachers. The report, which describes teachers’ wages as “scandalous,” recommends giving incentives and higher pay.

Eleven percent of teachers leave the profession each year, the report said. By developing a reward-and-recognition program, fewer teachers might drop out.

“Dissatisfaction over low pay and a lack of respect have no place in America’s classrooms,” Glenn said. “Let’s raise salaries, and let’s reward an entire school when it demonstrates higher student achievement in math and science.”

The report also suggests creating a loan-forgiveness program to entice people to become teachers. The number of new loans offered each year could be adjusted to fit the demand for math and science teachers, the report said.

“The commission calls for much greater investment in the teaching profession, particularly in math and science disciplines, and I thoroughly agree,” said Riley, who called on Congress to act on the report’s recommendations.

“We have members of Congress here who are very supportive of these ideas,” Riley said. “Unfortunately, Congress to date has failed to act on our proposed overall elementary and secondary programs … and it has not passed the reauthorization [of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act].”

But Congress can still approve the president’s budget request to improve the quality of our teachers, reduce class size, strengthen accountability for results, and make other crucial investments in our schools, he said.

“It’s very interesting that, at a time when high technology is driving the U.S. economy to be the envy of the world, we have tens of thousands of high-tech jobs that are going unfilled,” said Craig Barrett, president and chief executive officer of Intel Corp. and a commission member. He spoke about the urgency of improving math and science education.

“We’re witnessing a decrease, an absolute decrease in the number of engineering graduates in these high-tech fields of study, and as you’ve heard already, our 12th graders when they graduate from high school on average are deficient in their knowledge of math and science.”

Barrett also agrees that teacher quality is the key: “Computers and the internet are not magic. The only thing magic in the classroom are the teachers, and the real issue here is, can the teachers use the technology?”

“Unless we begin our pursuit of these goals today, this nation may arrive on tomorrow’s doorstep a day late and a dollar short,” Glenn said. “So we believe our report is aptly titled. We have to begin now, as the title says, before it’s too late.”

To get the commission’s message out to school board members, Glenn said, it mailed copies of report to the country’s 16,000 school boards.

Links:

Nation Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century
http://www.ed.gov/inits/Math/glenn

Intel Corp
http://www.intel.com