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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts
  • mathlogic

    Like any measurement, test is not perfect way to find out who is better at science study. But it is still the best you can find in this world. It has been used thousands years. I spent my school years studying for test. But at end, I still gain true knowlage through test preparation. Study for test works.

  • http://doyle-scienceteach.blogspot.com/ Michael Doyle

    The excitement is contagious, as we grab our applications, hoping to put more medals on our chest, marking how wonderful we are–and yest so few of us are asking more the more fundamental question–what is the role of education in a child’s life?

    Well over a hundred years ago, Francis W. Parker said “A very good working model of education is: the development of the attitude of the soul toward truth. That attitude can be cultivated only by the self-activity of the mind with unprejudiced judgment intent on the direct discovery of truth.”

    We deify STEM at huge costs. Science, like art, is a process, a working towards understanding what is true in the natural world. If the folks awarding the title STEM Master Teacher do not themselves understand the fundamental role of education in a child’s life–and the answer is not to make them “college and career ready,” Mr. Duncan–then maybe those of us who teach children should think hard before jumping on a bandwagon that may do more harm than good.

    The creation of the mantle of “Master Teacher” by the DOE without first grasping our fundamental roles as teachers smacks of demagoguery. I’d be the first one to admit I crave one of the positions, but I must also admit I want it for the wrong reasons.

  • Magoonski

    MATHEMATICS!
    The ‘M’ stands for Mathematics not Medicine. You’re writing an article on this and you don’t even know something so basic!?

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Magoonski: It was just an editing error (now fixed) and really doesn’t say much about the meaning of the piece, which, I hope you noticed, mentions “math” elsewhere. Let’s talk more about what the piece really says rather than getting caught up in pedantic score-keeping.

  • Sarah G.

    As a history teacher (a field that, like science, has been turned into rote-memorization instead of inquiry), I have to say I would have a very hard time leaving my classroom to go travel my area, giving bit-lessons to other teachers in how to better teach history. A two-day visit from a master teacher isn’t going to somehow make a regular teacher’s lessons as good as the master teacher’s. I would see this as wasting my time and throwing over the educations of my own students.

    They have roles for this sort of stuff already. They’re called “teacher educators.” They leave the classroom, often permanently, to go teach in credential programs. Any teacher willing to leave her or his classroom to go teach other teachers … well, they’re going to end up attached to a university, not to the Administration.

    As for the rest – I believe that most teachers want to do inquiry-based learning. I hate that I am basically forced to drill facts into student heads so they can pass a test I didn’t devise and can’t ever see, but for which I am responsible for preparing students. There’s precious little room for inquiry when the entirety of a year’s worth of learning must be completed by the state exam – 5 weeks before the end of the school year. We enjoy it when students learn something on their own, when they use critical reasoning. It makes us happy to see their happiness at self-achievement. Money is important – many teachers have kids and need to feed them – but respect and security are also important, and state testing degrades the respect and removes the security of both teachers and students.

  • http://www.dalecope.com Dale Cope

    The goal is very admirable and I think it does have a lot of potential. Being a Canadian, I will only see the results through teaching materials, plans and strategies that make it across the boarder. However, innovation in teaching is shared quickly thanks to the internet.

    The goal of early science education should always be to encourage, inquiry, discovery, critical thinking and creativity. The raw facts and knowledge can be picked up along the way, but without passion and appreciation the facts will be meaningless and lost.

    Meaningful learning takes place when the students get involved and can interact not only with the material, but with each other and their environment. You can read and look at pictures of plant development, but that isn’t nearly as engaging as growing a plant yourself from a seed and carefully detailing its growth cycle. Hands on as much as possible. It is the way to go, and it is the way to create conversation and dialogue that gets padded with facts along the way.

  • joemac53

    There is no magic bullet. There is no centralized, top-down dogma that will satisfy all “positive” outcomes. Good teachers know their subject and how kids learn. Good teachers have a good relationship with their students. Good teachers can be good role models.

    I am very frustrated with the “everybody should be doing this” attitude of ed reform. I retired after 35 years as a STEM teacher (we forgot to have an acronym before). I will admit to the “please leave me alone” attitude for most of those years.

  • Billikin

    Here is a thought about inspiring students to learn about STEM subjects: Increase funding for research on the one hand and engineering projects on the other, and make a big deal about it. :)

  • English Teacher

    Will the amazing students who are taught to search out their own answers be able to communicate their ideas to others? Let’s not forget that all educational disciplines are important to a well-rounded students. Those who can’t excel in STEM classes will be left behind and undervalued. No one can win a Nobel Prize unless they write up their findings and in some cases illustrate, electronically publish, etc.

  • Ilene Franklin

    Chemistry Teacher Says:
    When texting, we have begun to use rebuses to reduce the number of key strikes, increase our communication speed, and save some money. And let’s face it, rebuses are cute. But, the English teacher is correct. Everything that is imagined, discovered, derived, and learned needs to be communicated without ambiguity. Language Rules! L8tr ;-)

  • http://www.chemistar.com/blog Luann Lee

    @Mathlogic: I agree that testing may have a place in measuring student learning. There are other ways to measure learning, too. Students who engage in scientific inquiry through field studies or lab investigations can present their work to teachers, peers, the community and demonstrate their learning. Students can collaborate with one another, educators, and scientists and demonstrate their learning through discussions, blog posts (or an old-fashioned paper essay, but then who else gets to learn from this?), electronic of paper posters for display, you get the idea. Are you currently working in math or science? Did your learn-for-the-test background prepare you for this? Just curious.

    @Sara G, I, too, have difficulty leaving my classroom. I work hard to foster collaboration and community among my students, and generally find that they will continue learning if I am out for a day or two. Moving to a “no-sub-needed” system as proposed by Nancy Flanagan ( http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2012/07/lets_get_rid_of_subs.html ) might make this easier. I’d like to introduce you to my friend Diana Laufenberg’s blog ( http://laufenberg.wordpress.com/ ) . Diana is an incredible resource for teaching social studies through inquiry and problem-based learning. I learn from her constantly.

    @Dale Cope, you are so right. How can we get our lawmakers to see this?

    @Joemac35, I echo your frustration with the acronym STEM. It’s as though the clever creators truly believe we’ve never integrated real science (or math or engineering or technology) into our students’ learning.

    @Billikin, Yes, and for every school and every teacher, not just those in high-need schools or those in districts and states who have sold their souls to the RTTT gods to get said funding.

    @English Teacher, I feel your frustration at English being ignored in this initiative. Curently, my state tests reading, writing, math, and science – but students do not have to pass science, so science and social studies teachers are simply expected to support tester subjects at the expense of our own course goals. I advocate for a collaborative environment in which students integrate “subject areas” to engage in meaningful learning. There are many students who are very capable of greater success in “STEM,” but haven’t been encouraged or see no reason to engage. Other students may find their gift in writing, and as you mention, writing is central to communicating important ideas. A peripheral understanding of “STEM” subjects may pave their paths into a technical writing, editing, or even a sic-fi career.

  • Elliott

    My wife and I are both science teachers (high school and middle school, respectively) and are very interested in this topic. Something that recently caught our attention was an article in the latest edition of Scientific American (“Building a Better Science Teacher”) which has an intriguing chart on page 65. The chart lays out the most likely path ways to STEMM. There are many possible factors that influence a person to enroll in either science, technology, engineering, math or a medical field in college. But the single most predictive factor was whether that person had completed calculus in high school. This was surprise to us because while we assumed that a mastery of math was important to a STEMM career we never realized that it was so predominant over so many factors we considered more influential such as high achievement in science, encouragement by teachers and family, and reading ability. Master science teachers may be helpful but for my wife and I, we both understand now that teaching science will provide only a foundation of knowledge and experience — we know now that the students with an interest and ability for STEMM should also be shepherded into high school calculus if they are to engage in a college level study program. We may do more good as a nation to generate more STEMM graduates if we place more emphasis on competent math instruction in all grades to steer more students to math courses at higher levels.

  • Hypatia

    Of course tests have their uses, but nothing substitutes for critical thinking and hands-on exploration. Science can be so exciting, if properly taught.

  • L. Maaradji

    Our educational system has some gigantic flaws – funding, canned curriculum, teaching to a test, inadequate teacher preparation, one of the shortest school years in the world and now siphoning off the best and brightest STEM teachers to a semi-administrative position camouflaged as ‘master teachers’. How about a program where master teachers stay in the classroom and new teachers or those of us that need a ‘tune-up’ apprentice with those effective teachers? Excellent teaching requires skills that not everyone has such as organization, personability, enthusiasm, depth of knowledge, patience, experience, and a clear understanding of the students being taught. As a mentor teacher for years I know that not everyone brings these and many more necessary skills to the table. We assume these skills can be taught. I’m not so sure after 20 years in the classroom. Let us keep the best of us working with students – where we have the greatest impact – in class.

  • carol james

    I love teaching inquiry- based science! When kids are motivated with ooohhhs and ahhhs, it inspires me to keep presenting the content in new ways. I keep exploring, myself! OK, I have been teaching 30 yrs. and have taught grades 1-3. I made lab coats from white shirts collected at thrift stores and ironed scientist logos on them. I listen to NPR Science Friday to get new ideas… light bulbs! For instance, 2 yrs ago I got the recipe for making snow flakes w/ dry ice w/ little effort on my part. Fit right in w/ several areas of my content for gr. 2.

    How can we ignore the inspiration and knowledge that comes from “hands on” experiences for children? Teaching to a test will kill this. Balance is needed. Teachers must be encouraged to guide explorations and led to realize that this will help those “test scores” in the end. The means are essential! If not, the end will be more difficult. Rote memorization has its place, but inspiration and joy for the subject is so important in grade school.

    I know that my students did well on content tests b/c I stimulated their thinking and made sure they understood the vocabulary and content in the context of a fun experience. They remember what THEY DO!!!! That is so important for those implementing policy to remember. I pray we can get it right for our children’s sake and the future of our country.

  • http://www.thelegveindoctor.com/ NickK

    Truly an inspired teacher is worth their weight in gold! Therefore, teaching the teachers is the valuable mould for bringing the best into our classrooms and should be valued at the highest level :)

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