The key to maintaining US leadership in science and engineering may rest not primarily with universities’ science and engineering programmes but rather with their schools of education, experts have told Congress.
As the US continues on a path to becoming majority non-white, the substantially lower average levels of school performance among minority students, especially in the sciences and engineering, emerge as an increasingly critical barrier to better college-level performance and make the need for high-quality teaching ever more acute, education experts told a Capitol Hill hearing.
The solution, the experts said, centres on helping colleges improve their teacher training systems, largely by extending the periods of in-classroom coaching that are offered or arranged by schools of education.
“Learning to teach is a complex task that requires intensive school-based experiences,” Andrew P. Daire, dean of the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the US House of Representatives’ Education Committee.
Without plenty of such hands-on preparation, Dr Daire told lawmakers, teachers tend to leave their jobs because of factors such as poor performance and frustration. That failure, data show, is far more likely in the toughest subjects and in the schools serving the disadvantaged students who most need the help.
"We’ve put a lot of very inexperienced people into classrooms,” said Representative Donna Shalala, a Democrat from Florida who served previously as US health secretary, as president of the University of Miami, and as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Dr Daire and VCU are leading a programme in the public schools in Richmond, the capital of Virginia, that tries to fix that. The scheme includes providing aspiring teachers much longer periods of time working inside schools while completing their college studies. It also includes training a network of mentors, hired by the primary schools, who stay with new teachers for their first years on the job.
Among the results in Richmond: a retention rate for first-year teachers in 2017-18 of 96 per cent, compared with 62 per cent for those outside the programme. And 42 per cent of the participating teachers identified as under-represented minorities, compared with 13 per cent across Virginia and 25 per cent nationally.
Providing the additional classroom experience and on-the-job guidance can cost thousands of extra dollars per student, said Therese Dozier, an associate professor of teaching and learning at VCU who heads the university’s programme in the Richmond schools.
But a fuller accounting of costs might tell a different story, Dr Dozier said, citing estimates that each teacher who resigns from a school costs an average of $20,000 (£16,000) to replace.
A leading Democrat-written version of legislation to provide a comprehensive update of US higher education policy offers matching federal dollars for schools to adopt expanded teacher residency – putting teachers in classrooms for longer periods during training – and mentoring programmes. Despite signs of bipartisan agreement on the need, the future of the bill is uncertain in a divided Congress.
Beyond such questions of financing, Dr Dozier said, US colleges have much to learn about how best to implement effective residency programmes. VCU is one of a dozen post-secondary institutions financed by the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to identify best practice. Models being studied include both four- and five-year undergraduate programmes, and one- and two-year graduate programmes.
Whatever the specific model, US universities should embrace residency experiences as being as fundamental for new teachers as they are for new doctors, said Representative Mark Takano, a Democrat from California.
“I think I made a mistake in my early years of teaching,” said Mr Takano, a long-time public schoolteacher who specialised in British literature. “I thought just having a degree from an Ivy League school was enough to let me go and teach – that the content that I had in my brain was going to be enough.”