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Iowa must improve math, science education

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
Benjamin J. Allen
Des Moines Register
May 23, 2007

Benjamin Allen, University of Northern Iowa president

Iowa has taken a major step toward maintaining the state's reputation for excellence in education. New legislation aimed at improving teacher salaries, combined with Iowa's quality-of-life considerations, will greatly enhance our ability to attract and retain excellent educators.

Clearly, nothing could provide more promise for long-term economic development in the state than a staff of outstanding teachers in every school district.

To fulfill that promise, we must accept that this is the first step of a long journey.

We must make the teaching of math and science our top priority if the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy, according to the National Academies of Science. Three industry sectors of Iowa's "new economy" - bioscience, advanced manufacturing and information solutions - will require a work force with highly developed math and science skills. The foundation for those skills is built during the pre-K-12 years. It's essential that we step up to this challenge.

According to a recent report by the Iowa State Department of Education, Iowa is already 173 teachers short in science and 121 teachers short in mathematics. Many retirements are coming soon. National projections for the shortage of highly qualified math and science teachers by 2015 are even more alarming.

The University of Northern Iowa's 130-year history of providing innovative academic and professional-development programs and of preparing large numbers of high-quality teachers position it to lead in the area of math and science education. UNI is committed to providing leadership through a Board of Regents math and science education initiative, in collaboration with Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.

This regents' initiative has three basic goals: 1. To improve math and science performance of Iowa students. 2. To prepare more high-quality math and science teachers for Iowa schools. 3. To bridge the gap between pre-K-12, the community colleges and the three state universities.

While the best and brightest of U.S. students continue to outscore their international peers in math and science, U.S. students, on average, don't compare favorably with students in other industrialized countries.

There's an interrelationship between the first goal, improving student performance, and the second, stepping up teacher preparation. Many elementary, middle and high school students in the United States are being taught math and science by teachers not trained to teach those subjects. Nationally, due to the shortage of math and science teachers, more than half of all eighth-grade students receive math and science instruction from a teacher who neither holds a mathematics degree nor is certified in mathematics. In 2000, 93 percent of fifth-through-ninth graders were taught physical science by a teacher lacking a major or certification in the subject. Rural school districts are particularly affected.

The third goal will help make sure students are better prepared for the transition from high school to community colleges and universities. Seamless transitions are needed at all levels, pre-K-16.

Assuring teachers that they can engage their passion for teaching at a competitive salary helps to create an environment for success. Those who are entrusted with that success and the overall viability of Iowa's public-education system are preparing for the next step: facing the math and science challenge with the courage, confidence and commitment needed to ensure a sustainable solution to building a competitive work force.

All Iowans should support the three goals identified by this initiative. Proficiency skills in math and science must improve, more math and science teachers are needed, and a seamless pre-K-16 education system is essential for future success. By working together, we will realize tremendous competitive advancements in education and secure the future of Iowa's economy.