Bush promotes value of science

Politics is certainly a strange profession, when it can allow a single person to hold so many conflicting ideas at once.

Pres. Bush delivers addressOn the one hand, Pres. George W. Bush favors the teaching of intelligent design (ID) in science classes, as an “alternative” to the more widely accepted theory of evolution. He squelches discussion of global warming by a NASA scientist. On the other hand, Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, proposes a new commitment to science education in the U.S.

The president proposed that the country undertake what he called the American Competitiveness Initiative, to ensure the country’s technological and scientific preeminence globally. As summarized by seedmagazine.com:

The Initiative will double federal funding for specific physical science research programs over the next 10 years, make permanent a research and development tax credit for the private sector, and bring 30,000 professionals into high school math and science classrooms. As part of his plan, Bush proposes to train 70,000 new instructors to teach advanced-placement math and science classes, as well as provide early help to students who underperform in math.

For a teacher, this proposal is a wonderful idea. It’s no secret that there is a shortage of qualified science teachers nationally. Some schools, particularly in rural and inner-city districts, do not even have physics teachers. The numbers seem large enough to make a serious dent in that shortage.

It looks great on paper, anyway. There are some major difficulties in putting it into effect, principally involving money. There’s also the question of finding 100,000 able-bodied persons to be those teachers.

Let’s discuss the money issue first. The typical starting salary for a first-year public school teacher nationally in 2003-04 was $31,704, according to the American Federal of Teachers. Paying the new science teachers would require additional expenditures of more than $3.1 billion. Will local districts foot the bill, or will the feds come up with some new grant program to make it possible? Either source seems pretty unlikely. Many local districts are already strapped for cash, and the federal government is not exactly flush right now either.

Another money issue is the pay. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that in 2003 the average salary for college graduates with science, engineering and health degrees was $36,000; of those, the engineering grads were being paid an average of $53,000 a year. Holders of master’s degrees, of course, were paid more. So, imagine you are a college senior with a physics degree, perhaps with education loans to pay off. You have a choice: work as a high school science teacher for, say, $30,000, or work in industry for, say, $35,000. Which would you choose?

For such a massive recruitment plan to work, the feds are going to have to offer would-be science teachers some additional incentives. Forgiveness of their federal student loans comes to mind, as does receiving some additional grant money to make up for their lower teacher salaries. Finally, any such program is going to address the “coolness” factor. Helping invent new technologies, designing buildings and spacecraft, and finding a cure for a terrible disease is a helluva lot more exciting than teaching 9th grade general science.

No one goes into teaching with the idea of making big bucks, of course. The rewards of teaching are not monetary, but are, as a former editor of mine once said, “psychic.” There is a certain thrill involved when you, as a teacher, can get your students interested in your subject, or even a tiny bit of it. Those of us who have been teaching a long time continue to teach, not because we can’t do anything else, but because we enjoy it, despite the low pay, crappy working conditions, burdensome paperwork, fussy parents and problematic students. (I am speaking for my public school colleagues here, by the way. I teach at a private school; better working conditions, less paperwork, coooperative parents and for the most part eager students offset the lower pay.)

One can only hope that some hapless college grads entering this as yet unfunded science teacher program will find that money is not everything and remain teachers once they survive that brutal first year teaching. The trick will be to show them that it is worth a try.

So, I applaud Mr. Bush for his proposal to add more science teachers to the workforce. It is a big step in the right direction. Now, he needs to make sure it actually happens, because there are some big obstacles to overcome.

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