I teach high school & college physics, and just this week a colleague of mine sent me a disturbing article in the Chicago Tribune about a crisis in the teaching profession in the state of Illinois. Now, it’s not necessarily the kind of crisis that you might envision – that there aren’t enough prospective teachers on the market. It’s actually the opposite problem – there are too many teachers; at least, there are too many of certain kinds of teachers.
Here are a couple of key excerpts from the article:
The nation’s third-largest city school system [Chicago Public Schools] is seeing a deluge of applications, a phenomenon usually associated with coveted suburban jobs. Applications have doubled in five years—to 23,568 for the 2008-09 school year—fueled in part by the economy but also by a glut of new teachers statewide.
… The “overproduction” of teachers is highest in social science, according to the state. Local districts are reporting an oversupply of applicants for elementary school teaching jobs, as well as English language arts and physical education teachers.
This confirms suspicions I’ve had ever since I was getting my certification to teach math & physics many years ago: there are too many education majors or those enrolled in certification programs who are specializing in the humanities such as English & history. But there is something even more disturbing in the article…
Districts also report what they consider to be shortages of qualified teacher applicants, which in 2008 were reported in special education areas, but also in physics, chemistry, math and foreign language.
So the problem is a double whammy – not only are there too many people going into teaching the humanities, but there is a lack of qualified teachers for core scientific & technical subjects such as math, physics, and chemistry!
I don’t know about you, but I see this as a huge problem – especially if it is a common trend throughout the United States (which I suspect it is – see this USA Today article from 2006). If we in the United States are trying to retool our economy to be more forward-looking in the 21st century, then we’re going to need to emphasize basic scientific research & technological development. But where do the scientists and engineers to work on those important projects come from? They come from our educational system.
But when our educational system has too many people wanting to teach English literature and too few people qualified to teach basic physics, how can we possibly expect to educate a workforce that will have the necessary understanding of science & math to be competitive? Without engineers, how can you design & build newer cars, roads, bridges, and infrastructure? Without scientists, how can you do the basic research into alternative energy sources as well as explore other essential questions, such as global warming, medicine, etc?
And this begs an even more fundamental question: Why is it that so many students enrolled in teaching certification programs at U.S. universities & colleges steer away from the physical sciences and mathematics? In discussing this question with my colleague, we speculated on some reasons…
1. Majoring in science and/or math in college is perceived to be very difficult, especially the more mathematical the specific area of science (physics, for example, usually attracts the fewest students of all the sciences). Many U.S. college students choose not to major in science/math because “it isn’t an easy major” or “it’s too much work” compared with other subjects. In all my years of college & graduate school, I cannot tell you how many times I heard fellow students make those sorts of comments. This reflects a fundamental problem – intellectual laziness coupled with a profound lack of work ethic. But why?
2. Sadly, science and math are not respected as much in U.S. society as they were a generation or two ago. Don’t get me wrong – we all love getting on the Internet or playing the latest music on our I-pods. But what is lacking is a respect for and understanding/appreciation of the process of science which leads to the development of those technological marvels. In a way, we’ve gotten so used to being on top that we forgot what it took to get us here. Besides, how can we be surprised that the public image of science is taking a beating when there are constant assaults against our scientific institutions from creationists, New Agers, and sCAM advocates? When the media in this country treat the nonsense of psychics & vaccine deniers halfway seriously, without a hint of critical thinking, why does it shock us that we see the inevitable dumbing down of our educational system regarding actual science?
Without a broader & deeper societal appreciation for science and its methods, how can we expect that enough young people will wish to pursue the sciences, engineering, or science/math teaching as a career path?
This is one reason why I think it is so important for skeptics, critical thinkers, and defenders of science to stand up and speak up. If we are to have any chance of reversing these disturbing trends in science & mathematics education (both in terms of getting good teachers and in terms of educating our kids), then it is incumbent upon us to do our part. If we continue down this dangerous path, then ultimately we will only have ourselves to blame.