The Little-Known Secrets About Math and Science Education

Teacher preparedness is lacking in these core subjects—especially in elementary schools.

How can we expect our students to excel if we do not support our teachers? (Photo: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

If the United States wants to excel in science and math education, we have a long way to go.

Science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) is often touted by education advocates and even President Barack Obama as critical to America’s global education competitiveness. Last July, the Obama Administration even announced a plan to create a national STEM Master Teacher Corps.

But the recent 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education shows we've set ourselves up for a steep uphill battle.

Researchers with Horizon Research Inc., based in Chapel Hill, NC, with support from the National Science Foundation, surveyed 7,752 science and mathematics teachers in schools across the United States with questions about teacher backgrounds and beliefs, teachers as professionals, science and mathematics courses, instructional objectives and activities, instructional resources, and factors affecting instruction.

This was the fifth such survey. The first was taken in 1977, followed by surveys in 1985-86, 1992, and 2000.

“This report raises considerations for both teacher preparation programs and ongoing professional development,” Jerusha Connor, an education professor at Villanova University, told TakePart.

When it comes to teachers in these subjects, the news is bleak.

In middle schools, only one-third of teachers have a degree in math or math education. In elementary schools, less than half of the teachers surveyed said they felt “very well prepared” to teach science. In kindergarten through third grade, only one in five teach science every day. In those grades, students may receive only 19 minutes a day in science instruction. That’s compared with 90 minutes for reading/language arts and 54 minutes for math.

For students to really understand science, a real-world approach is needed. But the survey shows that less than half of all K-12 teachers include a “heavy emphasis” on science applications.

Teachers also said that several factors inhibiting them from teaching science included time for planning; students’ reading abilities; time for professional development and testing/accountability policies.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the survey showed a large gap in science and math instruction in regard to schools that have a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches.

One problem for math and science is the availability of teachers to instruct those subjects.

“We’re committed to preparing students to succeed in the worldwide economy, that’s why we’re working together to get additional qualified, caring, and committed math and science teachers into classrooms. Right now, there’s a severe shortage, especially in low-income communities, and that needs to change. But we cannot do it alone,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement to TakePart.

“There is a clear understanding that our nation’s prosperity is tied to innovation and that innovation will be spurred on by our ability to engage our students in STEM subjects and programs,” he added.

For students, one overall finding from the study shows that the climate for mathematics instruction is generally more supportive than that for science. “Lack of time and materials for science instruction, especially in the elementary grades, is particularly problematic,” the study notes.

Many schools may offer math specialists or pull-out instruction for enrichment and/or remediation, in large part due to federal funding. But the subject lags in student interest groups. While there are science clubs on school campuses, it is hard to find many campuses with math clubs. Even still, both science and math clubs are more likely to occur in large schools, leaving students who attend small ones without the extracurricular activity in a subject in which they may excel.

This will only become more complicated as states enact Common Core Standards.

"The demands of the Common Core mean that teachers can no longer teach in the way that they were taught," Connor said. "To address these more rigorous expectations, teachers will need considerable time, training, and support to help them to rethink their practice, their discipline, their students' need and capacities. This support will require deep and sustained investments in teacher development."

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