Bush Pushes Plan for New Math, Science Teachers

In his State of the Union address, President Bush offered a plan for creating positions for 70,000 new math and science teachers over the next five years. The U.S Education Department presents some of the details Wednesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Last night, President Bush made little mention of his signature No Child Left Behind education law. But he did propose, he said, to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced placement courses in math and science, and to bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in the classroom. It wasn't the first time that he's raised the idea, but the idea took on some urgency last fall when the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning that developing countries like China and India are winning the technology race.

Though the president offered few details, the U.S. Education Department held a briefing this afternoon to fill in some of the blanks. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has been following this and joins us now in our studio. Claudio, what's behind this proposal?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

This is a $380 million plan to improve the quality of math and science instruction and dramatically raise the number of math and science teachers by doing three things: expanding access to rigorous math and science courses, namely through the Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate Programs, and giving access to low income students by training 70,000 additional advanced math/science teachers over the next five years. These apparently would come from the existing pool of math and science teachers out there, who would be retrained to teach AP courses.

Now, it would also include creating a special teacher core made up of 30,000 math and science professionals over eight years to become adjunct high school teachers. And, finally, it would incorporate research-based, or what the administration calls research base classroom practices that target the lowest performing students and get them up to speed.

SIEGEL: Let's put this in some context. We contacted the College Board, which oversees the advanced placement tests and the courses as well, and they told us today that in all subjects, all advanced placement courses, there are about 132,000 teachers nowadays teaching at least one AP course. In math and the sciences, it's 32,000. So to train 70,000 to teach math or science AP courses, the president just suggested effectively tripling the number of teachers doing AP courses in high school in math and science.

SANCHEZ: That's an enormous or a huge undertaking, of course, and I don't think anybody's mincing words about how, to some degree, some have said how unrealistic this is. One of the problems here is the disparity in where these teachers are concentrated. The fact is that the wealthiest schools have access to as many as 20 AP courses, for example, with good teachers. The poorest schools often have no more than two to three teachers or courses to offer kids.

SIEGEL: But the way you described it, the Department of Education was describing this as broadening access to AP courses. That suggests that there are students coming out of whatever it would be, Advanced Algebra or something, knocking on the door of an AP classroom that isn't there in their school. Do we know if that's the case actually?

SANCHEZ: It is the case, and in fact something that touches on this is that there has been a very, very rapid expansion of AP courses precisely for this reason in the last few years. One of the concerns, in fact, is that this expansion has been so fast that it's watered down the standards, watered down the quality of instruction. Secretary Spellings today responded to that concern by saying that as far as she's concerned, these are still rigorous courses that do put kids on the right path to college.

SIEGEL: Yeah, there was a story about gaming the AP courses. You get a weighted grade if you take an AP course, so someone has reported on the phenomenon of kids taking them and then not taking the AP exam afterwards.

SANCHEZ: That's right. And that happens all the time.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Claudio. NPR's Claudio Sanchez talking with us about the president's proposal to increase math and science education in the high schools.

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