Maryland Wins Federal Education Grants on Pledge to Teach the Teachers

Science Classroom

Science Classroom  ((c) John Coletti)

Maryland public schools won $250 million from President Obama's Race to the Top education initiative in 2010, but are now faced with the challenge of preparing teachers as well as students for a new science-oriented curriculum.

The state's application promised huge advances in science, technology, engineering and math education -- called STEM -- including having a STEM-certified teacher in every school and partnering with Maryland's technology-oriented companies, like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., to help students see the potential in science-based jobs.

But top school officials acknowledge that many of Maryland's elementary school teachers lack both the subject-area education and the confidence to meet the state's high goals. In these elementary schools, where teachers are mostly female and have traditionally shied away from teaching math and science, the Department of Education is investing in professional development programs to ensure that Maryland's students can continue to contribute to the state's knowledge-based economy.

"I think we haven't started early enough (with STEM education), and I have to say this, even though I'm a woman. Many women say, 'Math isn't for me, I'm good in reading,'" said State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick at a January briefing before the Maryland Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"I think if you go into a lot of our classrooms, and this isn't an indictment, but there's much more time spent on reading than there is on math and science, and the largest complement of elementary school teachers are women who say 'I'm not confident.' I've had a lot of teachers say that to me," Grasmick said.

Veteran teacher and Democratic state Sen. Joanne C. Benson said professional development is key.

"We are assuming that teachers who go into classrooms are experts in all of the fields. ... That is not necessarily the case," said Benson. "Professional development is very, very urgent because we have teachers who are very anxious to do a wonderful job ... teachers do not want to see their students fail."

Under the Race to the Top professional development plan, professional development for teachers will last for three years and include adding at least three teachers in each Maryland school who are fully certified to teach the STEM curriculum.

"There will be in every school, which there isn't now, someone who is devoted to STEM curriculum and STEM instruction, that's a huge staff development initiative," said Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent of instruction.

But incorporating STEM curriculum into the classrooms will be a challenge, not only for ill-equipped faculty but in encouraging student participation. Research from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching found that girls expressed less confidence in their science abilities than reading abilities as early as fourth grade.

Transitioning teachers who do not have as much specific subject-area knowledge from elementary schools to secondary schools is additional cause for concern, and is the subject of an ongoing debate in the education community. 

Chad Kramer, principal at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore and a 17-year veteran of the Baltimore City Public Schools, said he's seen many elementary school teachers who've turned out to be great science teachers with the right professional development training.

And he's seen high school teachers who had the subject-area knowledge to teach biology, but just weren't effective.

"We have to ask ourselves, do we increase those standards for how we select teachers and change the requirements? I think the jury's still out on that. ... Content knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to high quality instruction," Kramer said.

Dr. James Foran, the department of education's project manager for the Race to the Top grant, agrees that the difference in teacher education should be looked at when determining professional development needs.

"It's a policy discussion that the state board should engage in," Foran said. The debate, Foran said, comes down to ideology.

"Some say in elementary we teach kids, in secondary schools we teach the subjects. Do we want to give up the closeness (between elementary teachers and their students) for subject matter expertise? It's different in each jurisdiction and there's a lot of variation of opinion on the topic," Foran said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.