The goal of the newly announced Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Master Teacher Corp is to improve the quality of instruction, and thereby drive student achievement in subjects where American students have lagged behind their international peers. The preliminary plans, laid out by President Barack Obama, call for an inaugural master teacher class of 2,500 teachers from around the country who will be stationed in each of the 50 states and use government-provided resources to help mentor other instructors.
Although improving the quality of STEM instruction is a concern for all educators and advocates, some are wondering if the Master Teacher Corp is the solution to this problem. The main concern that hasn’t yet been addressed is the criteria that will be used to determine which teachers are qualified to serve in the corps. The criteria for selection weren’t released at the time of the program’s announcement, and the makeup of the panel that will be choosing the teachers is also a mystery. There are some early indications that student test scores will serve as one of the main determinants of teacher quality.
Joanna Manaster, writing for the Discover Magazine blog, says that while the selection criteria remain in flux, mathematicians, scientists and engineers should take the opportunity to weigh in on what they believe makes a good STEM teacher.
Because the specifics of the program are not yet fully laid out, there’s still an opportunity for scientists, engineers, educators, and parents to speak up and insist that the science taught in schools be meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry as opposed to memorization, drill, and lecture. Ideally, teachers chosen for this honor (and the substantial stipend that accompanies it) must be able to guide students to become masters of inquiry-based, hands-on science. What would a learning environment at the hands of such a master teacher look like?
To Manaster, a teacher who spends his or her time allowing students to participate in hands-on scientific inquiry, be it in a chemistry lab or on a nature hike studying the local flora and fauna, should be considered a superior teacher to the one who keeps the class in their seats at all times while drilling them for the end-of-the-year subject exam. Manaster cites the influence of early 20th-century education advocate John Dewey to explain the value of hands-on experimentation to create enthusiasm for science:
John Dewey wrote in a 1910 issue of Science [PDF] that children “weren’t flocking to the sciences because science has been taught as the accumulation of material with which they are to become familiar.” He went on to suggest, as research tells us today, that students need active, hands-on engagement to gain a thorough understanding. Decades of research corroborate Dewey’s statement, summarized in the National Science Teachers Association position statement on inquiry learning, the National Science Education Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (still in development).