More science teachers, but less quality?

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Chicago Public Schools has all but erased a longtime shortage of science teachers, largely because of policy changes by the state that have raised concerns about the quality of the science teaching pool.

As Catalyst goes to print, the district’s human resources website shows only 18 vacant slots for science teachers, compared to 43 for math teachers and 260 for special education teachers.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve been asked by CPS to increase math and decrease science (recruitment),” says Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation for Golden Apple Teacher Education (GATE), an alternative certification program.

In June 2003 the Illinois State Board of Education watered down its criteria for deeming middle school science teachers “highly qualified” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, the percentage of highly-qualified middle school science teachers in CPS skyrocketed from 60 percent to 95 percent.

“Yes, most of our science teachers meet the qualifying level, but what does that mean when the qualifying level is so low?” says Michael Lach, director of science for CPS.

Before the change, middle school math and science teachers working in departmentalized schools needed a bachelor’s degree, an endorsement in science or a passing grade on the state’s science test to hit the state’s mark. But at non-departmentalized schools—where each teacher instructs a single class in all subjects—teachers only needed to pass the state’s general tests. Now, all middle school teachers take the same general test.

The prior rule “discouraged schools from departmentalizing,” says Xavier Botana, the CPS director of accountability for NCLB. The district wants to do the opposite because teacher specialization improves teacher quality, he adds.

This past June, the standards were eased even more, in part to accommodate veterans. Now, teaching experience, extra credit hours and professional development can replace a college degree or an endorsement.

Botana says the revamped requirements won’t necessarily dilute teacher quality. But, he concedes, “If you equate having a degree in the content area with being higher quality, then the new requirements probably don’t help the quality pool.”

But while the board made it easier for middle school teachers to be rated highly qualified, it made it tougher for high school teachers by raising test requirements for various endorsements.

Lach says the district can boost the skills of existing science teachers by providing more resources, improving retention and promoting professional development.

“Our primary focus right now is to make sure the instruction we do have is better,” he says.