EDUCATORS have warned of a growing shortage of science teachers in the nation's public schools for several years. Science teachers are leaving or retiring just as the need for economic ``competitiveness'' in science is increasing, they assert.
Students aren't gaining a knowledge of scientific method: theory (hypothesis, deduction, error analysis) and application (laws of mechanics, chemistry, heat), they say.
In a recent poll, 72 percent of school principals had trouble finding physics teachers, compared with 6 percent for social studies.
But the issue is complex and may have more to do with a shortage of training than a shortage of teachers. For one thing, studies show a surplus of biology and life science teachers in the United States. The problems are in the physical sciences - chemistry and physics. The difficulties seem to be in the preparation and qualification of these science teachers, more than in their numbers.
``The problems in science are both better and worse than we thought,'' says Iris Weiss of Horizon Inc., a research firm in Chapel Hill, N.C., that has done an extensive survey of science teachers.
Better: because, with an average science teacher age of 40, few are about to retire. Worse: because there is evidence of widespread teaching out of field, and lack of subject background among teachers. (Unlike math teachers, who can teach algebra, geometry, and trig, science teachers stick to one or two subjects - earth sciences, or biology, or physics.)
In new and unpublished figures the Monitor obtained from Ms. Weiss, 7 percent of the biology, chemistry, and physics teachers were ``clearly unqualified'' to teach.
These statistics are based on a modification of the National Science Teachers Association minimum college requirements for teaching science. NSTA standards require 15 courses in science - 8 in the subject field. Weiss's figures are based on 11 courses, 6 in the subject. (NSTA requirements are high, many experts say.)
Furthermore, while 78 percent of the biology teachers met the modified requirements, only 68 percent of the chemistry teachers did, and less than half (45 percent) of the physics teachers.
``The number of teachers out there who need in-service training is enormous,'' says Weiss, who also found that nearly all 77,000 US high school science teachers teach out of field - many in three or four subjects.
A study by Gerald Skoog (at Texas Tech) of 320 Texas high schools found that 30 percent of the physics teachers had never taken a course in physics; half the earth science teachers never had a geology class.
A 1986 NSTA study of 8,000 schools found that while physics teachers taught a full load of courses (five to six), 80 percent were not physics - but ranged from math to business to meteorology.
Bill Aldrich, president of NSTA, says school reforms have exacerbated the problem. Florida now requires three courses, not one, in high school science.
As a result, class size can grow to 60 students. This lengthens lecture time, and cuts down on lab time - where the most important science learning takes place.
New teachers are often drafted from junior high - creating spot shortages and misassignments there.
In California, a history teacher can legally teach astronomy - because local union bargaining contracts in that state allow certified teachers to teach any subject. ``One could look at the data and say there's no shortage,'' says Tom Sachse of the California Department of Education. ``But that's not true. We've got a lot of science teachers who aren't qualified, and who aren't updated.''
The usual course sequence is biology, chemistry, physics: Sixty percent of US students take biology; 30 percent, chemistry; 15 percent, physics.
The quality of science teaching will receive further attention next year, when results from a new international science comparison are released - showing that the US ranks ninth out of 10 nations. In chemistry, British students scored 73 percent; Japanese, 62 percent; and US, 41 percent, in a representative sample.
``Our best students no longer compete with the best students in other countries,'' Dr. Aldrich says.
``Five years ago we said that by 1995, the US should have the finest science program in the world. Brother, we aren't going to make it,'' says Willard Jacobsen of Teachers College, at Columbia, the study coordinator.
But many critics say the problem is political. Harvey Averch of the National Science Foundation says Washington science education lobby groups reflect a ``crisis mentality'' - much sound and fury, signifying an often confused and possibly fallacious analysis. The ``competitiveness'' problem goes much deeper than requiring a few more courses or in-service training, he says.
Richard Clark, who monitors Minnesota science teachers, says, ``There's a lot of quality science teaching out there. I don't think there's a dramatic problem.''
Even ``the pipeline problem'' - the reported shortages of graduating science teachers - may be changing; 19 physics teachers graduated in Iowa in 1970; only two graduated in '79 and '80; but 14 graduated last year.
The overall predicted teacher shortage (1 million by 1995) in which science and math teachers are said to figure heavily may also need re-analyzing due to steep salary raises (from a $17,300 average in '82 to $26,100 in '86). In Los Angeles, starting salaries of $20,000 have turned the teacher bust into a boom. In a dozen major cities, half the new teachers this year had taught before.