If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. ... We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

A Nation At Risk, 1983

Nearly a generation has passed since this landmark report was published, and much has changed. The cold war has ended in victory. After years of stagnant growth in Japan, the economic threat Japan once posed seems a distant memory. America's fear of being overtaken as the world's leading economic superpower has, for now at least, abated.

Yet, concern about America's schools has not abated, or not much. The precipitous dive in the quality of our schools--if it ever really existed--has bottomed out, and signs of improvement in certain areas are visible. The sense that America's schools are critically ill has faded, but that sense has been replaced not by satisfaction, but by a widespread impression of pervasive and unremediable mediocrity. Despite some positive signs, no one thinks America's schools are as good as they should be. Math and science programs are, on average, especially weak. Prescriptions for improving schools come and go as fast as political administrations, but study after study shows, and almost everyone agrees, that there is one sure way to make schools better: Make teachers better.

But no one knows how to pull that off--or, rather, everyone has a different idea about how to pull that off, and no single idea, or set of ideas, has garnered the political support required to sustain needed changes. Indeed, even maintaining the status quo is likely to be a challenge, considering that the demand for teachers in the coming years is expected to increase, especially in high-need areas such as science and mathematics. Since 1983, the number of children educated each year in America's schools has more than doubled, and their teachers have gotten older and closer to retirement. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) estimates that 2 million teachers will be needed over the next decade (though some dispute this figure)--and that assumes we keep most of the ones we've already got, instead of replacing the current crop. Even now, it's a struggle to find qualified math and science teachers. Many teaching slots go unfilled, or get filled by teachers with insufficient training in the discipline.

In short, it would seem to be a good time for scientists to enter teaching.

But not so fast: Making the transition from bench to K-12 classroom isn't a no-brainer, even for the amply motivated. Helping young people learn is a difficult job even in the best circumstances and, in the areas of greatest need, it can be onerous. In rural and inner-city schools, salaries are low, resources are limited, respect is hard to come by, and even an orderly classroom--or a constructively disorderly one--is difficult to attain and maintain. Furthermore, some say the predicted teaching shortage is exaggerated. Indeed, the head of one prominent think tank says that we're producing more teachers than we can use.

Despite the job's difficulty--or perhaps because of it--America continues to send the message that teaching school is a second-rate career. Everyone agrees in principle that teaching school is noble, but somehow that has failed to translate into the perception that teachers are noble--and that lack of respect can be hard to swallow for young scientists with the highest aspirations. Shifting from a research career to a career teaching at the primary or secondary level will appear to many as a step down, a sign of weakness--a notion reinforced and amplified by graduate-school and postdoc mentors and peers. They often send the message that teaching, even at the college level, is a job for people who can't cut it in "real" science.

It's time to put that notion for rest once and for all. Although scientific researchers, if they are both very lucky and very skillful, may have a hand in creating new knowledge, a typical school teacher has a hand in nurturing many young minds over a career, and some of them will go on to do extraordinary things. Both jobs--teaching and research--involve a fair amount of unrewarding work, but the two careers share another feature: both are intrinsically creative. What differs is the nature of the thing created (some would say discovered)--external knowledge on the one hand; knowledge of self through character, passion, and curiosity--human potential--on the other. The view that teaching is less valuable than research is, quite obviously, little more than an unexamined prejudice.

Even young scientists who manage to overcome these psychological and cultural barriers can find the logistical barriers daunting. Unless you seek a job at an independent school (where working conditions are generally good but salaries tend to be low), you'll need to get a teaching certificate. Teacher certification occurs at the state level, and requirements vary widely. It's rarely easy, except in an emergency. In Arizona, for example, the traditional route to certification requires 45 semester-hours of education classes, along with 8 weeks of student teaching. Indiana requires a whopping 60 hours of education classes. Secondary-teaching certification in New Jersey requires both a degree in the subject area (a bachelor's degree will do) and 200 clock-hours of pedagogy training.

To scientists with impeccable knowledge of their chosen field, these requirements can seem silly and artificial. Although the folks who make the regulations undoubtedly mean well, and although a knowledge of pedagogical theory is no doubt valuable, it's obvious--to those of us with subject degrees, anyway--that existing regulations value teaching theory too highly and subject matter not highly enough.

Parts of the education establishment--influential parts--share that opinion. In mid-June, the U.S. Secretary of Education issued a report to Congress concluding, as dozens of reports have before it, that schools of education should put more emphasis on discipline-based training and less on the theory of education. The report proposes a radical restructuring of the nation's teacher-training system that would include rigorous testing in subject areas and the reduction of "cumbersome requirements not based on scientific evidence."

The report recommends lowering barriers to entry for professionals who wish to enter teaching from other fields. "Many academically accomplished college graduates," says the report, "and mid-career professionals with strong subject-matter backgrounds, are often dissuaded from entering teaching because the entry requirements are so rigid." The report makes several recommendations to the states--for example, a reduction in the number of education courses required for certification--that would ease the move from bench to blackboard.

Alternatives to traditional certification already exist. Forty-five states have so-called alternative certification programs that aim to be more attractive to career changers than traditional certification. But these programs can be almost as burdensome: In Colorado, for example, new teachers must put in 225 clock-hours of professional training during their first year, while also teaching full time. Other states have similar criteria.

Traditional and alternative certification programs are supplemented by a third approach: emergency certification. Emergency certification is a sort of safety valve: When a school district fails to find a qualified, certified teacher, most states allow it to use an uncertified, unqualified teacher on a short-term basis. Emergency certification has little political support--everyone from teacher unions to the Bush Administration blames emergency certification for lowering the quality of America's teacher corps--but sometimes it is used to help teachers with strong qualifications--but no certification--jump right in and begin teaching. Indeed, despite the lousy reputation of these programs, about half of all emergency certifications are granted to highly qualified specialists who lack certification. So, getting rid of emergency certification will make it harder for some mid-career professionals to enter teaching, unless it is replaced with a good, solid alternative.

Widespread political support is no guarantee that anything will change, and even if it does, no one knows what any new system will look like. It's easy to oppose a program that lets lousy teachers enter the profession (along with some good ones); it's harder to come up with something better to replace it with. The education secretary's report is short on specifics, and, anyway, the federal government isn't a major player in teacher-training policy. There, the rules are made at the state level, teachers are hired by the nation's 5000-plus local school boards, and contracts are negotiated between local school boards and local teacher unions. The teacher unions agree with the Bush Administration that emergency certification should be eliminated, but they don't agree about what should replace it--as a rule, teacher unions would like to see more certified teachers (and union members), not fewer, and conservative policy-makers would like to see the unions weakened. Still, given the state of the labor market, the state of America's schools, and the set of ideas already on the table, better-than-even money says that making the jump from bench to blackboard is likely to get easier in the coming years.

Never mind the future--what about the present? Considering making the leap into teaching soon, before the imminent changes take shape? Then be sure to read the accompanying article on the current state of teaching certification in the U.S.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers. @SciCareerEditor on Twitter