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 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 commission’s report, titled “Before It’s Too Late,” summarizes its 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.

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 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, 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.

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 colleges. These teaching academies 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.

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.

“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.

Nation Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century

http://www.ed.gov/inits/Math/glenn