Train 100,000 Science and Math Teachers? Obama Plan Leaves Unanswered Questions

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would help universities train 100,000 new elementary and secondary school science and math teachers over the next decade. The 10,000-teachers-per-year pledge was part of his broader message of economic recovery: The United States needs to "out-educate" other countries to produce the type of workforce that can "outcompete" and "outbuild" the rest of the world.

University and scientific leaders are hugely grateful that Obama, since taking office, has been touting the importance of better teacher preparation in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. But in addition to being a tough goal for the government to achieve, even if it did, its likely impact on U.S. science and math education is debatable.

For starters, the number was apparently plucked out of thin air by a National Academies' panel that first used it in an influential 2005 report. It ignores the best estimates by the president's own council of scientific advisers that the country will need 25,000 new STEM teachers a year—and more if the desired improvement in quality lures more students into classrooms around the country.

It also disregards the fact that, thanks to the country's decentralized system of education, the federal government is a tiny player in the preparation, hiring, and retention of the nation's teaching workforce.

It's not clear that 10,000 a year is even a firm target. Just hours before the State of the Union address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement about the disappointing results of U.S. students on a nationwide science test that cited the president's goal, spelled out last fall, of training 10,000 new STEM teachers over 2 years. Of course, that's only half the annual amount called for in the State of the Union and barely one-fifth what his council of advisers say the country needs.

Presuming the number is only a marker for the president's commitment to put better-trained science and math teachers into the nation's schools, what's really important is how he intends to accomplish it. But that plan also rests on some shaky assumptions.

A White House backgrounder released after the speech explains that the president's 2012 budget request, to be submitted to Congress on 14 February, will contain $100 million toward meeting that goal. The Department of Education (ED) would use $80 million "to expand promising and effective models of teacher preparation." The National Science Foundation (NSF), which predominantly funds basic academic research, would receive $20 million "to support research on teacher preparation."

Aside from whether the money is actually an increase—more on that below—one big problem is that the administrative structure for running such a program doesn't yet exist within the education department. Last February, in its 2011 budget request, the department asked for $300 million to be spent on a realignment of several existing programs to improve "effective teaching and learning" in STEM fields. One of the pieces is the department's $180 million Math and Science Partnerships, which allow states to fund joint projects by university scientists and school districts. However, the money can be used on a range of problems in STEM education, from outdated instructional materials to low-quality professional development for teachers already in the classroom. More importantly, the department is unlikely to get its wished-for realignment when Congress finally completes work on the overall 2011 budget.

The $80 million for the new program would be part of this realignment. It would also augment, in ways yet to be determined, a separate, $80 million pool of money available for so-called TEACH grants. That's scholarship money for undergraduates who, after earning a college degree, promise to teach in shortage fields, which includes science and math.

The $20 million for NSF would apparently complement two existing—and much larger—programs that provide a pathway for undergraduates to become STEM teachers. The first, the Robert Noyce scholarships, helps pay the tuition of students who promise to teach after earning a STEM degree but has no explicit research component. The second is NSF's version of ED's Mathematics and Science Partnerships, with the big difference being that the awards are made competitively and not doled out first on a state-by-state basis. The combined budget for the two programs in 2010 was $113 million, which was supplemented by $85 million from the 2009 stimulus package. That amount dwarfs the $20 million for research in the president's plans.

The backgrounder doesn't say whether the $100 million is actually an increase over current levels or merely a refocusing of what's now being spent by both agencies on such activities. (The president probably wouldn't have mentioned it unless it was a "new start," but we won't know that until the 2012 budget is unveiled.) That's a crucial distinction at a time when House of Representatives Republicans are trying to roll back civilian discretionary spending—the 15% of the federal budget that includes all investments in research, education, and training, along with myriad other programs.

It's also worth noting that the chairs of the two House committees with jurisdiction over NSF and ED, representatives Ralph Hall (R-TX) and John Kline (R-MN), issued statements shortly after the State of the Union that either criticized or ignored the president's planned expansion of federal efforts.

Mr. Hall "is a supporter of strong STEM education, in general," says the committee's press spokesperson, Zachary Kurz. But last month, Hall voted against the final version of a major science reauthorization bill that tells agencies to do more to promote STEM education because of his concerns about the overall cost.

Kline's statement notes that "my goal is to pull back federal involvement in the day-to-day operations of our schools to enable them to succeed. I am hopeful the President and Democrats in Congress will join me in reform that does not hinder those local efforts."

ScienceInsider would love to hear from those in the know how the president's latest words mark an important step forward in strengthening STEM education and what they think the federal government should be doing to improve STEM teaching.