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Obama Seeks More Money for Master Science Teachers

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Department of Education

The Obama Administration wants to give a $20,000 salary bonus to thousands of the best elementary and secondary school science and math teachers in the country. But the idea of creating a Master Teacher Corps program, unveiled today by the White House, stands little chance of winning the necessary funding this year from Congress.

Master teachers—an elite group of teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields—would mentor other teachers, serve as role models to draw talented students into the profession, and work with community leaders to improve science and math education. The corps was a key recommendation in a September 2010 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which called it "a sufficient carrot to attract and retain the best [STEM] teachers."

The president's plan would be to start with 2500 teachers—50 at 50 sites across the country—and add locations over the next 4 years until there were 10,000 teachers in the corps. The teachers, who would serve for 5 years, would be selected by the local districts and deployed as needed.

The program is intended "to elevate the prestige" of the profession and highlight the importance of science and math in the schools, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "There have been pockets of creativity, but until now there has been a lack of resources. I think that school districts are more than ready for this idea." In a press briefing yesterday, Cecilia Muñoz, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, emphasized the role that STEM teachers play "in equipping our students with the knowledge they will need to get jobs in the high-growth fields that fund innovation."

Gerry Wheeler, interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, praised the Administration's plan. "We have to give greater attention to STEM education, and the teacher corps is one good way to do that." Wheeler would like to see the majority of the teachers working at the elementary and middle schools, so that "they can catch students when they are young and give them a sense of the careers that are possible in the STEM fields."

Funding for the master teacher program is contingent on the Department of Education receiving its full request for a broader, $5 billion initiative in its 2013 budget called the RESPECT (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching) project. But that's not likely to happen.

Although the status of the overall federal budget for next year remains in limbo, the House of Representatives spending panel that funds the department coincidentally marked up its 2013 appropriations bill today. The bill contains no money for the RESPECT project, a collection of several initiatives that include attracting and retaining better STEM teachers. The panel also zeroed out a request for $150 million for a new program that the Administration had proposed as a successor to the department's Math and Science Partnerships, which gave grants to school districts to improve science and math instruction.

The chair of a different House committee, one that oversees education and authorizes new programs, is a fierce opponent of the Administration's attempt to spend more money on targeted new programs. Instead, Representative John Kline (R-MN), has proposed legislation that would give money to local school authorities to use as they see fit.

Asked to comment on the idea of a STEM master teacher corps, his spokesperson cited Kline's reaction to a report earlier this year that tallied the hundreds of existing federal programs aimed at improving STEM education. "Investing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a worthwhile endeavor—but pumping billions of dollars into programs that may be duplicative or unproductive is just plain foolish," Kline said then.