A half-century ago, India’s prime minister Nehru said: “The future belongs to those countries that make friends with science.” He knew that the health and prosperity of a nation did not rest on just a few scientists making technological advances, or the medical doctors using the most modern techniques, but that the science literacy of the common people was critical for good health, good jury decisions, and good legislative policies.
Kansas has been a science-friendly state. Until recently, Kansas ranked near the top in having qualified science teachers in science classes. But overnight, the shortage of science teachers hit.
In 1999, Kansas licensed 235 new biology teachers; in 2005, just 83.
In 1999, Kansas licensed 124 new chemistry teachers; in 2005, only 61.
New physics teachers and earth science teachers dropped by more than half.
A large number of veteran science teachers are in the midst of retiring at the same time science student teacher production has dropped more than 50 percent. Unless this trend turns around, Kansas will not be able to fill half of our science teacher positions in five years. Waivers and full-time substitutes will become the norm.
And the shortage is not evenly distributed. Wealthier Kansas districts are grabbing most of the new graduates. Rural schools are left with trying to re-tread teachers from other fields while school enrollments shrink. The pressure from school administrators is predictable, and proposals for reducing teacher qualifications were presented at the January State Board meeting.
If a chemistry teacher wants to add a biology or physics endorsement, just take the test.
If a social studies teacher wants to add a teaching field in English, just take half the coursework required...and take the test.
Now, to be a medical doctor, you have to set for your board exams, which you can only do after completing medical school.
And to be a lawyer, you sit for the bar exam, but only after finishing law school.
An exam is just a gateway test to confirm some of what you learned in school. The skill to do surgery or defend a client is learned in medical or law school, not in the test. So why should we think differently about teaching? If a western Kansas community loses its doctor, should we just send a nurse to sit for the medical exam, and then call her a doctor?
Many states have addressed their teacher shortages by doing just this. It makes the shortage go away on paper. But the students of these undertrained teachers fumble through science for the rest of that teacher’s career, and our scientist shortage grows worse.
If we maintain solid credentials, Kansas will have a shortfall. But like the nurse who is covering for a doctor shortage, we know there is a professional shortfall to be filled. We do not lie to ourselves and others by pretending the nurse is a doctor.
Other developed countries are gradually increasing the training for their science teachers, and increasing the science literacy of their students, their future population.
Only in America do we pay any attention to suggestions that we actually decrease science preparation. Other countries know that “the future belongs to those countries that make friends with science.”