Should Science and Math Teachers Get Paid More?


Perhaps you have heard of Big Think, a website that has ideas and testimonials from various high-minded people in a variety of disciplines. Some things are very fascinating, others will start conversations, others can be disagreeable. In other words, ideas!

Recently there was a video posted with physicist Laurence Krauss, perhaps most famous for writing The Physics of Star Trek. His work is more in cosmology, but he also does public talks. In this video he talks about education (transcript here).

His key points are these:

  1. Learning and education is not all about the answers
  2. Teachers should have a greater pay to attract the best people for the job
  3. Make sure teachers are trained to have plenty of correct content knowledge
  4. Math and science teachers should get paid more than other subjects (also appeals to the market place)

On the first point, his is a point that educators have been making for a very long time. It does at least back to John Dewey and is at the front of what new curricula inventors have been up to (including what I have done in my research). You need to have students not simply memorize answers and repeat them for a test. You want to have students do the learning and thinking process, to try and construct their own understanding of things, to try and answer the questions for themselves. You also need to have students reflect on those points and have it connect to other pieces of knowledge. This is basically all part of the constructivist approach to learning. (I also did my Master’s thesis on one of the forms of this approach, project-based learning). 

When it comes to paying teachers more, I’m sure my mother wouldn’t mind that! But to be on point, having better pay for teachers will mean that we can attract the best that we can into the profession, which means we will create more qualified citizens to get and do the best jobs. Considering that the starting wages of some teachers is so low in some states (Michigan is particularly bad, as I remember), those who may have a passion for teaching have to go someplace else so they can support a family or actually have their work seem respected. Not to mention, teaching is not a 9-5 job five days a week, not unless you want to be the worst teacher out there. And don’t forget about dealing with the psychological/sociological problems of running a classroom in the K-12 system. My own experience is more at the college level, but eve there you have many personalities and possible interactions inside and outside the classroom.

I’m sure point 3 is a no-brainer, but it is worth pointing out that there are people in the system that do not feel comfortable with the subject. Not all chemistry teachers are as knowledgeable in their area as Walter White, nor are all English teachers that aware of what the pluperfect tense means. And of course, incorrect information gets into everyone’s heads and gets passed on–how many physics teachers get centripetal and centrifugal forces mixed up (I’ve seen physics grad students get that mixed up, and I’ve had to double-think about it myself). How bad this sort of problem is, I don’t have any data on that, but it doesn’t appear to be transient.

But should specifically science and math teachers get paid more? Hmm, that I’m not sold on. It takes just as much effort and training to get a good science teacher with all the needed content knowledge as it does a history teacher. Science teachers are not necessarily better at their jobs than English teachers. From the research I have been doing, there are plenty of students who have science classes that are rather focused on memorization and learning how to solve equations. There isn’t necessarily any deep reflection on what equations mean or why the facts they have to swallow are interesting when put together. On the other hand, my high school US history and government classes were engaging as there was dialog between students and instructor.

As for the free market, if anything I would think that it would make science and math teachers get less pay rather than more. Just compare what a script writer like Joss Whedon gets compared to even a Nobel-prizing winning physicist. Moreover, business interests traditionally have not been the greatest force in trying to have a critically-minded well-educated populace, as argued by David Nasaw, Schooled to Order (1979). As for having a populace that is science-literate, I also want a populace that is history-literate, and for many of the same sociopolitical reasons. People vote and endorse certain ideas that are justified by history and science. We also want people with artistic skills or knowledge, and we want generally-literate people. Overall, we want to have critically-minded, reflective citizens, and that can be and ought to be done in all subjects, not just some.

Overall then, Krauss is right to emphasis the need to teach how to think rather than what to repeat, and we should try to pay teachers more. However, the best way to teach can and is done in more than just science, and a well-rounded citizen, or a well-rounded person for that matter, should be able to think deeply about more than just one topic. We will specialize as our work-load requires, but we still have plenty to be critically-minded about. Including ideas from Big Think!

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