This essay was originally published in the NSF INCLUDES Open Forum and is published here with permission of the author. Reflecting On Our Roots is a series of essays outlining some of the historical context of the field of broadening participation.
As the time for “back to school” comes around I remember the excitement of returning to class from the summer. I also remember those teachers (at every level) who made a big difference in my life: Mr. Smoot who, in the months following the launch of Sputnik in 1957 by the then Soviet Union, excited us all into thinking about the science problems that had to be solved to put the satellite in orbit; or Miss Goddard who, in the face of too many students in her class, taught a group of us to learn mathematics on our own and to teach each other. This was a critical time in my life: late 1950s, Birmingham Alabama, attending segregated and under-resourced Lewis Elementary School, poised at the edge of the Civil Rights movement where Birmingham – as the epicenter – would play a starring role.
At each inflection point in our lives there have been teachers who made a difference. We had some brilliant, dedicated teachers in our schools, perhaps because of segregation. These teachers were driven to do the best they could for us, to give us the tools to survive in an unforgiving world. Had more opportunities been available to them to put their knowledge to use in other sectors, would they have made different occupational choices? I’m not sure. (See also the recent Brookings Institution article on this topic.)
The world has changed so much since those days, and science and technology were major drivers in shaping it. As with my teachers in Birmingham, today’s teachers are being called upon to do the very best they can for the young people who will shape the future. This is nowhere more evident than in the high-needs schools of the 21st century, schools which sometimes look all too similar to those I attended. What do our 21st century teachers need to know and be able to do? How must they teach the children? What courses and experiences must colleges and universities provide these next generation teachers to prepare them to teach students who will confront 21st century problems of poverty, food insecurity, climate change, and much more?
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the historic Education Summit in Charlottesville convened by President George H.W. Bush and the Nation’s governors (including his successor, then Governor Bill Clinton) where they put forward ambitious education goals for the United States. Among those goals was that the U.S. would be “first in the world in science and mathematics achievement” by the year 2000.
Even as many of us privately thought that such an audacious goal was unlikely to be met, given the lack of grassroots consensus and the inadequacy of resources, we appreciated its intent; to put us on the road to reform. We could argue that we needed to change the way science and mathematics were taught, that we needed rigorous standards, appropriately resourced schools, well-qualified teachers and better ways to assess learning, as well as removal of barriers to access. Every school and all children were prominent in the language of reform at that time.
Without that Summit and the “goals” it is unlikely that we would have been able to sustain momentum into the new millennium to the goal and the challenges of providing quality science and mathematics education. (Few such reform efforts survive from one Administration to another and especially when there is also a change in parties). And many of the institutions and initiatives that were created during that time have continued to move that work forward. But the greatest challenges in education reform have always been about achieving the “each and every and the for all.”
While there are ongoing efforts to address the availability of well qualified teachers of science and mathematics there is also the need to figure out how to retain them. How do we attract a diverse corps of STEM teachers and keep them in the districts, in the schools, in the classrooms and with the students who have the greatest need?
We continue to work on increasing and improving the STEM teaching workforce. Programs such as UTEACH (begun at UT Austin in 1997); NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program http://www.nsfnoyce.org/ (authorized in 2002) and the umbrella 100K in10 (announced in 2011) are tackling the supply issue. But what about the need to provide teachers with the preparation and resources to teach all students well? Research on retention of STEM teachers points to issues that include preparation and induction as well as salary, school environment, culture and stability – it makes a difference if you have good school leadership and supportive policies, if you feel prepared for the job you are to carry out and if you are respected in the work you do. (See also this recent ChalkBeat article on the topic.)
One of my colleagues who reviewed this essay raised the point that perhaps the goal should be that of providing teachers with the preparation and resources to persist in the school environments they will face. Having encountered that argument in the context of women in science (and our past efforts to “fix the women”), I pushed back. Why should the onus be on the teacher rather than also on communities to demand and work for systems and schools within in them that work for teachers and students?
True, I learned how to learn and became excited about science in large part because of teachers — who looked beyond the hand -me-down textbooks and lack of equipment, the chaos of our city, the injustice in our lives and the peril that surrounded us. They saw something in us and helped us see it in ourselves. But why should teachers have to provide these resources to children in spite of the circumstances they encounter? If you are reading this today, thank your teachers. Let’s honor them by working to improve the schools and systems in which 21st century teachers must do their work.