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Is Test Mania Killing Interest in Science Teaching?

Last week I got some disturbing news from a science educator in Kansas. John Richard Schrock is a biologist who works at Emporia State University in Kansas, preparing science teachers.

In September he wrote about a visit from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan,
and shared this graph, with the following caption:

KSBio.jpg

The number of new licenses awarded by Kansas State Department of Education KSDE to biology, chemistry, physics and earth science teachers over the last decade, all show a dramatic drop immediately after No Child Left Behind was imposed, and remain low under Duncan. The biology graph is representative. The science teacher pipeline declined dramatically over the last decade with the imposition of NCLB and standardized testing.

I was very curious about this. After all, one of the greatest concerns we hear about education is that we are not attracting the high caliber of teachers that we need, and science teachers are especially hard to find. I spent my last four years in Oakland working to mentor novice science teachers. Is our national mania for testing driving away science teachers before they even start?

I wrote to Dr. Schrock to find out more. I asked him -- are these numbers indicative of broader trends? Is this a particular problem with science education? Here is what he told me:

Science is different from math is different from language is different from social studies. Math is always the stalking horse for standardization because it is lock-step and abstract. Science is experience-based relying on lab and field experiences and not lock-step; student teachers want to convey the excitement, not drill-and-test...thus many divert out of the teaching path here as soon as they see the constraints. Math numbers are down slightly in Kansas, but not to the extent of science. English and social studies are holding better, but here I perceive in all areas a slightly less-qualified set of teacher candidates coming in.

The college biology majors whom I try to recruit into teaching, those who get excited about what they are learning and can't wait to tell their roommate, etc. are doing a U-turn when they hit the education-prep courses which realistically prepare them to the test-prep system. To me these continuously-increasing cases of students I know and lost, anecdotal though it may be, are very real and reflect the main cause for my downturn.

My colleagues at other universities in Kansas relate the same storylines, but it is not measured on any instrument. I am seeing a few survive our teacher prep who came in already with a different mindset that they have no responsibility for determining curriculum and they are already adjusted to become cogs in the machinery. There is also an attitude shift among veteran teachers; more older ones can't wait to get out or retire early because they have become handcuffed in their lessons and the younger ones have adapted to making no curricular decisions but pushing the test prep regime. It is the poorer quality teachers who appreciate being handed a cookbook curriculum and making no decisions.

I am also finding it harder to find decent professional placements for my good student teachers. Meanwhile, the political scene has made it easy for schools to hire alternate route teachers with half the content knowledge; so well-prepared student teachers go without jobs in an era of funding cutbacks; as one superintendent said in 2008 "The teacher shortage just went away." Thus, my good student teachers who are still independent professionals are going without jobs, in some cases because in the interview they are not perceived as "team players" on the assembly-line, and this news gets back to younger potential student teachers. Each year I feel the biology teachers I prepare are less and less fit for the new Kansas classroom; 8 of the 226 biology teachers I have overseen have taught overseas and I am getting queries from more veterans in the field about how to apply overseas, or sadly, leave the classroom. I now have several working at the local nuclear power plant, fish and game, etc.

This news comes at a time when many are raising potent questions about our schools' overemphasis on test scores. Yet in the arena of teacher preparation, some are seeking to expand this emphasis. As I wrote a few months ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is preparing to release a report that will rate schools of education across the country.

Previous work by this Gates-funded advocacy group have emphasized how success depends on how focused they are on test preparation. One report said:

It is fair to say that the school districts in the nation that do the best in the face of the challenge of educating disadvantaged students have become obsessive about using data to drive instruction.

NCTQ's forthcoming report will use ratings to push schools of education to emphasize test data and test preparation as they prepare teachers. This new data from Dr. Schrock offers a window into what we may be losing as a result of this obsession.

What do you think? Are you seeing creative potential teachers deterred by the current climate? Does this problem extend further than science teachers in Kansas?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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