THE past few years have witnessed a flood of suggestions on how to improve math and science education - new curriculum, more ``hands-on'' learning, greater use of computers, longer school days, earlier involvement with minority kids, etc. But all these ideas - indeed, any education proposals - require an adequate supply of bright, innovative, well-educated teachers.
A good teacher succeeds against all odds; a bad teacher falls even in the best of school systems. A teacher can make the difference.
Yet federal education policy largely fails to acknowledge this fact. We are doing little to attract our top students into teaching.
Consider these statistics:
More than half the high school principals in a nationwide survey reported difficulty in hiring fully qualified science and math teachers - 72 percent couldn't find physics teachers.
Between 1972 and 1985, the number of newly prepared teachers declined by 60 percent.
Several studies predict huge teacher shortages because current teachers will be retiring in massive numbers as the baby boom's children come of age.
Many science and math teachers - more than one-third of these teachers in New York City, for example - are teaching in areas for which they were not certified.
The schools can no longer depend on a ``captive pool'' of bright women who were denied access to other careers.
A variety of steps are needed to overcome these problems, including higher salaries and more professional treatment of teachers.
But the federal government could play a major role by offering incentives to attract top students to teach right now. Federal involvement would focus nationwide attention on the need to increase the supply of teachers and could go a long way toward raising the status of the profession.
The federal government has not shied away from encouraging students to enter other fields. The National Science Foundation alone spends more than $70 million a year underwriting the costs of PhD training for scientists and engineers and subsidizing the research expenses of new faculty. The government also has provided scholarships to encourage doctors to practice in underserved areas. The ROTC also pays tuition.
But the science and math teachers needed to prepare these recipients of government incentives have been taken for granted. The federal government encourages top science and math students to go just about anywhere except back into the elementary and secondary school classroom to help prepare their successors.
We need those students teaching classes now more than ever. At a time when our economy is becoming more reliant on technical innovation, our high school students are scoring in the bottom ranks on international assessments of performance in science and math. Fewer students study those fields in college, and our graduate schools maintain their enrollments by accepting larger numbers of foreign nationals.
The time has come for the federal government to create the needed corps of new teachers. We have introduced a bill that would offer federal scholarships of $7,500 to top juniors and seniors in college who agree to teach at the pre-college level for two years in return for each year of aid.
An important feature of the bill requires that these students major in science, math, or engineering; we want students who show a keen interest in the material they will be teaching. The bill offers a third year of aid - with no additional obligation - for students who need education courses to be certified.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) would offer 500 of the awards a year in a national merit competition. The number is small, but so few students are going into teaching now that each awardee is likely to be one more teacher we would not otherwise have had.
We believe there are students out there now who would like to teach - at least for a few years - but who conclude that they would have to be crazy to do so. The status and pay are low, their loan obligations are high; the decision would not advance their careers.
This bill would alter those calculations. An NSF award confers prestige; the scholarship defrays costs. Even if these students teach only for four years, they will touch hundreds of students and infuse new excitement into the schools.
A letter to us from one student - a junior majoring in math - captured the issue well. ``I have long considered teaching a career I might be interested in,'' he wrote. ``It is always rather shocking and disturbing to me to see the tremendous amount of math illiteracy found in students today, and my work in tutoring students in math has convinced me that this problem is far more attributable to a lack of quality teaching than a lack of mathematical talent on the students' part.''
He goes on to say that math students can choose lucrative jobs that pay off college loans quickly.
Since Sputnik, the federal government has toyed or experimented with programs to encourage students to enter teaching, but it hasn't targeted dedicated students who would go into teaching only with the federal incentive.
No one would recommend setting up a school with students, textbooks, computers, but no teachers. With a teacher scholarship program, federal policy will no longer be at odds with that common-sense understanding.