Slow off the Mark: Elementary School Teachers and the Crisis in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education

If one ever doubted the need to improve science and math education
in this country, performance on international tests should be motivation
enough. On the 2009 PISA mathematics exam, 17 countries scored higher than the
US and 12 scored higher than the US in science. This report
by the Center for American Progress argues that if the US is going to be a
leader in STEM it must dramatically improve the selection and training of
elementary STEM teachers, especially in the areas of:

  • Selection
    A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality
    sampled 77 education schools and found that a majority of schools only require
    education school students to have a basic understanding of math concepts.
  • Preparation.
    Course requirements in teacher preparedness programs are generally weak and
    inconsistent from state to state. Only 25 percent of future US teachers take a
    two-course calculus sequence, compared to 63 percent in Switzerland.
  • Licensure
    In most states teachers can pass the state licensure exam
    without passing the math portion of the test. 
    The math portion either does not count toward whether someone passes or
    fails or they do not report it -- both potentially equally damaging to the
    students they will teach.

The situation in science is even more troubling. Science is
often overlooked and scores are often not considered in education school
admission requirements. Perhaps the most telling data comes from a 2000
“National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education.” The study randomly
looked at 655 elementary science teachers in grades K-5 and concluded that only
four percent of these teachers had undergraduate degrees in science.

The authors of this report offer up several policy
suggestions to improve the selection and training of elementary math and
science teachers, including recruiting higher achieving students and bolstering
math and science content in schools of education. Furthermore, it is also
important to find ways to attract individuals with STEM backgrounds into the
field of teaching via alternative pathways. The competency of elementary
science and math teachers is an area of need in our country’s STEM policy, and
few would argue that our student’s performance in math and science today is
sufficient enough to compete globally.


Slow off the Mark: Elementary School
Teachers and the Crisis in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education

Center for American Progress
Diana Epstein and
Raegen Miller
May 2011

Bianca Speranza
Bianca Speranza is a Policy & Research Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute