Eugene Collins, Director of Natural Sciences and Math at Fisk University, credits a high school teacher with encouraging him to study science. So does Arthur Washington, who today serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Florida A&M University. Both share a concern, however, about where the high school science teachers for the next generation of African American students will come from. The School of Education at historically black Jackson State University in Mississippi, for example, has closed its science teaching program for lack of students.
Some African American students with an aptitude for science may be leaving teaching to pursue better paying and higher status careers in academia or business. Evelyn White, Dean of Jackson State’s Education School, believes educators must make a concerted effort to ensure that more of these students become teachers. "Somehow, we need to catch talented students at the middle school level and steer them into teaching."
Collins, Washington, and White were among some twenty-five educators and school administrators who met at EDC last month to see if creating alliances between local school districts and nearby colleges and universities, and between Schools of Education and Arts and Sciences within those universities, can improve science teaching. Convened by Judi Sandler, Barbara Berns, and Erica Fields of EDC’s Center for Science Education, and Joanne Brady and Wanda Ward of the Center for Children and Families, it brought educators from historically black colleges and local school districts together, in some cases for the first time. In the course of helping schools in rural and underserved districts throughout the country choose and implement standards-based science curricula, Sandler says, she and Berns saw a widespread "need for schools of education to be talking with local districts about teaching science."
Opportunities for closer collaboration exist on numerous levels. Schools of Education may prepare science teachers without reference to the state standards teachers will be expected to teach to. University science departments may miss opportunities to keep Ed School science educators current with scientific thinking and discoveries. Some education programs emphasize teaching methods at the expense of content, while Schools of Arts and Science may graduate students who would be willing to teach but lack the relevant skills or credentials. In other cases, teaching candidates fail state certification exams for lack of adequate preparation, and leave the field before entering it. New graduates who do teach science frequently find themselves without resources or community support.
In the area of Oklahoma near Langston University, however, ongoing communication between Langston faculty and local schools has paid off. Both NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) and state standards are cross-referenced in the Education School’s content courses, and 82% of Langston’s teaching candidates pass the state licensing exams.
So when educators from rural Mississippi sat down together at the conference, they discovered a world of common, yet unexplored concerns. Educators from Jackson State and Jackson, Mississippi, considered ways to involve administrators, academics, teacher educators, and school representatives in developing a communication plan for science education. Talking together for the first time, Alcorn State University educators and local school district representatives discussed how incentives such as scholarships, guaranteed internships, and vouchers could serve to attract potential science teachers; ASU’s science faculty looked at ways to mentor science education students. The Oklahoma educators hope to extend their already successful collaborations to include new districts, and to lobby for increased science requirements for elementary teachers.
Educators from FAMU and Gasden County, Florida talked about doing a three-year follow-up study of all their science education graduates. They also hope to provide new teachers with mentors and to establish a council of graduates, master teachers, and community members to advise FAMU on science education. Dean Washington declared he would take personal responsibility for getting Arts and Science faculty involved in science education.
Science teachers need a solid science background, asserted Eugene Collins, "but we also need to stop segregating out teaching students and ensure that every science student be trained to teach. They still need to be able to communicate what they’re doing," he said, whether they go into research or business. Or teaching.
Conference participants are planning a January 2002 meeting in Atlanta, to be facilitated by EDC, to form a consortium and develop a proposal for the group as a whole.
Originally published on September 1, 2001