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Michael Marder and Jere Confrey

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A pressing challenge for everyone who cares about education is the shortage of qualified teachers. The shortage plagues public schools both in urban and rural districts and sweeps across all disciplines.

It is especially critical in secondary science and mathematics. Almost every school district has stories to tell ... one major urban district serving 28,000 students has a total of five certified physics teachers, and three of them are leaving ... 23 percent of all the public school teachers in Austin left their jobs in 1999 ... 61 percent of physical science teachers in Texas do not even have a college minor in the area they are teaching.

A major effort at UT Austin to reverse this situation is the collaboration between the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Education with the Austin Independent School District called UTeach.

UTeach began in the summer of 1997, when the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, gathered together a group of award-winning secondary teachers and asked them to design the best teacher preparation program they could, drawing upon their years of teaching experience. At the same time Dean Manuel Justiz of the College of Education initiated a major effort to revitalize the mathematics and science education programs. Faculty in Education and Natural Sciences worked together to create a program around the following basic ideas:

  • Ownership. Both the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Education feel that teacher preparation belongs to them within UTeach, and they work together to fund the program, administer it, and attract and retain students.
  • Majors in mathematics and science. Every student in UTeach majors in mathematics or science and takes a set of technical courses that differs little, if at all, from the set taken by students continuing on to graduate school.
  • Completion in four years. Attending the University is a financial burden, teaching does not pay magnificent salaries, and most prospective teachers do not come from wealthy backgrounds. Therefore, the UTeach degree plans are all possible to complete in four years.
  • Early and continuous field experience. It is not enough to like the idea of teaching; a teacher must actually like to teach. Within the first six weeks of entering UTeach, students travel out to the schools to deliver their first lessons. The first semester, lessons are in the elementary schools. The next semester they take place in middle schools. In subsequent courses the students move beyond individual lessons and learn to develop larger instructional units at the secondary level. This continuous field experience is a unique characteristic of the UTeach program. The demands of the teaching experience rise steadily until in their final year the prospective teachers are given charge of multiple classes.
  • Involvement of teachers. To implement UTeach, the College of Natural Sciences hired a number of the teachers who designed it. The program could not exist without them. They participate in the design and improvement of all the courses, arrange students' field experiences, and work with a wide network of teachers in the schools to mentor all the prospective teachers.
  • Attention to state and national standards. Many agencies have spelled out in detail the skills a teacher needs to have, both in pedagogy and content. UTeach takes care that all these standards are specifically addressed. For example, secondary science teachers are advised to spend 40 percent of class time on laboratory activities. They are advised to emphasize developing inquisitive thought as well as developing substantial recall of bodies of knowledge.
  • Revision of professional education sequence. The mathematics and science faculty in the College of Education eliminated all generic education courses. They built a new sequence of courses on a foundation of research on learning, and they integrated the key ideas of equity, educational technology, and multicultural education into it. The courses improve prospective teachers' understanding of how to guide classroom instruction and interactions, starting with individual lessons and building to longer-length projects which culminate in student teaching.
  • Special new courses. Teachers must be able to convey the excitement and significance of science and mathematics to their students. We have created new courses to focus on often neglected yet vital aspcts of learning and instruction, such as a course on the history and philosophy of science and mathematics and a course on the nature of research.
  • Community and financial support. Students enter the UTeach program in groups, and we encourage them to take as many classes as possible together. We pay the tuition costs of the two first one-hour courses. Since many UTeach students need to work to stay in school, we have been raising private funding for an internship program. We pay for community service with organizations such as the Texas Memorial Museum or for tutoring secondary students. Fifty-seven students had internships during spring 2000.

The rate at which UTeach has grown has both gratified and stunned everyone involved with the program. The first class, in the fall of 1997, had 28 students. Since that time between 40 and 60 students have joined each semester. In Fall 2000, 250 students are taking part, and within two years the number should exceed 400, with 80 to 100 students obtaining certification each year.

So far as we know, UTeach is already the largest program for secondary science and math certification at any major research university in the United States. In fact, only around 1,000 math and science majors from all the U.S. research universities put together have been obtaining secondary certification each year. UTeach will be adding 10 percent to the national total.

The students are excellent. Their grade point averages and SAT scores are above the average in the College of Natural Sciences. About half are in mathematics, and the remaining half spread across the remaining sciences. They are idealistic and enthusiastic, working both to complete demanding majors, and to enter a crucial but under-appreciated profession.

Many people wonder what secret UTeach has discovered to entice so many gifted students to prepare for teaching. The secret is that we have stopped discouraging them. Before beginning the program, we surveyed students in the College of Natural Sciences, and found that 25 percent of the 8,000 students would consider teaching as a career. The growth of UTeach comes from systematic recruiting among freshmen, the collaborative spirit between the College of Natural Sciences and College of Education, attention to advising, financial support, and the community of students themselves.

UTeach is not without detractors. Two of the most frequent objections are:

Some people think teacher preparation is the business of the teacher colleges, not a research university like UT Austin. We think this argument is as wrong today as it was when the University was founded.

Research universities have a unique role in establishing priorities. The shortage of teachers will not diminish unless the profession of teaching gains the respect that its importance deserves. Seeing that some of the brightest and most ambitious students in Texas are deciding to become teachers will play a role in increasing public support for teachers.

Public support is especially needed in Texas because teacher salaries are terribly low. Starting salaries in the Austin Independent School District are $29,730, and the average salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $32,000.

Unless Texas finds a way to pay talented individuals comparable salaries to teach science and math, our children will be at a disturbing disadvantage in a workplace that increasingly demands advanced technical skills.

Detractors point out that new teachers don't last. In fact a huge proportion of new teachers do not last their first year. More than 40 percent of new teachers hired in Texas in 1995 had left by 1999.

However, the probability of new teachers continuing to mid-career depends on the way they prepared to enter the profession. Many programs try to prepare new teachers in a very short time, often less than a year. In one study, only 43 percent of teachers prepared in this way were still teaching three years after they started. By comparison, 75 percent who graduated from a four-year program were still teaching in their third year.

UTeach supports its graduates, helping them obtain suitable positions, and providing a source where they can turn for advice during the first difficult years. We experiment both with electronic and traditional means of providing this support. In collaboration with a Systemic Research Collaborative for Education in Math, Science, and Technology, we are designing effective approaches starting with students planning to become teachers until they become accomplished practicing teachers involved in advanced study.

Indeed, UTeach should be a place its graduates can return throughout their careers, to learn about advances in their fields, and renew connections with the excitement of creating knowledge.

Conclusion. In the face of many uncertainties, the enthusiasm and idealism of the UTeach students themselves has been the program's greatest strength. Each semester, they send us messages, unasked, to help us push on.

I can't tell you what an awesome experience today was. The kids were so cooperative and they were so excited to see us when we walked in...Okay, so I know that we are getting ahead of ourselves but I can't tell you what I felt walking out of that classroom. It was the best feeling that I have ever felt.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Gail Carmack for helping assemble some of the data reported in this article.

Early History of Teacher Preparation

In 1880 the Texas legislature took on the founding of The University of Texas, delayed for over twenty years by the Civil War and its aftermath. Supporters had to overcome strong opposition, because elementary schools should be supported first, or because universities are "hot beds of immorality, profligacy, and licentiousness."

Many who supported institutions of higher learning wanted first to build two normal schools for the training of teachers. The University of Texas owes its existence in part to the understanding that it "when properly established will be the proper source from which to draw a supply of competent teachers."

Yet after being founded in 1883, The University needed eight years to establish a School of Pedagogy, and it was controversial from the start. The leading minds lured to Texas to enlighten its citizens on law or mathematics objected to association with the preparation of teachers.

Despite this climate, between 1891 and 1896, Professor of Pedagogy J. Baldwin built a class of teachers to 176 students, for which he was then dismissed by the Regents on the grounds that "the School of Pedagogy detracted from the University,'' that it could not yet produce enough teachers to fill the state's need--or perhaps it was that Baldwin had requested a new building.

Two years later the pendulum swung back. A new Professor of Pedagogy, W. S. Sutton, eventually succeeded in building the School of Pedagogy into a School of Education with four professors and six lecturers, and he rose to become president of the University in 1923.

The College of Education is now ranked seventh in the country among public universities.

Legislative Action

Shortages of qualified teachers have been a central concern of the Texas Legislature for a long time. Senate Bill 994 in 1987 was an especially aggressive response. Reacting to warnings about the decaying state of secondary education in A Nation at Risk and other widely circulated reports, the Texas Senate tried to remove primary responsibility for secondary education from Colleges of Education. High school teachers would get their degrees in mathematics, chemistry, biology, English, or whatever subject they wanted to teach. Prospective teachers could take no more than eighteen hours of courses from the College of Education, including six hours of student teaching.

Feelings on the possible effects of the law ran high: its supporters argued "that greater numbers of bright students should be encouraged to enter the teaching profession" and therefore recommended "That undergraduate requirements for professional teacher education not extend beyond the quantitative equivalent of a typical minor." Arguments of opponents sounded almost identical, except that their conclusions were opposite: an "unanticipated and detrimental effect of the elimination of education degrees may be the deemphasis of teaching as a profession at the very time when Texas needs to attract its best and brightest young people into teaching."

Looking back, there is little evidence the law had much of an effect at all. At UT Austin, the number of students preparing for certification in science and mathematics simply held constant in the years after it was passed, resulting in thirty to fifty new teachers per year. The number of students preparing to become science teachers was particularly low, sometimes as little as ten per year for earth and life sciences, physics, and chemistry combined.

Consequences of Ill-Prepared Teachers

The Third International Math and Science Study is the largest international comparison of mathematics and science education ever performed.

With a sample size of 500,000, it studied student learning in science and mathematics at fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade levels in more than twenty countries. Up through the fourth grade, U.S. students do well in international comparisons. After that they do not. The only countries performing worse than the US at the twelfth grade level were Cyprus and South Africa.

The intuition of so many college professors that the first two years of university are spent making up for what high school missed seems to be correct. Broad averages conceal an increasing disparity between rich and poor school districts. Even rich U.S. districts rarely do well in international comparisons, but they do vastly better than poor districts, where the percentages of uncertified teachers are much higher and where instability in attendance, turnover, and resources often hamper program improvement.

Discovery Learning Project

The academic journal, Physical Review E, is splitting. Instead of once per month, it comes out twice, each issue containing around 800 pages in double columns, small type, dense arguments, complex mathematics, and diagrams summarizing years of experimental work. The facts accumulated by science grow at such a rate that a human lifetime no longer suffices to understand all the scientific knowledge developed every two weeks.

What's an education to do?

One answer is to view the goal of education as developing the power to learn. Certain facts may still be essential to memorize, but mainly as part of a framework on which to build understanding. Learning how knowledge is created, and having the experience of creating it for one's self are the most important.

The Discovery Learning Project is the brainstorm of Dr. R. L. Moore, UT Austin mathematics professor from 1920 until 1969, who developed a radical alternative to traditional classroom lecturing. He never used a textbook, despised conventional notation, and challenged students to invent mathematics for themselves through sequences of questions.

Students remember Dr. Moore's classes as the most intense intellectual experiences of their lives, and many became mathematicians in turn and fanned out to schools across the country, replicating and modifying his methods. For many years they often felt they had to keep their unconventional teaching methods secret from their colleagues. Today they are more likely to win teaching awards.

The Discovery Learning Project brings UT Austin faculty together every month to share information on alternatives to the classic lecture. Groupings of faculty are often invited from across campus departments and colleges. The science faculty pursues the purpose for teaching eighteen hours of science to liberal arts majors and the role discovery learning might play.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to the Educational Advancement Foundation for financial support, Janis Lariviere for organizing all meetings, and Dr. Michael Starbird and Dr. Austin Gleeson for initiating the project.


Dr. Michael Marder is a member of the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, internationally known for its experiments on chaos and pattern formation and for the last four years ranked #1 in the nation by US News and World Report. As Director of the Special Projects Office in the College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Marder is Co-Director of the UTeach program for the preparation of secondary math and science teachers, and he is helping to introduce inquiry techniques into undergraduate teaching. As a physicist, he is involved in a variety of theoretical, numerical, and experimental investigations and recently published a graduate textbook on Condensed Matter Physics. Dr. Marder earned his B.A. from Cornell University and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He can be reached at 512-232-2773 or at marder@chaos.ph.utexas.edu


Dr. Jere Confrey is Co-Director of UTeach, Director of the Systemic Research Collaborative for Mathematics, Science and Technology, and Professor of Mathematics and Science Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Confrey, who earned her master's and doctoral degrees at Cornell University, was the founder of the SummerMath program and co-founder of SummerMath for Teachers at Mount Holoyoke College. She is currently vice chairperson of the Mathematics Science Education Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Confrey's research has focused on student learning of functions, ratio and proportion, constructivist theory, equity, technology, and most recently systemic change. She has chaired multiple panels on systemic reform for the National Science Foundation. She can be reached at 512-471-1044 or at jere@mail.utexas.edu



February 05, 2001
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