Universities fail to reward science and math professors for working with schoolteachers

August 21, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Jeffrey Brainard, Chronicle of Higher Education] — Science professors receive few professional rewards for joining projects financed by the Math and Science Partnerships program, the federal government’s principal effort to improve math and science teaching in elementary and secondary schools, a recent report says. The report calls this “a major roadblock” for the program.

With one exception — the University System of Georgia — many universities that lead projects paid for by the program have not adjusted their promotion and tenure processes to encourage participation by mathematics and science faculty members. Universities continue to base promotions largely on professors’ research productivity, even though one goal of the partnerships is to encourage faculty members to participate and even though some universities have received millions of dollars from the National Science Foundation to lead the projects.

Westat Inc., a research organization based in Rockville, Md., evaluated the faculty members’ role in its report for the NSF, which has financed 48 of the partnerships since 2002. The projects typically team several universities with multiple school districts. Professors, for example, provide summer workshops for schoolteachers to help improve their knowledge of math and science.

The study, which was completed in May, was presented last week to the National Science Board, the NSF’s governing body. The report is titled “Effect of STEM Faculty Engagement in MSP — A Longitudinal Perspective: A Year 3 RETA Report.” (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)

The report presents mixed news. In some of the projects, both academic performance by students and schoolteachers’ knowledge of science have increased. A comprehensive evaluation to determine whether those results occurred across all the projects is incomplete. The number of math and science faculty members involved has steadily grown, to 1,021 in the 2005-6 academic year.

However, professors told Westat’s evaluators that their colleagues reacted to the partnership projects with apathy and sometimes resistance. The Westat report says that a dean who viewed one such project as a waste of time said it “sullied the reputation of the college.”

The findings are significant because Congress has made the Math and Science Partnership program a centerpiece of efforts to help school districts raise the low performance of American students on mathematics tests when compared with peers in other countries (The Chronicle, May 27, 2005).

In designing the program, Congress emphasized education of schoolteachers by college science professors because many schoolteachers who lead science classes did not major in that field. Just this month, Congress and President Bush enacted a law that authorizes doubling the program’s budget (The Chronicle, August 10).

In all, more than 150 universities and colleges are participating in the NSF-financed projects, which are expected to affect 141,500 schoolteachers.

However, Westat’s report pointed out that most of the universities leading these projects viewed that work by their faculty members as “outreach” or “service” when evaluating them for promotions. At most of those institutions, administrators and faculty members ranked those activities as far less important than research or teaching. “This presents a serious institutional problem,” the report says. “Some institutions specifically discourage junior faculty from participating in these activities so that they do not have to sacrifice time that could otherwise be spent on research. Continuing to define the work as ‘service’ perpetuates the general public impression that [universities] are intentionally disengaged from the most pressing needs of our society.”

The report elaborates on the motivations and tribulations of the science faculty members involved in the projects. The most common participants were mathematicians, biologists, and chemists, in that order. Despite — or perhaps because of — the lack of professional rewards, the participants were often highly motivated personally, the report says. Many volunteered because they had school-aged children or their spouses were schoolteachers.

Faculty members told the Westat evaluators that it took a special breed of professor to succeed in the projects. Especially important was a willingness to interact respectfully with schoolteachers who knew less about the subjects they taught than did their university counterparts. Teamwork was also vital because many of the projects included faculty members from the universities’ colleges of education, who reported being looked down upon and treated as “second class” by their scientist colleagues. Over all, the professors’ investment of time was substantial: 59 percent of the science professors surveyed said they spent more than 80 hours annually on the efforts, and 37 percent devoted more than 160.

The university participants reported working hard to bridge the cultural gap between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse. Some professors’ instruction for schoolteachers went far over their heads. The report quotes the leader of one partnership as saying that “STEM faculty are typically clueless. They don’t understand the content needs of K-12 teachers. They don’t know where to start.”

What is more, schoolteachers often expressed more interest in learning about effective techniques for teaching science than about its content. But, the report says, the professors frequently lacked experience and knowledge in effective pedagogy, which is not consistently taught in graduate school to future professors.

As a result, six of eight universities that Westat examined in detail as case studies have begun providing professional development to help faculty members function more effectively in the partnership activities. One principal investigator warned, “Do not turn them loose before any training.”

In some projects, professors redesigned college courses for undergraduates intending to teach science and math in schools and used the redesigned courses for the teachers. The professors reported that their schoolteacher partners helped them improve their own teaching and better understand the challenges of improving science teaching in schools. One environmental-engineering professor reported, “I