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Online Math, Science Training for Teachers


Increasing the number of qualified math and science teachers in U.S. schools is a concern not just for school systems, but for businesses as well. Now some companies have teamed up with the University of California-Irvine Extension to improve teachers’ skills. Included: A description of an online training program for math and science educators.

In an effort to produce more and better qualified science and math teachers nationwide, the University of California (UC) Irvine Extension is planning a series of online courses to help K-12 teachers pass the California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET), as well as prepare teachers from California and across the U.S. meet the subject matter competency requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

About 40 percent of California teachers do not pass the CSET on the first attempt.

Financial support to develop the program is coming from The Boeing Company, which is donating $150,000, and the Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has pledged $200,000.

"Our objective is to reach a broad and diverse audience, but also to custom-tailor our offerings so they are appropriate to each participant," says Morgan Appel, director of education programs for UC Irvine Extension.

"The statistics are powerful and tell a compelling story," Morgan Appel, director of education programs for UC Irvine Extension, said in a press release. "We must increase the number of highly qualified science and math teachers in a way that is focused, cost efficient, and easily accessible for current and future teachers."

Appel outlined the program for Education World.

Education World: Why did you feel the need to develop this program? Why did you think the online approach was best?

Morgan Appel: The lack of qualified mathematics and science teachers -- within California and across the United States -- has reached critical mass. Or, perhaps better put, a breaking point. This is especially true in our underperforming and underserved schools, where, in certain circumstances, more than 50 percent of teachers do not possess the appropriate credentials. Systemically, the University of California felt compelled to address this issue in a multifaceted way -- including working with current and future teachers to become qualified, be that by passing a series of courses or examinations. Here at the Extension, we realized that the content assets were already available, but disaggregated and not as user-friendly as they could be. Test preparation programs and subject-matter courses varied significantly in quality; tended to focus on generalized preparation strategies versus content and pedagogy; and were very costly.

The online delivery system being developed by UC Irvine Extension is designed to be cost effective, teacher-centric, and accessible. It is designed in a modular fashion that enables us to accommodate changes in education policy and curriculum, as well as account for variations between states in terms of content and emphasis. We can easily add and modify where needed -- but the real key is access. Our system is designed to reach the one-room schoolhouse in rural communities as well as meet the needs of teachers serving in some of the largest, most heterogeneous districts in urban America.

EW:Are all teachers eligible for the program? When will it start?

Appel: The programs is designed not only for current teachers who need to become subject-matter qualified; that is, NCLB-compliant, but for teachers who wish to hone their skills in a given field, or for students in teacher education programs who need to be NCLB compliant before heading to student teaching or internship assignments. Eventually, we envision that a variation of the programming would be available to parents to help them work with their children on mathematics and science assignments. Our objective is to reach a broad and diverse audience, but to also custom-tailor our offerings so they are appropriate to each participant.

We currently are at work on the initial stages of the program -- evaluating what is already out there and determining what else must be done to make it useable. Once we are able to build out the courses, we will then pilot them in select settings and refine them as needed. We hope to launch in a year or so. However, we do realize that because education policy and legislation changes frequently, our courses will follow suit to keep up.

EW: What makes the UC Irvine Extension program to train math and science teachers different from other approaches?

Appel: A number of elements make the program unique. However, beyond flexibility and ease of access, our approach is different because it is collaborative, iterative, and consultative from the very beginning. We not only account for varied constituencies, we involve them at the project's inception. Extension employs recognized experts in mathematics and science to review content -- but at the same time, we involve teachers, administrators and testing experts who serve as a critical reality check. In this way, there is good balance and feedback from the start. Finally, the Extension program has an intersegmental focus, involving K-12 schools, community colleges, comprehensive state universities, public and private research universities, and private industry.

EW: What lessons can other states learn from the UC program?

Appel: California, in many ways, can be characterized as an educational bellwether. Owing to our great socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, and geographic diversity, chances are that if it will happen, it will happen here first. It is my belief that the Extension program really shows what can emerge from proactively attending to issues that not only impact the state's educational future, but its economic future as well. Industry and philanthropy are very cognizant of what participation in an economy that is focused on creativity and innovation means -- and they have gone beyond the conventional parameters of social responsibility to help us realize that objective. The crux of all of this is soliciting the involvement of multiple stakeholder groups from the beginning. It is about the reciprocally beneficial and capacity-building relationships that can be built around a well-defined aim, rather than protecting 'turf' as it were.

EW: Besides preparing teachers for the state exam, what broader skills or training does the program provide?

Appel: Preparing teachers to pass the state exam is but one aspect of the larger Extension program. Because of the objective-driven design inherent to our program, it can be used to impart specific areas of content, or to focus on particular groups of pupils as a comprehensive series of courses or as professional development seminars. The Extension program also understands the integral and complex relationship between content expertise and pedagogy, and the fluid nature of education. Eventually, we hope that teachers may be able to use elements of the program as diagnostic tools and/or to use it to work with colleagues within and across grade levels. For the college student or the career changer, we envision that the program would facilitate making the decision to teach mathematics or science by helping them negotiate subject-matter hurdles.

EW: Why do you think private industry needs to get more involved in teacher training programs?

Appel: While some may view this answer to be intuitive, it strikes me that private industry is the ultimate end user of a teacher training program. Although industry may work from an altruistic perspective in this regard, it is important that they receive-and that we in the postsecondary community receive-individuals capable of creative and critical thinking; individual and collaborative work; and what many economists have dubbed "the new basic skills" - computation, the ability to communicate effectively, among others. So, far beyond altruism, industry involvement in teacher education programs is an investment key to its long-term vitality.

This e-interview with Morgan Appel is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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