Educational Issues and Needs in Pre-College Programs:

Robert W. Ridky


It's wonderful to be here.  It's even nicer to have my clothes here, since they went to Nicaragua...honestly.  Last evening I arrived absent of luggage. Early this morning there was a knock on my door and fortunately there were my bags, complete with accompanying tags stamped “Nicaragua.”  Marcus and others were telling me that I should check my pockets, so I did. Now I’m not certain if it’s diatomaceous earth, or what, but as the day goes on, I find I’m feeling better.

Seriously, I am pleased to be here at a meeting that brings together both industry and academia and to have the opportunity to talk to you about a few issues that I believe are of critical importance.  During these unprecedented, or as some here today have called it “crisis,” times in the discipline’s foundational corporate sector, one can also find important opportunities.  This is especially true if we keep in mind that crisis is just the Greek word for decision.  There are some decisions that, if we make them collectively, will improve substantially our common professional objectives.

National Science Standards

Much of what I want to talk about today has to do with the National Science Standards and specifically the opportunities they present to all of us.  Implications of this National Research Council Report provide significant opportunities for our students, for new professional career directions and, most significantly, for enhanced earth science literacy among the nation’s citizenry. All these opportunities have straightforward action items that can be implemented in relatively short order.  Let us start then by looking at the National Science Standards.

This country has always had an educational agenda. In true Jeffersonian tradition, education for the masses continues to be our great national experiment. Today, this initiative continues with heightened and largely non-partisan support.  Educational efforts of a number of professional organizations have dramatically intensified as they work to support and promote their discipline’s concerns and interests. In recent years, we see how many of our professional geoscience organizations established, or expanded, their educational offices and activities.

Approximately a decade ago, science and educational organizations began developing and promoting a range of instructional reform efforts.  These efforts, incorporating terms such as benchmarks, frameworks, or standards, had the intent of setting forth what pre-college students should know about the various science disciplines. In order to bring some coherence to this well-intentioned, but increasingly voluminous, overlapping and, at times, contradictory series of recommendations, the National Academy of Sciences, through its working arm the National Research Council, developed the National Science Education Standards. Released in 1996, NRC’s work represents an extensive, a multi-year, effort involving hundreds of scientists and educators at all levels of instruction. The Standards set forth fundamental content understandings, teaching strategies, professional development requirements and system support necessary to deliver high quality science to all students.

It is not a trivial task to determine what students, at any level, should know and be able to do in an area of study. It is also somewhat daunting to garner broad professional and public support for specific standards among hundreds of science and educational organizations for specific standards. Yet, consensus among these diverse groups was accomplished.  By most assessments, the Standards have been successful in projecting the vision and principles for science education, and they are having a huge impact on science reform efforts.

In the National Science Standards, we find not only geoscientists, but physicists, chemists and life scientists calling for a strong, noticeable, and fully equal presence of earth science in the curriculum. Increased attention to earth science is, in part, being spurred on by a greater focus on the usefulness of science as well as recognition that earth science contributes significantly to many issue and event-based concerns, such as resource utilization, land management and natural disasters.  Colleagues in other areas of natural science also recognize how earth science provides important context and meaning for acquiring fundamental understandings in the life sciences and other areas of physical science.
The Standards identify content understandings at three grade levels; K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. At each of these levels, earth science is identified as a major content standard.  Each of the identified areas of content understanding has extensive supporting narrative.  There is also a great deal of earth science embedded in other major areas of the Standards, particularly Science in Personal and Social Perspectives - the standard dealing with population growth, natural resources, environmental quality and natural human induced hazards.
As a result of the Standards we have, for the first time in this nation’s history, a call from the highest levels of our science and educational establishments for earth science to take its place with physical and life science. This national objective is belated, but welcomed, and provides us with an opportunity that we must collectively support and sustain.

The National Teacher Need

Earlier today, we were shown statements by the Secretary of Education that spoke of “teaching being the essential profession…the one that makes all other professions possible.” These views have been expressed by many senior officials and, in fact, were expressed by the President in a recent State of the Union Address.  Other individuals, such as Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation, use similar words in recognizing the broader role of science.  This new role for professors is one of not simply continuing the practice of self-cloning, but one of promoting new career opportunities and, in particular, pre-college teaching.  The geoscience, community needs to identify specific ways by which they can best respond to this opportunity.
Concurrent with increased recognition earth science’s importance and the call for scientists and scientists-to-be to consider career opportunities in teaching, is an enormous need for teachers.  The National Office of Education estimates that over 2 million new teachers will be needed during the next six years.  There is a particularly crucial demand for teachers in science and mathematics.  Many science and math teachers entered the teaching profession during the immediate post-Sputnik era, a time when teachers were recruited and supported by federal programs.  These teachers now have 30, or more, years of service and are starting to retire in huge numbers. Other factors, such as a demographic changes and a burgeoning number of school age children, suggest that we will essentially have to replace our entire teaching corps of 2.8 million in the coming decade. How this is going to be accomplished is the ultimate question driving many national initiatives.  As some have pointed out, the only thing we can be certain of is that someone will be in the classroom as a teacher; the question is, who will that be?

The Number of Earth Science Teachers

It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on the number of earth science teachers.  Earth science is taught over a range of instructional levels and may be part of a physical science, or environmental studies course.  Nevertheless, one of the more valid and revealing statistics on the number of earth science teachers comes from the National Science Teachers Association. For more than a decade, NSTA has conducted
annual surveys of instructional assignments. Although numbers vary from year to year, depending upon teacher response rate, the National Teacher Registry represents information on approximately three-quarters of a million teachers, or roughly one-third of the national teaching corps. Although there is always a level of uncertainty with teacher numbers, this information is coming from the teachers themselves and therefore represents the best information available. Data, from 1988, shows 21,143 individuals teaching earth science at the middle, or secondary, school level.  (An undeterminable, but small percentage could have a “split” assignment, where earth science is taught at both levels.)  This number does not include elementary teachers who frequently teach aspects of earth science in their science curriculum. (Fig. 1) A decline is noticed in the number of earth science teachers during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  This trend is consistent with what many science educators were indicating about the increasing marginalization and diminution of the earth sciences; fewer and fewer students were taking earth science.  A doubling of the number of earth science teachers is noted in the data from the years 1991 to 1995.  One factor accounting for this rise can be attributed to the work of the National Science Standards Committee. During this period their draft recommendations started to receive widespread distribution and attention.  Their elevation of the importance of the earth sciences was a dramatic wakeup call to the educational community. (Note: Physics, which had experienced a steady decline in student enrollment, also benefited from the strong recommendations in the National Science Standards.  However, the physics community, perhaps driven by end of cold war career changes, had earlier on started to direct greater attention into issues of teaching and learning.  This allowed them to be better positioned, than the geosciences, to meet this instructional challenge.)

More recent, 1998, data on numbers of science teachers, show a drop in virtually all areas of science instruction. Conversation with those at NSTA responsible for this data set suggests that this decline is due, in part, to a general trend of lower survey returns. The more difficult assessment to make is the extent to which these lower numbers represent the projected shortage of science teachers.  Nevertheless, the numbers highlight the fact that there are more teachers teaching earth science than teachers teaching chemistry, and almost twice as many teachers teaching earth science than teachers teaching physics.  Only biology has a greater number of teachers. One significant difference is that chemistry and physics have a far greater number of teachers with degrees and certification in those fields. Earth science has long suffered from an availability of teachers with degrees and certification in geoscience.  It is well known that teachers teaching within their certification areas tend to be more professionally active in their science and science education organizations. The good news is, we have a large group of earth science teachers.  The bad news is, a large percentage of them do not have degrees in the discipline, and they are not as well organized, professionally involved, represented, or supported, as their science counterparts.
One final thought on numbers. The pre-college teaching corps is estimated at slightly over 2 million teachers.  As the NSTA numbers are drawn from only 750,000 teachers, these numbers may represent only one-third of the total number of earth science teachers. Whether actual numbers are above, or below, a particular figure may not be all that important.  What is significant, is that this pre-college group is tens of times larger than the entire number of college and university geoscience faculty. This is particularly noteworthy when one considers that it is in the pre-college arena that the vast number of citizens receive their first exposure, sense of importance, and hopeful enthusiasm for the earth sciences.

Changes in Teacher Preparation

During the past decade we have seen a noticeable increase in the number of content hours required for secondary science certification. Spurred on by national commission findings that show teacher knowledge of subject matter is an all-important element in teacher effectiveness, the median number of credits for certification has risen from 24, in 1987, to 32 in 1997. Increased emphasis on science content can also be seen in the large NSF Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation Program.  Narrative description in the program announcement has recently been changed to read:

“ Collaboratives derive from the leadership and participation of faculty members in science, mathematics, and engineering departments, in concert with colleagues in education departments…” and, “…priorities of the program are the need to attract SMET (science, mathematics, engineering, technology) majors into the teaching profession…”

Last year, Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation stated:

“We cannot expect the task of science and math education to be the responsibility solely of K-12 teachers while scientists, engineers, and graduate students remain busy in their universities and laboratories.  There is no group of people that should feel more responsible for science and math education in this nation than our scientists and engineers and scientists-and engineers-to be."

Recognizing that knowledge of subject matter is an all-important element in teacher effectiveness, the Foundation’s central strategy is one of recruiting and preparing able science majors for classroom teaching. One of the first programs the Director established at the National Science Foundation is a 7.5 million-dollar initiative to train graduate and undergraduate students to serve as teaching fellows in K-12 science classrooms.

Interest in Teaching

As is often the case with major reform, change is frequently driven by outside forces.  Those who study shifts in cultural attitude are noticing an increase of Thoreauvian attitudes among college students; a greater concern for quality and purposefulness of life.  As a result, more college students are expressing an interest in service and teaching related activities.  An example of this social interest is seen in Americorp, a program that started a few years ago to marshal a vast corps of individuals to work with 2 million young people by the year 2000.  General Colin Powell (who incidentally has his bachelor’s degree in geology) is putting major effort into this program.  Ex-presidents, thirty governors, 90 mayors, and scores of CEO’s have also made a commitment to support this program. Even initial skeptics now largely recognize the success of this program that involves 40,000 college age students working with our nation’s young. In spite of a minimal ($4,000) yearly level of subsistence, a large number of college students are entering this program. This coming year, the number working in AmeriCorps is targeted to rise to 50,000. Curiously, this service interest is occurring at a time when the corporate employment situation has been the strongest in decades.

As national and professional interest in teaching strengthens, so too are college students expressing a greater interest in teaching.  The American Council of Education reports that more than 10% of entering college freshmen indicate that they are interested in going into elementary or secondary education. This is the highest expressed interest level in two decades and is the reason why many widely read national newspapers are carrying stories about how teaching is bouncing back.

Another successful program that illustrates well how reform can sometimes be best accomplished outside the established structure is Teach for America. Ten years ago, a student proposed the idea of a national teacher corps in her senior thesis at Princeton University.  To her, the idea was simple.  Why not get the country’s best minds to commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools?  It would change the lives of some of the nation’s most under-served students and would change the consciousness and direction of our nation’s future leaders.  With support of a small seed grant from Mobil Corporation, the program has now expanded to where a thousand students a year are teaching in 13 geographic area across the country.  The vast number of these students have discipline-based degrees and have not been enrolled in teacher education programs.  Once accepted, corps members complete independent work which includes classroom observations of experienced teachers and participation in a summer, five-week, national training institute in Houston, Texas.  Upon completion of the institute, they attend a one to two-week orientation in the schools and communities where they will teach.  School districts hire corps members at regular teacher salaries through the states’ alternative certification arrangements.  During the instructional year there is critical feedback and professional development opportunities provided. Outside evaluations, including feedback from students, parents, and school administrators show that these teachers possess a great deal of content competency, innovation, and motivation.  By all assessments they're doing a superb job and having tremendous impact on teaching and learning.

It is significant that even some of the established institutions for teacher preparation are recognizing this alternative pathway to the profession.  Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College of Columbia, one of the nation’s oldest and prestigious colleges of education, writes:

Teach For America has made some very large contributions.  It has made teaching appealing to a generation of young people who have not traditionally chosen teaching as a career. So it is attracting a splendid group of young people to the profession.  It also offers a bold and different vision of how to prepare teachers…Teach for America will significantly influence the direction teacher preparation takes in America in the years ahead.  It is an historically important program.

The list of institutions providing the largest number of applicants to the program is an impressive roster of some of the finest colleges and universities in the nation. (fig.2)  Over two hundred corporations and foundations, (many representing the oil and gas and mineral industry) contribute to this program.  The purpose of highlighting this program is that it illustrates well the interest that high ability students have in going into teaching, the alternative teacher certification pathways that are available today and the broad-based support for such initiatives.

How can the geoscience community respond to both interest and need?
What can we do, within our programs, to encourage and support more of our best and brightest to consider pre-college teaching?
There are aspects of the Teach for America program that have important implications for the geoscienece community and for what could be done to develop a stronger, more visible and effective national earth science program.

Corporate Linkages

One interesting initiative, linked with Teach for America, worth mentioning because of its potential appropriateness for the geosciences is a program recently established by the consulting company Arthur Anderson. This company is hiring recent engineering, math and science students, and giving them a position with agreed upon salary and defined location. In this program, new employees first teach in the public schools for two years.  There is obviously strong civic responsibility and good public relations being demonstrated with this program, but there are also some significant benefits for the company. There's corporate value in having an employee who has been in the classroom at 7 in the morning, who has had to develop daily lesson plans, who has taught five classes a day and worked extensively with issues of motivation and knowledge transfer. What the company receives, two years later, is an employee experienced and tested in many work related issues.  Other corporations are beginning to look at the benefits of this program.  As the geoscience community explores possible academic–corporate linkages, the Anderson model is one that should be looked at closely.

Teacher Certification

Considerable attention has focused on the importance of teachers knowing the content of what they teach.  As has been mentioned, discipline content hours have been increasing as emphasis is placed on prospective teachers earning majors in their instructional content areas.  The other important component in teacher preparation is the professional education sequence.  Although colleges and universities have programs that lead to certification, only states have authority for granting certification or, in some cases, licensure.  Today, in more than half the states, the procedure of requiring and counting 15 hours of this, or 30 hours of that, has been replaced with overall program approval.   Consequently a program of study, submitted by a university, college, or department can be presented to a state education department for certification approval. Courses in teaching and learning are important, and credentialing officials will understandably want to see, within the program, an appropriate amount of professional course and classroom experience, but in most instances this need not be a limiting factor.  Five to six courses in such areas as: cognitive psychology; child, or adolescent development; assessment and evaluation; science methods; and field-based observations and practicum would be suitable. With reasonable planning a geoscience major should be able to fulfill these requirements within their program of study.

It is an opportune time to establish, within undergraduate geoscience programs, a track that will lead to teacher certification. It would be beneficial for both science students and science faculty to develop further their understanding of the issues involved in learning and the transfer of knowledge. Education’s unique contribution lies in understanding the mental operations that underlie learning and the processes associated with knowledge acquisition.  What students show, and why do they show, enhanced development of cognitive faculties when presented with a particular mode of learning? If knowledge acquisition and transfer is the core business of the world today, it is these fundamental questions of content and learning that should attract faculty attention and concern. In turn, it terms of interest and enrollment, it would be hugely beneficial for education faculty to open up their knowledge base of teaching and learning to a broader and larger audience.
The Chief Executive Officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, David G. Imig, has stated: “Any weaknesses in teacher training, cannot be blamed solely on colleges of education.  It’s an all-campus responsibility.”  We have then a need and invitation; we should not let this opportunity go by.

Faculty, particularly in terms of career choice and professional direction, have enormous influence on students. As has been shown, many students are interested in teaching.  If a science faculty member encourages one of their bright, enthusiastic, majors to consider teaching, chances are quite favorable that the student will fully consider that possibility.  Unfortunately, in many colleges and universities, and in particular the large, prestigious, AAU Research Institutions, students find that in order to enroll in the science education program they have to drop their science major. As you might imagine, most of these students are understandably unwilling to drop their major. This is a pointless requisite.  It is probably less a result of an orchestrated protectionist attitude, but more a result of program perpetuation and continuance of that which has always been; institutions are superb guardians of the steady state. The task before us is to develop programs that will enable geoscience students to maintain their full geoscience major while having an opportunity to obtain course and field experience that leads to teacher certification. Accomplishing this is good for education and good for science.

Although program requirements vary from institution to institution, must undergraduate programs have distributive, or elective study areas where, with a little bit of planning, many of the desired education courses can be placed.  Recently, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education made an award to a proposal that brings geology and education faculty together for the purposes of developing and implementing a credential oriented program for geoscience majors.  The intent of this award is to establish representative programs at four institutions that could be adopted, or adapted, by geoscience departments throughout the country.  A series of presentations describing these programs are scheduled for both AGU and GSA national and regional meetings. Need and interest has now led to implementation models.

Benefits to Geoscience Programs

Around the nation the story is the same; most undergraduate students “stumble” into geology. A student taking a beginning geology course to fulfill a science requirement finds, and usually quite unexpectedly, that they are interested and enjoy the material being taught. That's how most departments obtain their majors.  Such recruitment practices (or perhaps lack of recruitment) give testimony to the inherent interest of our discipline and speaks favorably to the instructional effectiveness of most geology faculty. Yet, it is a restricted mechanism for distributing broad discipline awareness and program interest. Can you imagine physics departments, or chemistry departments, relying upon students stumbling into inorganic, or particle physics for their majors? How much better it would be if geoscience departments had students who, at their point of university entry, had interest in geoscience similar to the way entering students express interest in chemistry, physics, or life science.  It is doubtful that the largely accidental way in which geoscience departments obtain majors, or even non-majors for general interest courses, will change until more of our able geoscience students elect to teach at the pre-college level.
In summary, there are substantial benefits in establishing a discipline-based earth science teaching program, including:
  The competence of the pre-college earth science teaching corps is of extreme importance to our collective professional effectiveness. Establishing a discipline-based earth science teaching program provides an opportunity to contribute to an important national need while, at the same time, contributing to our discipline’s collective well-being.