Will Master Teachers Help Kids Master Science or Science Tests?

By Guest Blogger | July 20, 2012 10:11 am

Joanne Manaster shares cutting-edge biology with teachers working on masters degrees at the University of Illinois. In addition to videos and articles at her website, Joanne Loves Science, her work can be found at Scientific American. She always has time for science on twitter @sciencegoddess.

Luann Lee is a National Board Certified high school science teacher in Oregon. She can be found on Twitter as @Stardiverr and now that her dissertation is finished, blogs about science and education here.

On Wednesday, President Obama proposed the STEM Master Teacher Corps, a new program to incentivize teachers who display excellence in teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or “STEM”). The idea is that 2,500 such teachers would be chosen and positioned in 50 different locations around the country in the inaugural year of the project. According to the White House, these Master Teachers “will receive additional resources to mentor math and science teachers, inspire students, and help their communities grow.” The Master Teacher proposal is a follow-up to his 2010 STEM teacher-training initiative, “Educate to Innovate,” and part of a broader effort to fight the fact that students in the world’s only superpower don’t do so super in science and math, which figure to be so important for our economy in a tech-driven future.

Everyone supports the idea of improving STEM education, but there are some important questions about the program. Most importantly, the criteria for choosing the teachers (and the panel who will determine the criteria) remain unknown, though early hints are indicating that student test scores will be a factor in determining the worthiness of the teachers for this honor, according to information obtained during a White House Twitter chat on July 18, 2012 (the entire chat is here.)

Because the specifics of the program are not yet fully laid out, there’s still an opportunity for scientists, engineers, educators, and parents to speak up and insist that the science taught in schools be meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry as opposed to memorization, drill, and lecture. Ideally, teachers chosen for this honor (and the substantial stipend that accompanies it) must be able to guide students to become masters of inquiry-based, hands-on science. What would a learning environment at the hands of such a master teacher look like?

* An elementary class studying frogs. Their regular classroom teacher and an experienced master teacher bring them to a local stream to learn about biology, introducing them to working in the field.
* A middle school class manufacturing soap. Under the guidance of their teacher and a master teacher, they consider and test formulations, design an economical manufacturing process, monitor product quality, and present their products to consumers (classmates and parents) to review.
* High school students designing research in areas of personal interest. After years of inquiry-based education, they’re already experienced at doing science themselves.

Students are engaged and invested in interesting, realistic work.

But what if the master teacher’s nomination and subsequent mentoring practice were instead based on how well students performed on standardized, multiple-choice tests? What if the master teacher’s goal was not to provide students with authentic scientific inquiry, but to provide administrators and legislators with high test scores?

Picture the same students, no matter the grade, sitting in class—no laboratory or outdoor work. Each student has a book in front of her. A master teacher models a lecture while the classroom teacher watches and learns, excited not because students are engaged in learning about science, but because her paycheck will increase in direct proportion to student test scores.

Now, imagine your child (or your future employees or coworkers) in one of those classrooms. Which one would you choose?

If you chose the first classroom, you’re in good company. John Dewey wrote in a 1910 issue of Science [PDF] that children “weren’t flocking to the sciences because science has been taught as the accumulation of material with which they are to become familiar.” He went on to suggest, as research tells us today, that students need active, hands-on engagement to gain a thorough understanding. Decades of research corroborate Dewey’s statement, summarized in the National Science Teachers Association position statement on inquiry learning, the National Science Education Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (still in development).

Never mind that student test scores, while often are important indicators of student achievement, have inherent major limitations when used as teacher evaluation tools. Never mind that Nobel Prize–winning scientists and physicians-turned-astronauts have echoed Dewey’s statement on how children learn. We continue to push aside authentic science learning in favor of drill-and-test, and then we abuse the information generated by these tests.

Excitement over the Master Teacher Corps is contagious. WIthin 24 hours of its introduction, the White House blog published statements of support from professional organizations. The National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards have each praised this idea.

Then, there’s the final statement on the White House chat, third tweet from the end, made by @whitehouseostp, the Twitter account of the Office of Science and Technology Policy:

“….Short term, get your district to apply. Then, stay involved and help build movement for full Corps #WHChat ed.gov/programs/teacherinc…” The link goes straight to an application for the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal government grant awarded only to states and school districts who use student test scores as part of their teacher evaluation system.

What do you think? How should our children be learning science?

Education image by Rob Marmion via Shutterstock

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