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Al Dorof, Editor


Teaching Science at Public High Schools

Teaching in the United States can be described as a "revolving door" profession, with a relatively high turnover rate compared with most other occupations especially during the first five years of a teacher's career, when job dissatisfaction drives as many as 39 percent from the profession altogether, according to Richard Ingersoll, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

On the basis of research he conducted over more than a decade, Ingersoll identified four factors, in particular, that account for the high turnover rates: low salaries, lack of support from administration, student discipline issues and lack of teacher input into decision-making. Five Bryn Mawr alumnae who teach science or math in public secondary schools cite most of these issues, and others, as challenges in their careers. Yet all of these teachers scientists and mathematicians who could use their knowledge and skills in a wide range of careers have passed the critical five-year anniversary without bolting for the door.

In fact, they will tell you they can't imagine doing anything else.


Louise B. Jasko
Louise B. Jasko '78

Louise B. Jasko '78 has been a biology teacher at East Brunswick High School, N.J., for six years. The school district hired her, in part, to initiate a new advanced placement (AP) course in course in environmental science. This will be Jasko's third year teaching this course.

"The first thing I do is take them out to the school parking lot," Jasko says. "I'll say, 'Look around. You'll notice there are a lot of plants growing up through the cracks. I want you to devise an experiment to explain the distribution of these plants. Have fun!'

"Most students have never had to devise their own experiment, so this is a complete shock," she explains. "They will fuss around and say, 'There is no way!' Then they will begin to observe the variables."

Jasko, who, has taught in public schools for 12 years altogether, observes, "For students today, technology is their life, and if you put them in front of the computer, they're happy. But they have less real-life experience they don't go out and play and little knowledge of living things. These things are the foundation for understanding in biology."

Teaching students who lack this foundation is a challenge, especially as the curriculum has expanded, Jasko says. "I am teaching to high school seniors what I was learning as a junior at Bryn Mawr for example, genetics and these are not AP students," she says. "But they still need to know the basics, such as how their own body works. So there is a lot of pressure to fit in everything. Every year, we consider what we can cut in order to add more of the new."

The hands-on work that Jasko favors is expensive. "In some subjects, such as bioengineering, it may cost $150 to do one lab, and you have to justify that."

In fact, Jasko says, "Funding is a contentious issue in New Jersey, where public schools are funded by property taxes. Science is expensive. My school is known for its strong science curriculum and is very supportive, but still has to deal with the reality of the budget. So we put things through a wringer.

"Textbooks are not really a problem," Jasko continues, "but we have increasing enrollment my school graduated 700 seniors in 2006 so each year the budget gets tighter."

As a result, Jasko says, teachers personally fund their classes. "The National Education Association estimates that teachers annually spend $500 of their own money on classroom supplies," she says. "One time I bought chicken wings at the supermarket for a dissection lab, and the kids were amazed."

Class Size

Lisa B. Ryder
Lisa B. Ryder '91

Increasing enrollments and tight budgets have other effects. "One of the biggest issues we face in our district is class size," says Lisa B. Ryder '91, a mathematics teacher at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "Our typical class size is 38, and it can go up to 42. It is shocking to me. I run labs in my room, and it is very difficult. I am constantly walking around and trying to motivate my students to stay on task." (More than a decade ago, California already had the highest class size in the country, with an average of 29.7 students in its secondary-school classrooms compared with a national average of 23.6, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 1993-94 schools and staffing survey.)

The pedagogical challenges associated with large class sizes are among the many pressures on a teacher who has high educational standards. "I work in an affluent school district, and there is a lot of pressure on kids to go to college," Ryder says. "Kids are very worried about their grade-point averages, and this creates a huge challenge for teachers today.

"If you are a teacher who gives 'too many' Cs, Ds and Fs, you are definitely going to hear about it from the students and their parents," Ryder continues. "Sometimes I think they are more concerned about the grade than actually learning something. It's hard to hold your standards high without support from your administration."

Aging Facilities

Stephanie H. Goellner
Stephanie H. Goellner '93

Stephanie H. Goellner '93, a physics teacher at Milby High School in Houston, has firsthand experience of lack of support from school administration. Her "worst year" of teaching was spent in an affluent school in Baltimore.

"I had everything I needed. I also had students whose attitude was, 'I dare you to teach me,'" she recalls. "There was an elitist attitude. The kids were driving BMWs and Mercedes, and I'd arrive at school in my Saturn. A lot of the kids already seemed disillusioned. The spark wasn't there."

Goellner's administration was critical and unsupportive despite her students' 90-percent pass rate on the county's standardized final test. As a result, she took a year off to consider other careers, but hated the market-research job she landed. She applied to a number of schools and accepted a position at Milby, a 90-percent Hispanic science magnet school of 2,300 students in the Houston Independent School District.

"The neighborhood here is economically stressed and the school, which was built in 1926, reflects its age," says Goellner, who teaches pre-AP and AP physics and AP chemistry. "For example, if I plug three things at once into my classroom's electrical outlet, I blow the circuit for my room, as well as all the security cameras on campus. Four chemistry classrooms use gases, but only one has functional safety equipment."

While textbooks are provided by the state, equipment and supplies often are in short supply. "Equipment purchases are a building-level decision, and science equipment is not always a priority," Goellner says. "It reflects the bureaucracy that is killing the American education system: getting equipment and supplies is controlled by somebody holding the power, but the teachers who see the day-to-day needs don't necessarily have input."

As in Ryder's district, class size is an issue. "When I taught freshman physical science, I had two classes of 40 students each," Goellner says. "We pleaded for biology labs to be under 25 students because the National Science Foundation recommends that limit for safety reasons. But freshman and sophomore classes routinely exceed that number."

Nevertheless, Goellner feels valued by her school and students. "Milby is not used to having teachers of my caliber. Many teachers in schools at lower economic levels aren't as qualified. They don't have master's degrees in their subject, as I do. The administration values my educational background. And more of the kids are here to learn."

The school encourages its students to go on to college. "They have the opportunity to do some college-level work in our AP courses before they set foot on campus, but the hold-back has been that Hispanic students do not perform as well on the AP exams.

"I think the reason is their poor language skills, and there are data to support that," Goellner reasons. "The Stanford 10 test shows that these students perform on grade level for math, social studies and science, but their English performance is one or two grade levels behind."

To boost AP scores, the school district applied to Dallas-based AP Strategies for a grant funded by Dell Corp., which provides schools with science equipment, intensive review sessions and practice AP exams. Milby is one of four schools that received a grant.

Gender Gap

Girls, too, lag in their performance on the AP exams. "For example, in the 2000 New Jersey AP chemistry exam, the mean score for girls was 2.97 and for boys it was 3.41," Jasko says. "In environmental science, it was 2.78 for girls and 2.95 for boys. And even though more girls than boys take AP courses, their overall score is lower: 3.19 versus 3.36.

"We don't know why girls do not do as well or pursue the advanced classes," Jasko says. According to the U.S. Department of Education, girls make up only a third of AP physics classes and only 15 percent of AP computer science classes.

Jennifer Lynn Gramble
Jennifer Lynn Gramble '97

Several of the teachers have observed differences in classroom behavior, as well. Jennifer Lynn Gramble '97, who teaches general and AP biology, genetics and human anatomy for which she developed the curriculum at Haddon Heights High School in N.J., has observed, "In general biology, the boys are louder, more confident and don't normally care if they give the wrong answer to a question, so they have no problem raising their hands. However, the girls don't like to be wrong, and they tend to be more timid about raising their hands to answer questions."

Gramble's solution? "If I ask a question and only the boys raise their hands, I'll call them on it. I'll say, 'What, not a single girl knows the answer?' You'd be surprised how fast they raise their hands, and they usually do know the answer."

"I'm sure I do this because I went to Bryn Mawr," Gramble adds, with a laugh.

After 10th grade, Gramble says, the gender issue generally is not as acute. "The girls come into their own," she says. "For example, in my anatomy and genetics classes last year, the majority was female."

Ryder has observed the same trend in her math classes. "In my freshman-level honors geometry class, the genders are equal in many ways: in their level of striving, in the questions they ask and in the extent to which they are disruptive," she says. "But in the next level down, I hear from the girls, 'Oh, I'm just not good in math,' and they are more likely to let the boys answer questions. Yet if I look at their grades, the girls do as well, if not slightly better than, the boys."

In several of these schools, women are now in the majority in a number of math and science departments. "I think there are more role models for girls today," Ryder says.

Global Achievement

There is also a well-documented achievement gap between students in the United States and those in other industrialized nations with respect to math and science.

In a 2003 study of math and science literacy in 29 countries conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 15 -year-old U.S. students lagged behind their peers from all but five countries.

Eighth-graders in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Estonia and Hungary outperformed U.S. eighth-graders in math and science in 2003, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which compared results from 46 countries. This was the third comparison of mathematics and science achievement carried out since 1995 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

The "good news" is that U.S. eighth-graders improved their average performance in mathematics and science in 2003 compared to 1995. Moreover, notes the TIMSS study, the data suggest that their performance was higher in 2003 than it was in 1995 relative to the 21 other countries that participated in the studies.

Martha H. Bailey
Martha H. Bailey '95

What's the problem? "We don't make it very interesting, we don't challenge students enough and we don't do enough hands-on labs," observes Martha H. Bailey '95, who teaches general and organic chemistry at Westfield High School in New Jersey. "Kids are naturally curious, but I think we 'stomp' on that by throwing so much content at them, which they have to memorize."

Ryder says standards-based curricula overload both teachers and students. "Sometimes it is an outrageous amount to cover," she says. "We may have one or two days to cover a topic, and then we have to move on. We can't get past the surface, and that doesn't always stick with kids. But if you look at Japan's math and science curricula, for example, they have a lot less to cover, so they are able to take a topic and look at it from many points of view."

Goellner agrees. "In the United States, students take biology for a year, chemistry for a year and physical science for a year it is very departmentalized," she says. "In other countries, they teach a little of each of these disciplines every year. It is more of a thematic approach. If the topic is energy, for example, they will teach the concept from biology, chemistry and physical-science perspectives."

Results of another study support these views. A 1999 TIMSS Video Study of eighth-grade science teaching in Australia, the Czech Republic, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States suggested, for example, that "Japanese eighth-grade science lessons typically focused on developing a few physics and chemistry ideas by making connections between ideas and evidence through an inquiry-oriented, inductive approach in which data were collected and interpreted to build up to a main idea or conclusion; in Australia, lessons tended to focus on developing a limited number of ideas by making connections between ideas and evidence; and, in the United States, eighth-grade science lessons were characterized by a variety of activities that may engage students in doing science work, with less focus on connecting these activities to the development of science content ideas."

Bailey and other alumnae featured here emphasize hands-on experience and the development of students' understanding of the scientific method. "Rather than having students memorize information, such as the Periodic Table, I want them to be more like scientists to understand that this is a tool to be used," she says. "I want them to experience the process of science: how you can make observations, collect data and draw conclusions."

But Jasko says there are other factors at work. "While we have very motivated students, we also have the vast majority that is just not that motivated," she observes. "What motivates them is how they can make a lot of money when they finish school, and science is just not an obvious way to do it. So most of them say they can be a salesman right out of college and make a lot of money."

Moreover, Jasko maintains, "Scientific careers in other countries are a ticket to immigrate to the United States. I had a student who placed third in New Jersey in an intense science competition. I was thrilled for her, but her parents, who had emigrated from Taiwan, were devastated. They said they got here by being first, and third was not good enough."

Rich Rewards

Despite the myriad challenges of teaching math and science in public high schools, the teachers say they can't imagine doing anything else.

"There are a lot of opportunities for mathematicians and scientists," Ryder acknowledges. "But I can't think of anything I'd rather do than teach. I love math and science, I like being with people, I enjoy the autonomy you have as a teacher and I enjoy teenagers. The grown-ups of the world are what make teaching difficult, not the kids. If you can go into your classroom, shut the door and tune out everything else, then it is fine. It's a great job."

Gramble can't get enough of teaching, it seems. Over the summer, she taught classes in zoology, veterinary science, basic biology, bioengineering and gene splicing at the Bryn Mawr Summer Institute for the Gifted, a three-week residential program of academic, performance and athletics classes for grades 4 to 11. "I love to teach children," she says. "I think they're fun. I think they're great. I love the idea of molding them into young adults and making an impression. And there is no greater joy than when you have a child who has been confused, and suddenly the 'light bulb' goes on and they get it. I love my job."

Jasko is reminded of the rewards of teaching every time she opens her grade book and sees the little slip of paper she taped inside. "One of my honors students told me, 'Mrs. Jasko, I went to a Chinese restaurant, and my fortune cookie reminded me of you: Anyone can memorize; the important thing is to understand.' I was thrilled that she heard my voice in that fortune cookie."

And Goellner, who considered giving up teaching, says, "When I stepped back into the classroom, it was like putting on the most comfortable jeans I own."

About Our Sources

Martha H. Bailey '95 teaches general and organic chemistry at Westfield High School in New Jersey, where she also has served as a swim coach. Bailey earned a Master of Education in Teaching and Curriculum from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Early in her career, she spent a summer as a research assistant in organic synthesis at Merck and Co., Inc., Rahway, N.J.

Stephanie H. Goellner '93 teaches pre-AP and AP physics, as well as AP chemistry, at Milby High School in Houston. Goellner earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Science in Physics from West Virginia University. She was honored with the Houston Independent School District's 2006 Elizabeth Brand Memorial Teacher Award and recognized as 2006 Milby High School Teacher of the Year. She has been elected to Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honor society.

Jennifer L. Gramble '97 teaches general and AP biology, genetics and human anatomy at Haddon Heights High School in N.J. She is co-adviser of the National Honor Society at her school and a judge for high school gymnastics. Gramble earned a Master of Science in Education from St. Joseph's University.

Louise B. Jasko '78 teaches general biology, honors and college-prep biology, AP biology and AP environmental science at East Brunswick High School, N.J . She coaches its Science Olympiad Team, which is one of the top teams in the state. She was featured in an episode of "Classroom Connect," a television program highlighting interesting and innovative classroom activities, which is produced by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). She is a member of NJEA, the National Education Association and the New Jersey Science Teacher's Association. Jasko earned a Master of Life Sciences online from University of Maryland.

Lisa B. Ryder '91 teaches discrete math, geometry, honors geometry and multimedia information at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Ryder earned a Master of Education from Stanford University. She is a Department of Energy Teacher Research Associate. Ryder has been honored as Ventura County Math Council Outstanding Math Educator of the Year and Westlake High School ASG Teacher of the Month. She has also served as a moderator for the California Scholarship Federation.

Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.