Monday, April 23, 2007

Improving math and science education

I am not, in principle, opposed to the idea of paying slightly higher salaries to teachers in subject areas, such as math and science, where the public schools must compete with industry and research institutions for the most talented individuals. But the Kentucky Educational Association was right to oppose the specific bills (Senate bills 1 and 2) this year, which would reward a very small number of math and science teachers.

The Senate bills focused on the wrong end of the educational process. In Kentucky, as else where in the nation, the battle to instill interest and ability in math and science in students is lost in the early years in elementary school, not in high school.

The problem is that our early elementary classrooms are filled with teachers who "love children" but hate math and science. I've been a college teacher for twenty-five years, and I see it over and over again. A person, most often but not always a woman, who does not like math and science and does poorly in those subjects, but who "loves children" (I heard that phrase over and over again when I sat of the teacher admissions committee of a 4 year college in a neighboring state) decides that elementary education is the best career path to take. [Those who hate math and science but "want to help people" usually go into social work].

College students who enjoy math and science and do well in it, have a wide range of interesting careers to choose from, and if they consider teaching at all, they most often focus on high school, or at the very least middle school.

This has not always been the case in the United States. Before the early seventies, gender discrimination meant that most college educated women went into one of three fields -- education, nursing, or office work. I look at the women in my own family. My mother was a teacher, three of my father's sisters were nurses (as were two of their daughters) and one of my father's sisters was a secretary.

In the 1950's when I was in elementary school, bright talented women who liked math and science, had few options other than education and nursing. Consequently, elementary education generally attracted the best and the brightest women, who brought their love of learning, and their interest in math and science with them into the lives of children. The women's movement changed all that.

This most certainly does not make the women's movement a bad thing. The problem is not that the women's movement created more opportunities for women, drawing them out of the classroom and into a wider world of occupations. The problem is that society did not recognize and adjust to this change.

In order to continue to have the same bright minds attracted to elementary education, we needed to increase pay, and increase professional responsibility, and provide greater autonomy for talented teachers. Instead, beginning in the 1970's we did just the opposite. We allowed the pay of teachers relative to other occupations requiring a college education to deteriorate, and we burdened teachers with increasing loads of paperwork, and hampered creativity.

Although it by no means addresses the full scope of the problem, the KEA's proposal for "in-depth summer institute for math and science teachers in grades 4 through 8" at least is focused on the correct end of the educational process -- elementary and/or middle school.

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