For the great majority of Ph.D.s, high school science is a thing of the distant past. But if Jo Anne Vasquez--pictured left--and other members of the National Science Board (NSB) have their way, holders of advanced degrees will soon be returning to the secondary school classroom, this time as teachers.

The nation will need 240,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade, according to a recent NSB report. Tens of thousands of postdocs meanwhile hunt futilely for faculty jobs. With the right policies and incentives, Vasquez suggests, each of these two problems might hold at least a partial solution to the other.

America's precollege science and math education is mediocre enough to threaten the nation's continued scientific supremacy in today's "changed world" of globalized science, warns Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 , NSB's latest biennial report on the state of the nation's research enterprise, which was released in February. NSB members feel such strong "continued and growing concern" about the situation that they also issued a shorter companion document, America's Pressing Challenge—Building a Stronger Foundation , as an urgent call to action.

"A high-quality teaching workforce" is vital to providing a "world-class education in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields for all Americans," Challenge declares. Some of the excellent new teachers the nation needs, Vasquez noted at a Washington, D.C., briefing, could be postdocs attracted into the classroom partially by a desire to pass on the excitement of science but also by new programs that could provide incentives such as higher pay and opportunities for continued participation in research.

Improving Incentives

Her own experience tells Vasquez that several things need to be fixed if teaching is to entice holders of advanced science degrees. Vasquez doesn't just hold a Ph.D.; a former elementary school teacher, she is the first person ever to serve on NSB who has actually been a K-12 educator. (The other 23 members of the prestigious, congressionally chartered and presidentially appointed body, which oversees the National Science Foundation and advises the president and Congress on science and engineering policy, are university presidents, national laboratory directors, and prominent science professors.) Vasquez is also a textbook author and past president of the National Science Teachers Association.

"To make precollege science and math teaching more competitive with other career opportunities, resources must be provided to compensate teachers of mathematics, science, and technology comparably to similarly trained S&E professionals in other economic sectors," Challenge declares. Paying science and math teachers salaries higher than those of other teachers is probably a political nonstarter, Vasquez said. But one way to increase incomes and also provide another lure for Ph.D.s would be for private firms and other organizations to hire them to work in labs, at private-sector wages, during summers and, if appropriate, perhaps also on weekends and vacations during the school year. Vasquez wants "industry to step to the plate and find a way for high school teachers ... [to have] a real job in the summertime in a laboratory." Discussions with several industry leaders have thus far been encouraging, she told Next Wave.

In addition, Congress is considering another financially favorable proposal, forgiving student loans of up to $10,000 or $15,000 for science teachers who work in at-risk schools. And according to Gerald Stancil, a Johns Hopkins physical chemistry Ph.D. who recently retired from a teaching career at New Jersey's Orange High School, the benefits and salary earned by a high school teacher with a doctorate compare favorably with median earnings at colleges and universities--although teacher salaries and reward for advanced degrees vary greatly in different parts of the country. Teachers, furthermore, work only about 9 months of the year.

But will Ph.D.s actually take jobs at high schools in meaningful numbers? "Potential interest [among Ph.D.s] in careers in secondary school science and mathematics education is much higher than the 0.8% of Ph.D.s who currently work in K-12 education," says a 2000 report by the National Research Council called Attracting Science and Mathematics Ph.D.s to Secondary School Education . Some 36% of science Ph.D. holders have considered the possibility, the report states: "Chemists, with strong career options in industry, were less likely than respondents in the biological sciences, physics, and mathematics to consider secondary teaching positions." Women and U.S. citizens appear "most open" to the idea, the report says.

"Stereotypes about Ph.D.s both in the secondary schools and in the universities create obstacles," states NSB's Attracting. Most images of the guy supervising frog dissection or a chemistry lab hardly glamorize the profession. (And in the American imagination, it seems always to be a man, despite the many women who teach high school science and math.) There is, of course, Edward James Olmos's Oscar-nominated portrayal of the heroic Jaime Escalante in the stirring film Stand and Deliver (probably the only hit movie ever to hinge on AP scores), and also the ever-resourceful Professor on Gilligan's Island. But otherwise, the few science and math teachers in pop culture have tended to resemble the wimpy Mr. Peepers or the clueless Mr. Boynton from the sitcoms of TV's "golden age."

In Europe and Asia, on the other hand, the idea of secondary school teachers with serious intellectual credentials and accomplishments is well accepted. Nobel laureate, novelist, and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who held the French equivalent of a Ph.D., long made his living teaching at a lycee, or university-prep high school. A more relevant role model for scientists is Konstantin Tsiolkovky, who is recognized for developing the basic principles of aeronautical science during his long career teaching math in a Russian high school. His many publications include the calculation of the velocity necessary to escape Earth orbit, the conclusion that a multistage rocket would be needed to accomplish this, and a design for such a rocket and even the airlocks that would permit a space traveler to pass from that vehicle into the vacuum of interplanetary space.

Making the Move

Successful passage into the secondary school classroom is also a "hurdle that a lot of people who don't deal with young people have to get across," says Vasquez. Experience shows, she continues, that instead of being "thrown to the wolves" on their own, career changers need training and mentoring to deal effectively with teenagers. But that doesn't necessarily mean enrolling in traditional teacher-training courses. "Alternate path" programs in a number of states now allow holders of subject-area degrees to gain skill and certification through supervised on-the-job training and mentoring plus special formal instruction in pedagogy. Some employers, such as IBM and the Defense Department, are also helping retirees prepare for second careers as high school teachers.

For Stancil, teaching provides the satisfaction of opening the world of science and the opportunity of science careers to young people. Until encountering him, many students had never even heard of the Ph.D. and initially thought that he was a physician. During his tenure at Orange High, the number of physics students quintupled.

The majority of the Ph.D. scientists teaching in high schools who answered a survey for Attracting reported being happy with their careers and concurred that a major reason is the pleasure of watching their students discover science. "I believe [public school education] is where we should be putting our very best people. The kids with the greatest needs need the greatest teachers," one said.

Not every Ph.D. scientist who tries teaching will emulate Stancil's example and make it a long-term career, Vasquez acknowledges. But even if they spend only a few years before moving on to other fields, their deep expertise will help students while they are in the classroom, she believes. Ask any scientist what motivated his or her choice of field, Vasquez says, and "99% of the time" they will mention "a great high school teacher who really turned me on to science."

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Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington , D.C.

Photo courtesy of the National Science Board.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.