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Low pay is viewed as the culprit in the gaping shortage.
By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writers
Published December 3, 2007
[Martha Rial | Times]
On a platform 30 feet above the ground, Leslie Pohley and two-dozen eighth-graders gazed into a 17,000-gallon tank of roiling wastewater.
Most people would have seen a big vat of nasty. But Pohley, a 30-year veteran at Largo Middle School, saw a teachable moment.
Here, at the South Cross Bayou Water Reclamation Center in unincorporated Pinellas County, she prodded her students into thinking: Where does this mess come from? Where does it go? Why does it matter?
Before they knew it, Pohley had their brains clicking and whirring.
"This," she said, "is science in action."
Few would argue that kids, caught between a burgeoning global economy and the threat of global warming, need a clear understanding of science. Pohley, 52, may be a primo example of the kind of science teacher every kid should get.
But many kids won't. Florida, like many states, is struggling with a critical shortage of high-quality science teachers. And the deficit couldn't be more ill-timed.
Educators are embracing Florida's proposed new science standards, which state officials released for public review last month. Among other changes, the standards hold up Darwin's theory of evolution as one of several "big ideas" that will ground a student's understanding of science. The current standards, adopted in 1996, don't even mention the word "evolution."
But what good are the best science standards if Florida doesn't have enough top-notch science teachers to teach them?
The state Board of Education annually puts middle and high school science teachers on its critical shortage list. Last fall, 10 percent of new science teachers, and 7.5 percent of all science teachers, were not certified in the appropriate field. That's nearly 700 teachers.
Just last week, Florida State University and the University of Florida acknowledged the problem, announcing a $10-million program to boost the teaching ranks for science and math.
"We've got a huge gap," said Christopher D'Elia, a zoologist who is interim regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "There has been a real challenge nationwide finding teachers who are adequately prepared in their discipline."
Some experts say those shortages are one reason American students score so poorly on standardized science tests. Last year, barely a third of Florida 11th-graders passed the science FCAT. And last week, a study from the American Institutes for Research comparing state-by-state science performance to 46 countries showed Florida students ranked No. 20 alongside their international peers.
The link between teacher quality and student achievement is "well substantiated," said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "You can't teach what you don't know."
There is general consensus that pay is the root of the problem. But there's far less agreement on the solution.
Many Florida teachers, who earned an average salary of $45,300 last year, say they don't get paid enough. But science teachers "have the option of going to industry," Wheeler said. "The working conditions and the salary for Dow Chemical or GenTech or Intel is much better than going to teach (in Florida)."
Perhaps, the association says, science teachers should get paid more than other teachers. Two years ago, its board endorsed the concept in a move Wheeler called "relatively brave" given opposition from teacher unions.
Some observers say support for the idea is growing. Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto, an FSU chemistry professor, cautiously expressed support for differential pay for science teachers in an interview earlier year.
"I'm not a capitalist, but that's the capitalist way," said Kroto, who's heading up a new center geared toward improving math and science education in Florida schools.
The state teacher union says the issue should be left up to local unions when they negotiate with districts. "Differentiated pay can be agreed to if the need is there," Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said in an e-mail.
But Pudlow also noted that Florida teacher salaries are below the national average. No matter what subject they teach, he said, they need better pay to be "competitive with other states for teachers and with other industries within the state."
There are other complicating factors.
Some district officials say the state numbers aren't as bad as they look on paper, with the majority of local science teachers who aren't fully certified falling into one of two categories. Some are certified in one field of science - say, biology - and are making a transition to another field with higher demand, like chemistry or physics. Others are people with science backgrounds who are becoming teachers after working in business or industry.
In Hillsborough, about 12 percent of high school science teachers - on average, one or two per high school - are instructors with science backgrounds who are pursuing alternative certification for teaching.
"They have a degree in science," said Nancy Johnson Marsh, who supervises Hillsborough's science programs in grades 9-12. "What they don't have is some of the education classes and the internship."
Full certification alone isn't a good measure of teacher quality, said Bob Orlopp, who retired in May as science supervisor for Pinellas schools.
"If I were the parent of a child in an AP biology class and the teacher wasn't certified to teach biology, I think I would go ballistic," Orlopp said. "But I'm not sure certification in itself is the only factor people should be looking at. I've seen people with lots of credentials who can't teach their way out of a wet paper bag."
Despite the money issue, educators at the University of Texas at Austin found ways to lure more science majors into teaching. Through a program called UTeach, which FSU and UF will use as a model, they streamlined education courses, offered privately funded internships and made sure prospective teachers got a taste of classroom experience at the beginning of the process, not the end.
UT has doubled the number of math and science teachers it produces to more than 70 a year since the program's start in 1997.
"Money is not always the driving factor behind their decisions," said Tracy LaQuey Parker, who directs the UTeach Institute.
But are those incentives enough? Not for Sunny Jiang, who earned a Ph.D in marine science in 1996 from USF. She didn't consider a career as a K-12 science teacher, she said, because kids are expected to do little more than "swallow a science lesson and spit it out."
"It's different at the graduate level," said Jiang, now a professor at the University of California at Irvine. "Students are challenged and taught in a way that encourages them to ask questions."
Pohley, the Largo teacher, would argue that's just as true in her classroom. Toward the end of the tour of the reclamation plant, she noticed a cantaloupe plant sprouting from a crack in the sidewalk.
Whoa. How did this get here?
Through a series of questions, Pohley helped the kids form a hypothesis: Maybe a bird found a cantaloupe seed in the grit Dumpster, a repository of black muck they got a whiff of earlier? Maybe the bird ate the seed? Maybe it did what came naturally over this patch of pavement?
Again, teen brains crackled.
"It's a revolving lesson," Pohley said matter of factly. "They have no idea we just did a quick review of what we just learned."
Times staff writer Letitia Stein and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
[Last modified December 2, 2007, 22:26:01]