THIRTY miles west of inner-city Chicago, in the striking office tower of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory that rises above a large spread of preserved Illinois prairie, Nobel Laureate Leon M. Lederman is talking about public education. ``I call it the longest 30 miles,'' he says. ``Here we are in the affluent suburbs of Chicago where some of these schools spend five, six, seven thousand dollars a student. ... Then you go 30 miles, through one toll, into the city of Chicago and the birds definitely don't chirp. [There are] all the problems of the inner-city school. There's no family support. The kids may be hungry.
``I don't know how to fix the family. I don't know how to fix the roads, how to fix the buildings. But maybe we can do something for the teachers,'' he says.
This week, federal and local officials could announce their intention to carry out Dr. Lederman's idea: an academy for math and science teachers in Chicago's public schools. The academy is expected to serve as a national model, demonstrating not only how to improve math and science education but also how to bring inner-city students into the sciences and help solve the looming shortage of scientists and engineers in the United States.
``It's the right thing to do,'' says Lederman, who was director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for 10 years.
And a broad array of key figures seem to agree. US Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins has indicated that his department would help fund the project. He is trying to convince other federal agencies, especially the Education Department and the National Science Foundation, to contribute as well. Two federal laboratories, Lederman's Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, are ready to donate their resources and facilities. Several area colleges and universities, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, new school superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough, local businessmen, school reformers, and the Chicago Teachers Union have also indicated their support.
``It's a grand experiment and if it works, it's going to be copied everywhere,'' says Peggy Dufour, special assistant to Secretary Watkins. It was Watkins, a retired admiral, who sparked the idea of an academy by asking Lederman and Argonne director Alan Schriesheim how they could help Chicago's public schools.
Lederman hopes to launch the program in September. By 1992, he estimates $35 million a year will be needed, mostly federal money. The bulk of the funds will go to pay teachers' salaries while they attend the academy.
As currently envisioned, the academy would train annually some 1,500 experienced teachers and 500 new ones in the latest techniques in math and science instruction. New teachers would be trained first and, after a period of team teaching with experienced teachers, they would relieve them in the classroom while the experienced teachers took the 10-week course.
The idea of a teacher academy is not new. Pittsburgh started an innovative eight-week training program for all its high-school teachers in 1983 and found improved teacher morale, professionalism, and even higher student test scores.
But the sheer size of the Chicago system makes this an incredible effort. The system has some 410,000 students - 10 times the size of Pittsburgh - and an estimated 15,000 teachers who are involved in math or science instruction. This includes virtually all elementary school teachers as well as those specializing in secondary-school math and science.
THE Chicago academy idea comes at an important time for the city and the nation.
Locally, the schools are enmeshed in one of the most far-reaching education reform efforts ever attempted. The school system was called the worst in the country by President Reagan's Education Secretary William Bennett. The Chicago Board of Education has decentralized its large bureaucracy and pushed authority into the hands of newly created local school councils made up of parents, teachers, and community activists. The idea is to get neighborhoods directly involved in improving the education of their children.
School reform may help new ideas, such as the academy, take hold in the community. Several prominent businessmen have thrown their support behind the academy for a different reason. They are increasingly worried about shortages of technical talent.
Only about 7 percent of US college graduates are engineers (in Japan, the figure is closer to 22 percent). And that will not be enough to keep up with the expected demand. According to some estimates, the US will fall short of 45,000 scientists and engineers by 1996; by the year 2000, the country might be short as many as 275,000 engineers and 400,000 scientists.
And it's not just business that will need this technical talent. Schools themselves see a difficult squeeze as the current crop of math and science teachers retire.
``It's a national problem,'' says Mary Nalbandian, director of science for the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago's squeeze is typical. Its 550 high-school science teachers are in their mid- to upper-40s, on average; in chemistry and physics, the average age is 53 or 54, she says. ``And we don't have people in the pipeline to replace them.''
The solution to the shortfall, according to a wide range of experts, is to attract more women and minorities into math, science, and engineering. The proposed Chicago academy can play a vital role here, Lederman says, serving as a proving ground for new math and science teaching techniques aimed at these students.
For example, the University of Illinois at Chicago is developing a pilot program with Chicago Public Schools to improve the math achievement of minority students. The academy could facilitate and expand the program. In fact, the academy proposal comes at a time when education experts are reaching some conclusions about how best to revise science and math teaching in elementary and secondary schools.
In science education, ``there's a lot of consensus that we have to have students explore fewer concepts in more depth,'' says Kathleen Roth, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in Lansing. That means a move away from traditional textbook learning.
But many teachers were textbook-trained themselves and are not ready for the change in emphasis. In February 1988, her colleague Perry Lanier began working with four Toledo, Ohio, junior-high math teachers whose peers had picked them as excellent instructors. Yet, after a few months learning the new education techniques, even these teachers had to admit they had been traditional in their approach, he says.
If these excellent math teachers faced problems in innovative education, then the outlook for Chicago Public Schools may appear overwhelming. But early indications are that the openness to new ideas engendered by school reform may overcome resistance from teachers.
``I don't consider it a threat,'' says Betty Baker, a participant of the academy workshop who is a math teacher at Bogan High School on the city's southwest side. ``I think it's a great idea whose time has come - especially with the caliber of the people behind this thing.''
``We feel we have wonderful teachers but some of them are not really prepared to teach science,'' adds Diana Sheffer, workshop participant and technical assistant for education reform for the Chicago Teachers Union.
Crucial to the plan is follow-up. Half the academy's 80 instructors would be permanently in the field, helping teachers implement in their classroom what they had already learned.