Transform teacher education

In his State of the Union Address last week, President Barack Obama pledged to help American schools recruit and train 100,000 new science and math teachers over the next 10 years.

But he left out the scientists and the mathematicians. Also the economists, the anthropologists, the political scientists and the historians.

That’s a big problem, for all of us. Since the 1980s, scholars in the academic disciplines have largely ceded k-12 schooling to professors of education. If we’re serious about improving our schools, we need to bring the disciplines back in.

As a professor with one foot in each camp — a disciplinary department and an education school — I’m acutely aware of the divide between them. People in the disciplines generally dismiss education, and the education professors disdain the disciplines. It’s mutual.

It’s also destructive. Too many ed schools still work on the myth that you can teach students “methods” of education, without rigorous attention to the disciplines that they will be instructing. And most disciplinary scholars still think that anyone who understands a subject can teach it.

They’re both wrong. We’ve all had teachers who didn’t know enough about their subject to instruct it well. And we’ve also had teachers who knew their material backward and forward, but couldn’t communicate it to others.

So besides helping schools hire new teachers in science, math and engineering, as Obama promised, he should also establish special incentives for collaboration between education schools and all the disciplines.

And here we might learn from the burst of intellectual energy that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth. Panicked by the specter of Soviet technological and military superiority, the federal government plowed money into basic research and education in the sciences.

But it also lured scientists themselves into k-12 schooling, where they spearheaded a pedagogical revolution.

Consider the Physical Sciences Study Committee, funded by $6 million from the National Science Foundation. Led by Jerrold Zacharias, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the committee brought together practicing scientists to reform high school physics instruction.

Producing four textbooks and teacher manuals, the committee presented physics not as a “mere body of facts” but as “a continuing process by which men seek to understand the nature of the physical world,” as the first textbook explained.

Likewise, the National Science Foundation-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study galvanized practicing biologists around k-12 instruction. Under the direction of Bentley Glass, a Johns Hopkins geneticist, the biology study produced three new texts that emphasized “investigative processes” over “authoritative content.”

The National Science Foundation also funded new curriculum projects in math, chemistry, earth sciences and more. By 1977, nearly two-thirds of American school districts had adopted at least one of these programs.

At one point, 19 million students were enrolled in a course that drew upon a foundation curriculum.

I was one of them. In 1973, when I was in the seventh grade, my science teacher used the NSF-funded Introductory to Physical Sciences program. I still remember it, because it was the best science course I ever took. In weekly laboratory experiments, I explored volume, mass, solubility and other basic concepts. And that, too, was thanks to the scientists who took breaks from their own labs to develop the curriculum.

It was also thanks to my teacher, who was extraordinarily skilled.

Not all teachers had the ability or the knowledge that he did; indeed, many of them hadn’t studied the science they taught. As late as 2004, the National Science Foundation reported, only one-third of physical science teachers in American middle schools had a major or certification in a physical science.

So it won’t be enough just to revise our curricula, like we did when I was a kid. Instead, we need scholars from the academic disciplines to work with education schools to transform the entire way that we prepare the next generation of teachers. In my own field of history, for example, too many high school teachers still present history as “the facts” instead of a sustained inquiry and argument about them.

That’s because they haven’t been exposed to the essential inquiry and practice of the discipline. I couldn’t teach you chemistry, and it’s not because I don’t know enough about teaching. I don’t know enough about chemistry: how it generates questions, what counts as an answer, and what’s left to know.

So by all means, let’s invest more federal dollars in education.

But we should do so in a way that brings disciplinary scholars into closer cooperation with the people who write our curricula and train our teachers.

On Tuesday, Obama said we’re at a “Sputnik moment,” and he’s exactly right.

Let’s seize the moment to get it right this time.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”