The call for better math, science, and technology education in U.S. schools intensified last week with the announcement of two new initiatives–one from the private sector, one from the federal government–aimed at bolstering instruction in these areas.

International Business Machines (IBM) Corp., worried the United States is losing its competitive edge, will financially back employees who want to leave the company to become math and science teachers, the company said on Sept. 16. And the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is forming a partnership with TechNet, a group of technology companies, to create workshops for math, science, and technology teachers in urban areas.

IBM’s new program, announced in concert with New York City and state education officials, reflects technology industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind their peers from Bangalore to Beijing in the sciences.

Up to 100 IBM employees will be eligible for the program in its trial phase. Eventually, Big Blue hopes many more of its tech-savvy employees–and those in other companies–will follow suit.

The goal is to help fill shortfalls in the nation’s teaching ranks, a problem expected to grow with the retirement of today’s educators.

Forty percent of public school teachers plan to exit the profession within five years, the highest rate since at least 1990, according to a study released in August by the National Center for Education Information. The rate is expected to be even greater among high school teachers, half of whom plan to be out of teaching by 2010.

The projected turnover rate will deprive school districts of an enormous amount of teaching experience just as the U.S. pushes to get a top instructor in every class.

Math and science are of particular concern to companies in many U.S. industries that expect to need technical workers but see low test scores in those subjects and waning interest in science careers.

“Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed, and it’s hard to tell where the pipeline is,” said Stanley Litow, head of the IBM Foundation, the Armonk, N.Y.-based company’s community service wing. “That is like a ticking time bomb not just for technology companies, but for business and the U.S. economy.”

While many companies encourage their employees to tutor schoolchildren or do other things to get involved in education, IBM believes it is the first to guide workers toward switching into a teaching career.

The company expects older workers nearing retirement to be the most likely candidates, partly because they would have more financial wherewithal to take the pay cut that becoming a teacher likely would entail.

The workers would have to get approval from their managers to participate. If selected, the employees would be allowed to take a leave of absence from the company, which includes full benefits and up to half their salary, depending on length of service.

In addition, the employees could get up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursements and stipends while they seek teaching credentials and begin student-teaching.

From then on, the IBM people would become school employees–the program will encourage them to work in public schools, but they can go private if they wish–and leave Big Blue’s payroll. But IBM plans to offer a mentoring program that would give its former workers guidance and teaching materials over the internet.

New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, left, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools Joel Klein, center, and IBM International Foundation president Stanley Litow talk to first grade students in New York at the announcement of the IBM “Transition to Teaching” Program. (Associated Press photo)
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“It’s not an easy transition to make,” said Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City.

IBM’s announcement reflects a growing trend in which math, science, and technology experts are being trained to teach, as school systems expand their recruitment beyond colleges of education to other career fields.

Broadening this pool of prospective teachers will help fill the void of retiring teachers, said Michelle Rhee, president of The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps some of the largest school districts recruit teachers.

Teacher-to-Teacher additions

In contrast, ED’s announcement–which aims to promote strong technology skills among teachers–focuses on training the current educator workforce.

“TechNet believes one of the most significant threats America faces today is our declining commitment to math, science, and technology education,” said Jim Hock, a TechNet spokesman. “As such, we must make improving our young people’s ability in these disciplines a national priority.”

Having teachers better trained in math and science will allow these teachers to reach out and educate others, Hock added.

“Our goal is to train 100,000 teachers during the 2005-2006 school year in math, science, and technology, and to amplify the skills of elementary and secondary school teachers,” he said. TechNet is lending its expertise, as well as financial support, to these efforts.

TechNet is a bipartisan political network of chief executive officers that promotes the growth of technology and innovation.

ED’s partnership with TechNet is one of several new additions to its Teacher-to-Teacher initiative, a program that offers educators professional development and research-based strategies.

Another new addition to the program is a Teacher-to-Teacher Training Corps, made up of teachers who will provide on-site technical assistance to school districts.

Teachers and school leaders who use scientifically-based research strategies and who have data to demonstrate effectiveness may apply for membership in the corps. Corps members also will host regional workshops and will lead presentations at ED’s 2006 Teacher-to-Teacher workshops.

In addition, a new department web site will feature information for teachers, along with a place to submit questions directly to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Ask the Secretary” is a new web page that gives teachers the opportunity to ask the secretary questions and learn information about a range of subjects, including teacher quality, professional development, and state academic standards.

The Teacher-to-Teacher initiative offers workshops for teachers, teacher and principal roundtable discussions, regular eMail updates, and free online professional development. More than 4,500 teachers have participated in these workshops and roundtable discussions, and the Teacher-to-Teacher initiative in general has helped more than 200,000 teachers to date, according to ED.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia accept ED’s Teacher-to-Teacher summer workshops and online professional development courses for credit. The free digital workshops have been expanded to include 32 courses and are available to teachers around the world.

The next round of Teacher-to-Teacher workshops is scheduled for summer 2006 in Atlanta.

“Highly skilled teachers are the key to closing the achievement gap,” Spellings said. “The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher-to-Teacher initiative is helping teachers strengthen their skills by increasing their opportunities to engage in frequent professional development.”

Links:

IBM Corp.
http://www.ibm.com

National Center for Education Information
http://www.ncei.com

The New Teacher Project
http://www.tntp.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Teacher-to-Teacher initiative
http://www.ed.gov/teachers/how/tools/initiative/index.html

TechNet
http://www.technet.org