March 06, 2012

A Potential Source of K-12 Science and Math Teachers

 I have an idea...tell me whether its crazy.

The U.S. has a substantial problem with securing enough K-12 teachers with good knowledge in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects (one study of this problem).  This problem extends from a shortage of highly educated high school math and science teachers, to elementary school teachers with poor backgrounds in math and science.

Schools like the University of Washington have large numbers of students in STEM subjects, including students in my field, atmospheric sciences.  Even the weaker students in our STEM majors have stronger science and math backgrounds than many K-12 teachers.

Believe it or not, many of these UW STEM majors are NOT finding jobs in technical areas.

So, my question is:  wouldn't it be a REALLY good idea to facilitate the entrance of interested UW STEM majors into K-12 teaching?

I am undergraduate adviser in my department and I asked our undergraduates whether any would be interested.  I was blown away by the response...nearly a half dozen were enthusiastic about the possibility...and we are a very small department.

I talked to a few chairs of science departments--I received very positive feedback.

Sounds good so far, right?

Next, I checked with the UW College of Education.  It turns out that there is no program at the UW that will allow a non-education undergraduate major to get a teaching credential as an undergraduate

 I sent a few emails over to the leadership of the College of Education and they invited me over to talk.  I was told that the only path now for an educational credential for a STEM major is to return to the UW AFTER graduation for a fifth year as part of their Masters in Teaching (MIT) program.

I check with about a dozen students...having to pay for a fifth year is a real turn-off for them, considering the high cost of education right now.  Lets face it, you don't make big money in teaching for paying off debts.  They really want to do the whole thing in four years. 

So I suggested the following to the UW College of Education.  Let us establish a program whereby STEM majors would take education courses and do student teaching in their senior year (or distribute this over the last two years if possible).  STEM departments might have to make some adjustments (perhaps reducing our requirements a bit), but this is completely doable.  Students would receive both their STEM degree and teaching credentials after four years.  Let me be a bit controversial here...if the UW and other Ed Schools are ok with Teach for America, where students are given FIVE WEEKS of ed training before thrown into a classroom, surely they could work something out if they have an undergrad STEM major for a whole year.

I believe such a hybrid STEM/education program would be a huge success and could grow to hundreds of students.  The folks in the College of Education are willing to consider this idea, but noted they would need resources to create such a new program.  This would be money very well invested.  They told me they would hold a meeting on this subject sometime during the spring.

Is this a good idea?  I did some googling and found that several states have started or will start such a program.  It would help supply very qualified high school math/science teachers and could greatly improve the math/science backgrounds of elementary and middle school teachers.  To me this would be a home run for everyone involved and could be another way for the UW to contribute to our state.


  1. It's an awesome idea. As someone in the local tech industry I would much rather see actual SME's (subject matter experts) teaching subjects then education majors (would I ever hire someone who doesn't understand the actual subject vs the theory of general learning to do a job? never).

  2. Awesome idea. As someone who manages a local tech startup - we need more subject matter experts teaching not less. No offense to generic teachers, but it's a no brainer.

  3. Sounds good to me!

    As always, the devil's in the details, but the idea certainly seems to have sufficient merit on the face of it to be worth serious consideration.

    I have no idea what's required to create a new degree track at U.W., but somehow, I imagine the bureaucracy will be as big a hurdle as anything else in implementing such an idea.

    Free advice? Find a few key people in relevant current programs, and find a way for this NOT to seem like a threat to their turf. Loss aversion is a powerful psychological motivator for people to fight against chance; strive to avoid triggering it in the people who might see a new program as a threat.

  4. One of those ideas that makes you wonder why it isn’t being done already. In fact, I would do away with Colleges of Education (as credentialing checkpoints for teachers: let them be academic/research focused) and offer an intensive teacher training program to seniors and recent grads to get them into the classroom.

  5. Sounds totally reasonable, Cliff, though I think it's worth noting that it's quite possible to get a strong foundation within a given major whilst still obtaining a teaching certification within four years. The real problem is the difficulty of moving between the two -- if you've already done three years, and are declared in a non-education department, you're simply not going to be done within one more year. Making that possible could considerably help the situation, and would also help introduce a larger pool of teachers who are passionate about their subject, which is something that is often lacking, even when the passion for teaching exists. (Don't get me wrong: A passion for the subject does not take the place of a passion for educating, and the latter is the more important of the two. It's just best to have both!)

  6. Cliff,
    I worry about getting too focused on one thing. It's obvious we need qualified folks to teach in our schools, but qualifications aren't the only (or even the most important) thing we should look for in candidates. Hear me out here. Teacher student rapport is just as important in learning any subject. People with the right qualifications sometimes end up being useless in the classroom because they have no idea how to connect with students, or re-frame things so that other people can understand them, and they have no idea how to manage 25+ squirming expectant bodies all staring at them for direction and guidance. You (Cliff) are a good teacher (I've seen you teach) because you naturally connect with your students and because of that connection kids want to learn. Others aren't as naturally gifted, and teaching someone how to connect, and re-frame, and manage kids isn't as easy as teaching them math or science.
    Anyway, Google teacher student rapport and you'll get a taste for what I'm talking about here. It's not just one ingredient (unfortunately), it's a combination of all the right stuff.

  7. This idea sounds great. I know I am not much interested in teaching, but when presented with the problem of not getting a job when I graduated (as I haven't), I would have thought long and hard about taking an offer like this, and I know a few of my friends in undergrad school probably would've jumped at something like this, many of whom would be amazing teachers I think.

  8. You have to have content and enthusiasm about the content to be really successful teacher. So there needs to be a teaching track in the STEM disciplines that takes you to primary or secondary education. That would make Colleges of Education "finishing schools;" not what they have in mind. But nursing programs do it. Jason Black has the right idea. The shift has to be non-threatening to the establishment.

  9. This is not only an awesome idea, but completely doable within Washington State. I got my teaching credential folded into my undergraduate degree at Gonzaga, and they still do it today. Even if someone went with only a BA in STEM rather than a BS, they'd be good to go for teaching as far as content goes. They can always collect additional expertise as they seek a masters or CTE credits.

    And for the record, I'll defend our elementary teachers vehemently. They specialize in developing key skills for every other content area. By teaching reading, writing and basic math, they are giving our kids foundations that pure math or science teachers couldn't give them. I don't want someone with a math degree teaching my child to read any more than I want someone with an English degree teaching that same child calculus.

    Education majors at GU only came in three versions: Music, Physical, and Special. The rest of us had degrees from the college of arts and sciences and there's not one mention of "education" in my degree title, yet I hold two primary endorsements.

    Each of those three specialty areas deals with content that I think most people would agree qualifies them as specialists in their education fields. And before anyone says that PE is something anyone can teach, I beg to differ - there's way more to teaching kids sportsmanship, lifelong fitness and health than meets the eye.

    UW's program could benefit from looking at other programs that do fold that student teaching experience into the BA degree. If it's something that would actually put (and keep) qualified teachers in our secondary classrooms, that'd be great.

    Elementary students would probably benefit from a science specialist to teach them science, but their math is very basic and can easily be covered to the depth appropriate by general education teachers with the right curriculum.

  10. Just one guy's story...

    When I was somewhat younger, I thought about getting teaching credentials - my original degree was in physics, and the shortage of science and math teachers is nothing new. But, having a family and me being the primary wage earner, the fact that getting credentialed was going to take a minimum of two years, during which I'd be earning next to nothing, pretty much killed the idea.

    At this point in my life I'm no longer interested in changing fields; but Cliff I think you've got a splendid idea, and I hope it will bear fruit.

  11. As a parent whose child frequently quotes incorrect statements from his elementary teacher as fact, i woulf be psyched to see young enthusiastic SMEs with up to date technology experience in the classrooms. So long as suitable standards are in place to ensure the STEM SMEs can teach at an age appropriate level - as an IT professional I know firsthand that being well-versed on a topic doesn't mean you can teach it - I see no reason why the current education bureaucracy should prevent innovations like this from evolving. I love your enthusiasm for improving education for our kids, Cliff. Thank you.

  12. I'm one of those students who got a degree (Bio) first, then went back to an Ed. Program to get my cert. The best thing for these students to do would be volunteer in a school a few times. They will either love it or hate it.... That would be a good indicator before diving headfirst into an ed. program...

    For me it was worth it to go back because now I have a job (like many I know from my program despite the poor job market) that I love to do. There are ways around the extra loan money you will have to take to go to school for a bit longer. (government consolidation plans for public employees save me tens of thousands!)

  13. It sounds reasonable, but my niece, with a mathematics undergraduate degree (honors student, 4.0, 100% supported through two degrees by academic scholarships.) and an Masters in education is still looking for work as a teacher, two years after graduation. She's working as an office admin to pay the bills right now.

  14. I think it would be a fabulous idea, if only because UW attracts some of the best of our state (not to mention out-of-staters).

    In high school I took several AP classes (including math, science, and computer science courses), got great grades, and was active in my school. My whole family went to UW and I grew up a "husky." I didn't even apply. Reason? They didn't have the undergraduate education program I wanted. Instead I went to Western, got a great education with two endorsements from a wonderful ed department, and now I'm teaching 4th grade. (Not that it was easy - like weaselchicken said, it's a tough market - it took me several years of subbing and teaching to get a provisional contract.)

    Don't discount me as a math and science teacher just because I wasn't a STEM major though. While I loved me some math and science, my heart is in language - one of my endorsements was reading. Lest you forget, we teachers have to accumulate LOTS of clock hours to keep our certificates. I find it's the perfect chance for me to seek out math and science related workshops and trainings. Without looking, I'd say more than half of my clock hours are math- or science-related.

  15. When I went to Whitman College, they did not (still don't I believe) offer an Education major, but had K-12 Ed. as a concurrent program , like a Minor, with student teaching done one semester in the senior year. Like what you are suggesting. Any other way has never made sense to me.
    I took 3 Ed. courses my freshman year, including a course on teaching kids to read, and tutored in a 2nd grade classroom. Liked the tutoring, didn't like the classroom-- which was a good thing to find out as a freshman!

  16. once upon a time, I thought of being a teacher, but the requirement in this state of a master's degree teaching certificate pushed the idea out of reach. I think it's a great idea and I hope there are more jobs for teachers SOON because the class sizes I am hearing about are way too big.

    Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors

  17. I'm a veteran, have a few years of college and an Occupational Associate in Boatbuilding. If 5 weeks of training would qualify me to be a teacher (I actually did three years on a training team), then your idea is brilliant.

  18. I am reluctant to accept as teachers people with less than a year in the teaching program. For the record, I am not okay with the Teach for America, "five weeks and you're ready for your own classroom" teacher training. I hear from teachers that assisting and student teaching is the most valuable preparation they get in their Masters in Teaching program.

    The first year or two teaching, teachers are not that good yet. So let that first year be spent as a student teacher, with a more experienced mentor teacher who is in charge of the classroom observing and helping.

    It seems like the scientific and technical students' objection is not the additional year in school so much as the additional year's tuition. Maybe the state could forgive one academic quarter's tuition's worth of student loans for every year they spend teaching in a Washington K-12 classroom.

  19. What about a double major-- STEM & Ed? Maybe the Ed requirements could be met as electives. Alternatively an undergrad STEM Ed program would meet a huge local and national demand. I'm astonished this doesn't exist. Thanks for taking it on, Cliff.

  20. My high school had a mediocre but well liked chemistry and physics teacher. In our curriculum students usually took chemistry junior year and physics senior year. Half-way through my time there we got an additional science teacher who would only come to our school if he could be the sole chemistry teacher. By my senior year the mediocre guy retired.

    The new science teacher was fantastic. He was a former chemical engineer. He decided to move out of the private sector when he found out how much cancer the chemicals he was producing was causing among the people who handled them. A lot of his work was having to do with chemical plants jus south of the US/Mexico border.

    He was the type of guy who could calculate to the 4th significant digit in his head. He could wield great astronomical sized numbers in his head; calculating the gravity on Saturn for instance. He would teach kids tricks to solving a rubik's cube without looking at it (after you get the cube to a certain point it's only just a few calculated twists until it's solved).

    After taking on the physics classes he learned that he had to solve all the problems sets in each chapter of our text book. Half of the answers were in the back of the book, yes. But as we found out some of those answers were wrong. The previous physics teacher, the mediocre guy, never encountered these problems because they never got that far in the book. Prior classes only got to chapter 4 in the algebra based mechanics text book. We finished with chapter 12. Kids from my high school would have to take remedial physics at the University before starting any of the regular intro series for any engineering undergrad program.

    I went to a smallish high school. Fife High School just right outside of Tacoma. Not entirely rural but a small district nonetheless. My graduating class in 2002 had 150 students. The school on a whole never brook 1000 while I was there, and that's with freshman - senior classes. These days the 9th graders now attend a recently built Jr High, so FHS is now just 10-12th grades.

    I entered the UW as a traditional freshman. Meeting so many different kids from all sorts of great high schools, hearing about their AM & PM jazz bands (really, two!?), and dedicated chemistry and physics lab (wait, you didn't have one guy doing both?) I realized that my high school acted like a holding pen for advanced students and less like a college prep school. We had no honors or AP chemistry or physics, no anatomy, heck, due to curriculum adjustment the year I graduated I think the one and only health class offered was a unit offered during freshman PE class.

  21. WWU has some good programs like this already. If you want to replicate something at UW, I highly recommend you get in touch with some of the people at SMATE. Degree Programs

  22. I got my teaching certificate combined with a degree in Earth science and general science at WWU a few years ago. The fact remains that to tackle that much content does often take more than four years. I spent five years plus two summer quarters in order to get everything in. In order to really know what you're doing when you get out there you need to have a solid background in science AND a solid background in education. It is essentially double-majoring. In addition, I spent both a winter and spring quarter student teaching. Some programs don't require this much time in an actual classroom, but that's the only place to practice applying what you've learned.

  23. Awesome! We are so lucky to have you thinking these education problems through... I see the science education my kids get at school and I despair... I am able to teach them more at home, in most cases.

    As someone that works in a STEM field, I am always surprised that people don't consider a year or two of teaching -- until I see the salaries. But the jobs are there and kids need great teachers.

    I really hope the UW administration does the right thing here, helping these STEM grads get teaching credentials in four years.

  24. I think you need to look at the record of Teach for America in math and science in middle and high school. I'll grant that TfA doesn't show well other subjects. But the TfA math and science teachers are well grounded in their subjects.

    If the issue with TfA is lack of teaching education, why not work with TfA to remedy that problem on the UW campus. They have the organization to recruit STEM students and get them placed at needy schools. Create a course structure to help those TfA candidates be more valuable and better prepared for the teaching jobs they get.

  25. Many decades ago I got a job teaching high school in California upon returning to the U. S. from Peace Corps service, owing to a state program granting certification based on such service. I had expected that my colleagues would think me less qualified than they, because they'd all been through the usually requisite School of Education curriculum. Instead, I found them merely envious. They seemed unanimous in their opinion that the formal coursework they'd had to endure in education was a waste of time. Actual practice teaching in the classroom, of course, is another matter entirely.

    It may be the case that education school courses DO help mold superior teachers. It would be interesting, though, to see a randomized study that proved that they do. Anyone know of any evidence that a fifth year at the university, beyond the four needed to attain subject matter expertise, is actually of much, if any, value?

  26. Sounds logical enough. /

  27. I think there is a tendency here and in general to tremendously undervalue how difficult teaching high school and middle school is.

    Everyone has their experience, I have a PhD in Chemistry and taught math (geometry and pre-algebra) in a high school for about 1 month before I took a position at a 4-year school as the chemistry department. Chemistry was a support subject, so I was the only professor. I taught general and organic chemistry with labs, 20 contact hours per semester.

    In my experience as a student and as a teacher I can tell you that chemist are frequently horrid teachers. During my years taking classes I remember my high school teacher and one freshman general chemistry teacher as being good teachers. The rest were, as I call 20 different ways not to teach. Yet I just generally understood the topic so the quality of the teachers just didn't matter.

    When I tried teaching it became readily apparent that although I knew the material I didn't have tools available to help me connect to students and to understand what they were not understanding. I.e. I was another lousy chemistry teacher. I left after 1 year and went into the private sector.

    Back to my brief experience in High school. I think it is fair to say I could be considered a subject matter expert in high school math. Yet teaching High school is dramatically more difficult than teaching college. I could connect to the gifted students but I basically had nothing to offer for the students who didn't want to be there.

    All of this is to say. I think there is value in education degrees and training & in my opinion TFA is a ridiculously arrogant program. So yes building a connection between subject area programs and the the college of education is good, just don't think 5 weeks of "training" is vaguely adequate for someone to learn to be a good teacher.

  28. Great idea, I'm actually supprised that UW doesn't have it already

  29. My 5 cents from Russia. All soviet university students had a compulsory teaching courses. So they were fully qualified to teach. In Russia we traditionally have specialized science schools. As a pupil and a University teacher I had a chance to witness the results of teaching in these schools. There are gifted teachers and there are not so gifted teachers. But the way to success is not talent but attitude and knowledge. Teacher should demonstrate success, he should not be considered as a loser unable to find a job in the industry. If he demonstrates success the pupil will learn to be like him even despite the lack of teaching gift. Seasoned teacher's success is the story of his students. For the young teacher working out reputation is the problem. In Russia it's common for younger teachers in science schools to teach also at high school/university and or have a freelance job in the industry.
    Anyway for now in Russia school teaching is more like a gratuitous service than a job.

  30. This is a phenomenal idea.

  31. Nice idea, but you are laboring under a huge misapprehension, which is that anyone in the K-12 sector is interested in raising the quality of teachers.

    Think about it a second. Excellent teachers are a threat to existing ones, and to the current administrations. It is so much easier for the mediocre to lead the mediocre.

    The only way this one will ever have a chance is to open up the field to charter schools, and to let those schools hire whoever they please to teach.

  32. Good grief. Everyone seems to think that this undergraduate model of teacher prep is some new invention. I am relatively certain that the college of education at UW included an undergraduate track in decades past. I know for certain that a number of huge institutions prepare new teachers at the undergraduate level, including numerous state schools. UW chose to move to a teacher education program at the master's level and I think it's ignorant to advocate for a shift back without first understanding why they changed in the first place.

    The primary issue here seems to be that a talented graduate of a science program can not find they should be permitted to jump into a teaching role instead. I'm not sure if folks are familiar with what the state's budget has done to teacher employment over the last few years, but comments claiming that more teachers are needed to correct 35+ person class sizes disregard the fact that the class size is a product of budget cuts and not science teacher shortages.

    On a programatic note, Dr. Mass's willingness to compromise on content area coursework seems to undermine an individual's content expertise. A year of education coursework and student teaching would consume those upper level science courses that make experts more than simply generalists with an interest. At the same time, creating a default option of teaching for science majors seems to be a temporary fix to a economics problem. Perhaps a more appropriate question would ask why we were overproducing meteorologists.

    That being said, these jobless graduates have the opportunity to join TFA. They can enroll in the UW's science educaiton program and recieve Noyce funding
    in addition to the loan forgiveness that teachers in high need subjects (science, math, special ed., etc) receive. Heck, those students can go to a number of school districts in the country where they can receive an emergency certificate that would let them jump right into a classroom.

    As for the study cited as justification for this whole, "let unemployed science grads teach" suggestion, I suggest that folks read the graphs. The data illustrates a profession in which a number of science teachers (who have science qualifications and subject expertise) leave because of dissatisfaction or to pursue another job. Among those dissatisfied, most leave for financial reasons. Are we to believe that UW science graduates are not going to do the same? The data in the linked article indicates that, "Among science and mathematics teachers, beginning teachers have a high rate of departure".

    The article on attrition is letting us know that qualified science graduates are only going to go into teaching until they can find a better job. If we are truly interested in improving the quality of STEM education that children recieve, then we need to look at the bigger issues of teacher pay and workload. When teachers are getting $100k a year and individual time to pursue personal interests (like those at Google), maybe our STEM teacher workforce will be adequate.

  33. Well, Cliff, I did math for a living for 30 years, from Bell Labs (acoustics research) to Microsoft. When I looked into the teaching idea, what I was told was that no, I didn't need to know math, the book is for that, I needed to know teaching technique and how to follow the curriculum, arranged by experts in teaching (who obviously do not know math). Won't do that. No, just no.

  34. I'm not sure this would work. I agree that we need teachers with stronger science backgrounds, but that doesn't mean they should have JUST a science background...

    Most of what makes teaching hard is classroom behavior management. A good teacher is the one that keeps the kids on task 90+% of the class period, not the one who explains math really eloquently, but spends most of their time trying to get the kids to pay attention.

    Teaching programs are flawed, and I agree we should work to improve them (more stringent requirements for teachers to learn STEM subjects?), but I do NOT agree that we can simply put untrained people from other majors in the classroom. The lack of training is not a viable substitute for imperfect training! And for the record, Teach For America is NOT empirically proven to work...

    Our primary goal should be to improve classroom instruction, not find jobs for those who chose the wrong major. If it takes 5 years to train teachers adequately, then so be it.

  35. I agree with the poster above who suggested students gain some experience in the classroom before making a commitment to the dual program. This is often a requirement for admission to education programs, anyway, right? I would suggest partnering with Pipeline (already on UW campus) and creating a seminar so that for a quarter, at least, students can gain a sense of what they would be up against before declaring.

  36. I obtained a 5th yr teaching certificate at UW and found the Ed Dept quite stiff to work with. I think it was a fiefdom thing. I would expect resistance there.

  37. If the issue with TfA is lack of teaching education, why not work with TfA to remedy that problem on the UW campus.

    Why would TFA do that? They're a business. They make money charging school districts $3000 to $5000 per year per teacher for supplying them with TFA grads. As a business, they lobbied Congress to pass a law that TFA teachers are exceptionally qualified for the purposes of the No Child Left Behind Act, after the 6th Circuit ruled that they were not. If they'll lobby Congress to pass a law that black is white for their purposes, why would they start an expensive lengthier training program now?

    TFA had a noble purpose when it was all about supplying some sort of teacher to districts which otherwise had no applicants. But they seem to have exhausted that market because now they're all about expanding into districts that have an abundance of fully certified teachers applying -- such as Seattle. TFA teachers have a 2-year contract, and very few of them stay in the classroom after that. Instead, it's a stepping stone to educational administration or politics (they can put "former teacher" on their resume!) or the educational industrial complex supplying charter schools, textbooks, or standardized tests. The school districts they're in save money because even with the $4000 a year fee they pay, their salaries are the bottom of the seniority ladder, so they're paying less than a career teacher. Only the students lose.

    We should encourage STEM graduates to go into teaching by raising the salary of teachers, perhaps especially teachers with degrees in STEM, or the equivalent of raising their salary by forgiving their student loans while they work as teachers. It's a really hard sell to grads to work for 2/3 the money they could get in industry. What we should not do is encourage grads to think of teaching as charity work they do for a couple of years before their real career begins.

  38. This would be WONDERFUL Cliff. I have a daughter in a SPS Kindergarten in West Seattle, and well, don't get me started about the math curriculum and lack of capable/educated teachers in most subjects, particularly math and science.

    I wish you tons of luck getting the College of Ed on board. I was a social science major myself (History/Comm), then worked at my alma mater for almost 12 years at their College of Medicine. Bureaucracy, posturing and downright hinderance seem to run rampant at the Univ level, just like it does on Public School Boards.

    Sorry to be such a cynic, but even if it was a benefit to our kids (which this would be IMO), I can't see anyone getting on board unless they see a benefit to their coffers, and/or get some accolades out of the deal. What a shame.

    But hey, YOU seem to be advocating for our kids (including mine, since she's in the SPS system now), so maybe there's hope that other educators will too. Goodness knows, something has GOT to give.

  39. Love the idea! My concern is that with budget cuts there are not a lot of teaching jobs out there. Not to mention, how do we get rid of the poor math/science teachers to make way for these talented ones?

  40. I think it is a fantastic idea! I appreciate any time someone not only identifies a problem but suggests a plan to rectify it!

  41. Cliff,
    You might be interested in learning more about the Cal Teach program at UC Berkeley

    Essentially this is a program for STEM majors to also get a teaching credential while fulfilling the requirements of their STEM major.

    Cal Teach is aligned with the UTeach program that originated at UT Austin and is now being replicated at universities around the country.

  42. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure it's a worthwhile compromise. Assuming that a subject degree and teacher training can be crammed into 4 years sounds optimistic. If the selling point is that it's better than TFA, that's not saying much. Ideally, we would pay students for a fifth year for teacher training if they commit to teaching.


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