The Disappearing Mentor

Science Teacher Shortage Raises Concerns Over Future Physician Supply

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Science Feature -- March 2003  

By  Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor  

Think back to your school days and you can probably identify one or two teachers who had a profound impact on your life and career choice. That certainly was the case for Columbus internist Tom B. Hancher, MD, who says his high school biology teacher, Charlie Redus, played a key role in him becoming a physician.

"He was a mentor to me and encouraged me to further myself in the field of science," said Dr. Hancher, the Texas Medical Association's immediate past president. "He just encouraged me to utilize what was a natural talent in the sciences."

Recognizing the young Hancher's talent and interest in science, Mr. Redus encouraged him to pursue a National Science Foundation scholarship that eventually led him to participate in classes and research during the summers following his sophomore and junior years in high school. The first summer, Dr. Hancher participated in radiation biology research at Texas A&M University. The next year he was part of a research project on perfecting liver transplant surgery techniques at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"Exposing young Hancher to physicians and scientists doing that kind of work was all because Charlie Redus mentored me and took a special interest in me," Dr. Hancher said.

But tomorrow's students are at risk of not finding mentors like Mr. Redus in their classrooms because of a critical shortage of qualified mathematics and science teachers. Some say it is caused by too little money and too much stress. Others say it comes down to a lack of respect.

Whatever the reason, TMA physician leaders are concerned the shortage could discourage young people from choosing scientific fields, including medicine, as careers.

The Teacher Gap  

Houston neonatologist Michael Speer, MD, a member and former chair of the TMA Council on Scientific Affairs, says the council became concerned about the science teacher shortage because of the dwindling number of entries it has received for the TMA Excellence in Science Teaching Award program over the past few years. Dr. Speer says the drop is partly due to the lack of science teachers and the added workload that many teachers are carrying.

"We're disturbed about it," he said. "If we don't have enough science teachers, then we're not going to have kids going into science because they won't be interested."

Educators share the concern.

According to a December 2002 report by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), Texas has more than 20,000 science and math teachers who are teaching outside their field of certification, and many of them do not hold a state teacher certificate at all. Instead, they are teaching on emergency permits or out-of-state certification, or are enrolled in an alternative certification program.

SBEC says 29.4 percent of elementary science teachers, 39.4 percent of middle school science teachers, and 36.1 percent of high school science teachers are teaching courses or teaching grade levels for which they are not certified. Math teacher shortages range from a low of 21.9 percent at the high school level to 42.5 percent in the middle schools.

While SBEC did not have comparable data for other states, an August 2002 report from the Washington, D.C.-based National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found that attrition rates among math and science teachers were among the highest nationally, averaging nearly 20 percent annually.

Educators say the shortage is magnified in Texas because of the large number of school districts -- more than 1,000 -- in the state.

Urban school districts say their problems are most acute in finding qualified teachers for chemistry and physics courses. "We're constantly short," said Sharon McIlroy, academic supervisor for science and health curriculum for the Austin Independent School District (AISD). "If we looked at our employment list right now, I bet we'd have one to three openings for integrated physics and chemistry, chemistry, or physics teachers."

Pamela Hall, AISD director of recruiting and staffing, says the presence of The University of Texas in Austin often allows AISD to find well-qualified college professors willing to take on one or two classes. But that's a resource not available to most districts, particularly those in rural areas.

Smithville ISD Superintendent Gary Sage says rural school districts have a shallow pool of science and math teacher applicants from which to draw. "Getting a large number of applicants for any of your openings is a problem," Mr. Sage said, "but what we're finding is that science and math are the two most critical areas right now."

The concerns about filling positions with teachers teaching outside their field of expertise or without certification are multifold. Some teachers may not feel comfortable teaching certain subjects, such as a biology teacher who is asked to take on chemistry or physics. That discomfort may translate into a lack of enthusiasm for those courses, which in turn could translate into a lack of interest on the part of students, educators say.

Ms. McIlroy says the consequences of the science teacher shortage may become even greater as the state implements the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, which for the first time will test elementary students on science knowledge and high school students on knowledge of chemistry and physics.

"The TAKS is raising the stakes so high that we are going to see an even bigger need for people who can really teach good, hands-on, conceptual science to children," she said.

Where's the Money?  

Whitney High School biology teacher Bobby Pierce, the 2001 winner of the TMA teaching award, says the teaching profession is not attracting and retaining young science majors.

"When the young science teachers come out of the universities, they're not staying in the profession," Mr. Pierce said. "We're losing a ton of teachers in the first five years of their careers. They're going off into industry and doing other things."

The No. 1 reason is low teacher salaries. A first-year teacher can expect to earn as little as $25,000 per year in some school districts, while someone with a similar degree can earn $65,000 or more in private industry.

Plus, there's the stress of the job itself, Mr. Pierce adds. Teachers not only put in their classroom time during the school day, but they also are expected to spend many hours after school and at home grading papers and preparing lesson plans, he says.

"Teaching is not an easy job, it's a strenuous job," Mr. Pierce said . "It can be an energy-sucking job if you're going to be a great teacher. A lot of young teachers just don't think they're getting compensated for the time and effort they're putting in."

Mr. Pierce won the science teaching award for a lesson plan on anatomy and physiology that required students to research and learn about the various internal organs of the human body, make models of the organs, and then place them in a sealed shoe box, which represented the body cavity.

He says he stays in teaching because of the difference he's making in his students' lives.

"I almost quit in my seventh year," he said. "I didn't think I was making that big a difference. Then I started getting letters from kids who went to college and said, 'Thank you, Mr. Pierce, you helped me get there.' I got letters from kids who were lawyers and dentists and doctors and they all said, 'Mr. Pierce, I couldn't have done it without you.' Then I knew I was making a big difference in kids' lives."

Tim Holt, president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, says lack of respect is also a problem.

"It used to be that being a teacher, the position itself, held esteem within the community," said Mr. Holt, a former science teacher and science facilitator for El Paso ISD. He now is an evaluator in the El Paso ISD Department of Research, Evaluation, and Planning. "A teacher was somebody who was looked up to. I don't think students look at it that way anymore. They don't say, 'My first choice in a profession is teaching.'"

While it can be said that all teachers have these complaints, science teachers may be less likely to stay in the teaching profession because they have skills that are in higher demand by industry than those of English or history teachers and, therefore, have more options.

Finding the Answers  

Mr. Holt says educators have to make teaching "more attractive to students coming up. We have to start recruiting people to become teachers at the high school level, start showing them that it is an attractive option as a profession."

Mr. Pierce says that's going to require better salaries and benefits. "Teachers are going to have to be paid close to what industry is paying, or kids are going to go into industry. We're going to have to have some kind of enticement for kids to want to be teachers."

If we fail to bridge this teacher shortage, America's next generation of scientists and teachers may come from overseas, Mr. Holt says.

"Here in El Paso, there are a great number of nurses who were recruited from the Philippines because we just don't have students going into nursing in this area," he said. What's more, Mr. Holt says El Paso ISD's recruiter was in Hong Kong in January recruiting teachers to fill vacancies.

While Texas may not have all the answers, Gov. Rick Perry and state Rep. Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington) have a plan that may breathe some new life into the sciences in the public schools. At the governor's request, Representative Grusendorf filed House Bill 411 to create a master science teacher program to give teachers additional training in the science of teaching science. These teachers would receive master science teacher certificates and would receive stipends to work with other teachers and children to improve student performance in science.

Byron Schlomach, legislative aide to Representative Grusendorf, says the idea is based on the reading initiative launched by then-Gov. George W. Bush and a similar math initiative backed by Governor Perry in 2001.

"The initiative promotes getting at least one person per campus an additional certificate as a master science teacher and pay them a stipend so they will then pass their knowledge on to other science teachers," Mr. Schlomach said. "Partly it's to attract people into science teaching."

Recognizing Excellence  

While educators continue to grapple with the problem of recruiting more science and math teachers, TMA is committed to continuing to recognize those science teachers who are providing excellence in the classroom. At its meeting in January, the Council on Scientific Affairs voted to continue the Excellence in Science Teaching Award program despite the dwindling entries.

"We were energized by the quality of submissions that we saw," said Tyler internist Edwin McClusky, MD, chair of the council. "Everybody's concerned about the number and quality of people entering the teaching profession, in general, and science teaching, in particular. To the extent that these people work for less pay than they could achieve in other occupations, they are clearly dedicated, they are clearly excellent, they are clearly mission driven. We should continue to do any small amount that TMA can do to create incentives and personal rewards for these people."

Ken Ortolon can be reached at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; or by e-mail at Ken Ortolon.  

Science Teachers To Be Honored at TexMed 2003

The Texas Medical Association will present its 14th annual Excellence in Science Teaching Awards April 3 at TexMed 2003 in San Antonio.

Created in 1990, the awards honor elementary, junior high school, and senior high school teachers who share their energy and enthusiasm for science through creative and innovative methods to cultivate student interest in medicine and science.

A panel of science educators and the TMA's Council on Scientific Affairs select the winners in two rounds of judging. Edwin McClusky, MD, chair of the council, says the quality of entries received in this year's competition was outstanding.

Texas teachers eligible for this award must work in the classroom full time and have at least five years of science teaching experience. Applications are judged according to the applicant's innovative approaches to teaching science and ability to cultivate student interest and understanding of science. The applicant's teaching experience, leadership skills, continued professional growth, and community involvement are considered as well.

School principals, superintendents, PTA or PTO presidents, and county medical society and TMA Alliance members may nominate an eligible teacher for this award. Self-nominations are also encouraged. The nominator must provide a letter of support. Teachers who self-nominate must provide a letter of support from one of the individuals named above.

TMA recognizes all applicants with a participation certificate and gives cash awards to first-place and merit winners. This year's first-place winner will receive a cash award of $5,000 and an expense-paid trip with a guest to San Antonio. In addition, a resource grant of $2,500 will be awarded to the school of the first-place winner.

The merit winner receives a cash award of $2,000 presented during an award ceremony coordinated with school officials and the local county medical society. Honorable mention award certificates are given to all those applicants who have earned a score of 85 or greater during the awards judging.

For more information about the Excellence in Science Teaching Award, go to TMA's Web site.

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