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Backing Science Teachers

October 13, 2002

The National Science Foundation has awarded multimillion-dollar grants to two universities in Orange County, and for the most heartening of projects. Recognizing that without future scientists there can be no great science, NSF is giving the grants to train public-school teachers in the instruction of math and science.

The $14.2 million going to UC Irvine is the biggest NSF grant ever at the research university, which is known for its science departments. But this money isn't going for lab research; instead, it will fund after-school and Saturday lessons for teachers of math and science. These preschool through high school teachers face the daily challenge of tutoring youngsters in Compton, Santa Ana and western Costa Mesa, where many children are poor or know scant English.

Cal State Fullerton professor David Pagni won the largest grant ever for that school, nearly $6.5 million, to show teachers how to guide young students into and through advanced math classes. The money, which also will pay for research to find out what methods of instruction work best, will be aimed at four Orange County high schools and their feeder middle schools.

The grants signal the federal government's seriousness about the importance of well-trained teachers in every classroom, especially in inner-city schools, where they have been in shorter supply.

A Carnegie Corp. report last month made it clear that there's little use in raising standards or reducing class sizes without a corps of well-trained and well-treated teachers.

"The quality of teaching is the single most important factor influencing student achievement," the report says. "Pupils assigned to a good teacher can learn a full grade level more than students assigned to an ineffective teacher."

In other words, put motivated, well-educated teachers into failing inner-city schools and watch the dramatic improvements in what those children learn.

By training teachers who already work in impoverished schools, the UCI grant makes that educational vision a little more realistic for the school districts it will touch. The NSF grants also align with other major recommendations in the Carnegie report.

"Right now, teachers work all alone in their classrooms," the report says. "They get no coaching, no feedback and no time to hone their skills."

That helps explain why 29% of teachers leave the profession within three years of starting, overwhelmed and exhausted.

The two newly funded projects will tackle exactly that problem by giving teachers ongoing support and helpful ideas in addition to greater skills. And it helps answer the call of the Carnegie report for schools of education to get more directly involved in public schools by providing ongoing "residency" training and studying which teaching methods work.

It's a good start that should pay nearly immediate benefits. And because of their proximity to the universities, Orange County schools will reap most of the benefit.

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