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The Science Shortage Myth

by Laurel N. Tanner - 1971

The nature of the teacher shortage following World War II and its effect on future educational policy are analyzed. (Source: ERIC)

Following the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the American public was subjected to a fifteen-year deluge of publicity about the shortage of science teachers. There were, however, equally serious shortages in other high school teaching fields.1 The shortage of elementary school teachers was far more acute than that in science.2 Yet judging from the national press and the kinds of educational legislation enacted by the federal government in this period, these deficiencies were of relatively small national importance.

By 1945, conditions in American classrooms had deteriorated to a deplorable state. Absorbed in the war effort, Americans had put aside the needs of their schools. Salaries had shot up in war-related industries while remaining stable for teachers. As a result, a predictable but unstemmed migration from teaching took place, causing an influx of unqualified, emergency-credentialed personnel to fill the void.

Yet the 1945-46 U. S. Senate hearings on the proposed National Science Foundation revealed an indifference to the generally devastating conditions in the schools. Those seeking federal support for scientific research and education, most notably the scientists themselves, perpetuated the myth of the singular shortage of well-qualified science teachers.3 The implication was that there existed an adequate number of good teachers in other areas of the curriculum and levels of education. The truth was that there was a great shortage of teachers in the mid and late 1940s, and science teaching was just one sector of a grave general deficit.

Despite these realities, the exclusive demands of science and, to a lesser extent, mathematics for personnel and for curricular improvement prevailed and were shaped into a new national education policy. Except for Senator J. William Fulbright, few at the Science Foundation hearings questioned the popular myth that there was an abundance of teachers in every field except science:4

Senator Harley M. Kilgore: Have you found that there is difficulty in getting competent science teachers for our high schools? Where there has been an abundance of teachers for other subjects, we have not trained people to teach science.

Harlow Shapley (director of the Harvard University Observatory): It is a very serious situation... a fundamental subject like physics is not taught in very many schools in America....

Senator Fulbright: Dr. Shapley, you wouldn't agree that there is an abundance of all other kinds of teachers in our educational system, would you?

Senator Kilgore: I was speaking comparatively.

Senator Fulbright: There is a great shortage—about 80,000 of them.

Why did the Congress enact aid to science education, while ignoring the generally grievous conditions in the public schools of the mid 1940s? For two reasons: (1) public school education, no matter in what condition, was both by constitutional interpretation and by tradition the business of the states, and (2) Senate hearings on the proposed Science Foundation were held only a few weeks after the stunning power of nuclear fission was unleashed over Japan. Awe-struck legislators gave credence to the opinions of physical scientists on the special needs of science education.

Some Myths A significant part of the myth perpetuated by those who would have only science subsidized by the federal government was that science was the only subject with badly outmoded content and methods. This was far from the truth. There is considerable evidence that social studies was similarly deficient, despite an "oversupply" of social studies teachers. The same can be said for the content and teaching of the disciplines of the parent social sciences. Yet the social sciences were not included in the scope of the National Science Foundation Act finally passed in 1950.

Some educational critics contended that science and mathematics were being taught to a shrinking proportion of students, In November, 1956, U.S, News and World Report featured an interview with Arthur Bestor, then professor of history at the University of Illinois and president of the Council for Basic Education. Bestor maintained that the percentage of high school students taking science had dropped from 84 percent in 1900 to 54 percent in 1956.5 He warned that the shortage of scientists would "grow much worse if we don't reverse present trends promptly."6 Bestor advocated that if the federal government were to "enter the picture" it should "use its money to make sure that every high school in the nation offers a full roster of courses in the basic subjects."7 Bestor insisted that the "real crisis" in education was "not a financial crisis but a crisis involving the quality of the education offered."8

Harold C. Hand, professor of education at the University of Illinois, responded to Bestor's allegation that fewer students were taking science. In a paper appearing in the American Association of University Professors Bulletin (a publication probably unread by more than a minuscule proportion of U. S. News readers), Hand maintained that the percentage of high school students taking science had actually risen to 90 percent.9 And the high school population had increased from 8 percent of the youngsters of high school age in 1900 to 64 percent in 1950.10 Hand pointed out that the ratio of students taking chemistry had increased to 25 to 1 and those taking physics to 5 to 1 over 1900.11

The mythology of the singular slighting of science continued to grow after the establishment of the National Science Foundation. It came into full flower in the late 1950s with the creation of the Physical Science Study Committee, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the Chemical Bond Approach, and, in 1960, the Chemical Education Material Study. All of these were major projects of a national scope and favored a single segment of the school curriculum. All were funded by N.S.F.

NEA Study The first national survey on teacher supply and demand was conducted by the National Education Association in 1948.12 The findings of the study confirmed what every superintendent already knew: that there was a crucial shortage of adequately prepared elementary school teachers—much more severe than the shortage of high school teachers. In 1955, the NEA wearily admitted that the shortage of qualified elementary school teachers which it had reported since 1948 could be expected to continue.

Experience in recent years has proved conclusively that the supply will not equal the demand ... that many employing officials will have to be content with candidates lacking in training and, in many cases, with uncertain prospect of success in the classroom. Such is the plight of the elementary schools.13

For twenty years the situation remained virtually unchanged. Each year the NEA reported a critical shortage of qualified elementary teachers. There have been teacher shortages in various high school fields including the sciences, mathematics, English, home economics, vocational education, and library science, but none so crippling to American education as the prolonged dearth of qualified elementary school teachers.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was the second federal subsidy of science education. Like its predecessor, the National Science Foundation Act, it followed on the heels of a major scientific event. (This time not an American, but a Soviet feat.) Again, the aid provided was designated for science and mathematics, with the addition of foreign language instruction. It is noteworthy that in 1958 the NEA reported a surplus of foreign language teachers, and not for the first time.14 In the thirteen years since the supply and demand studies began, except for some minor fluctuations, the supply had been sufficient to meet the demand. Then why the aid for foreign language instruction? Congressional and Administrative News called it an area of neglect.15 Yet helping American youth to acquire culture was not the dominant motive of the Congress. Instead, the reason appears to have been to maintain and promote American interests abroad.

As a nation we are not prepared linguistically to exercise the full force of our leadership in the building of a peaceful world. Some 3 million Americans, including members of the Armed Forces and their dependents, are reported to be living, traveling, and working overseas each year. Few Americans available for overseas assignments have had any foreign language training.16

Actually, the supply of science and mathematics teachers was on the increase well before the enactment of the National Defense Education Act in 1958. An upswing had begun in 1955 as a result of an intense nationwide campaign for more and better science teaching. The NEA reported that the percent of increase of new science teachers in 1958 would be greater than that in any teaching field.17 Elementary school teaching still continued to be on the "critical" list.

Despite the progress achieved in this widely publicized area of shortage (science), the most critical need of the public schools throughout the nation is a much larger supply of competent, well-educated teachers for the elementary schools.18

In 1958, the percent of increase in the supply of mathematics teachers was second only to that of science teachers.19 And theoretically, at least, there appeared to be an oversupply of biology teachers.20 The supply of chemistry teachers was in almost perfect theoretical relationship with the demand.21 In 1958, the NEA pointed out that proposed post-Sputnik federal legislation was evading the crucial problem.

The situation remains unchanged by the spectacular work of the Russians in sending up earth satellites. For years to come, the overriding need in American education will be competent elementary school teachers. It is this sober fact which the proponents of special remedies through federal legislation are ignoring.22

The Senate committee proposing categorical aid to science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction stated that although it did not desire "that one field of training be developed at the expense of another," it was evident that the schools were not providing sufficient instruction in the three fields "which now carry the highest priority in the national interest."23 Those who did not agree that science, mathematics, and foreign languages should have priority over the crucial shortage of elementary teachers did not often say so. This was an unpopular, almost seditious viewpoint in the immediate post-Sputnik period.

Censure, Not Concern The mood of the 1958 hearings on science and education for national defense was one of censure rather than of concern for the plight of the schools. The enigma of the public schools, which were operating with inadequate funds, facilities, and qualified teachers, was generally ignored by scientist witnesses. The Senators did not blame our scientists for failing to send the first satellite into space. But scientists who testified placed the blame on the public schools. They claimed that poor standards, laxness, and a tendency to cater to average and poor students rather than to the gifted had produced a national scientific emergency.

Said M. H. Trytten, director of the Office of Scientific Personnel: "Our schools have failed in several respects to provide the kind of education that we as a nation must have for full development of the intellectual resources of our people."24

Detlev W. Bronk, president of the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University), alleged that the elementary schools were too concerned with "relatively unimportant subjects" and not enough with "those fundamentals upon which all of the future education of a man must depend."25

Edward Teller, physicist at the University of California, admitted that teachers generally were underpaid and that they received few honors for teaching.26 He stressed that the real national emergency was, nonetheless, in the fields of science and mathematics. His concern was with this "more modest and therefore less expensive undertaking."27 Here Teller broadly hinted that science should be the prime educational concern because it would be a less expensive undertaking than solving the general problem of teacher salaries and incentives!

Lee DuBridge, then president of California Institute of Technology, testified that education for intellectually limited individuals should extend only to the sixth grade.28 He contended that any fears being expressed that science legislation might result in "too much emphasis on science" were unfounded.29 DuBridge remarked: "The time is ripe I think for an intellectual awakening in our schools."30

According to Wernher Von Braun, director of ballistic missile development for the United States Army, the European system of education was superior to the American system.31 In Europe, explained Von Braun, less competent scholars were "washed out" before they reached high school.32 Students who could not make the grade were "just dropped."33 Ventured Von Braun, "I would say that it is a question of the survival of the fittest. Nothing else."34 The specialist in space travel proposed that "teaching standards" in elementary and secondary schools be raised.35 Like DuBridge, he felt that when a child had gone as far as he could in school, be it only completion of the sixth grade, the educational responsibility of the state for that child had ended.36

Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon maintained that the American educational system had not declined and pointed to the progress made in 100 years in American education.37 Morse observed that American educators had become "the whipping boys of local and state and national leaders, because those leaders have not given to the educational facilities and processes the support to which they are entitled."38

Unlike Von Braun who proposed that the total number of college educated people in the United States be dropped by ten percent, Morse held that untold human resources were being wasted each year because of vast numbers of youth being denied a college education.39 Said Morse: "You may not like all the standards of that education, but America is stronger for every boy and girl that comes out of college in America."40

In upholding the principle of educational opportunity for all, Morse held a minority view at the hearings. He knew that education was receiving grievously inadequate support from state and local leaders. He objected because the problems produced by fiscal nonsupport were being compounded by psychological nonsupport.

The sad lessons we have been taught in Rochester, Newark, Detroit, and elsewhere make it seem incredible that only a decade ago otherwise rational men proposed that education beyond the elementary school be limited to our most able children. The solution offered by noted physicists and science educators for uplifting the intellectual caliber of the schools would have restricted the right of a high school education to the best students. Perhaps this should not be so surprising. Scientists have been noted for their propensity to offer quick, far-reaching solutions for public policy questions.41 The only trouble is that these solutions seldom work.42 The hard core of unemployed and our social malcontents are persons with barely an elementary school education. They are those for whom the state recognized no further responsibility.

Stabilizing Educational Policy The science legislation of 1945 and 1958 was in no small part promoted on the basis of a singular shortage of qualified science teachers. It was justified by its proponents on the twin grounds of national scientific progress and national defense. Its advocates neatly evaded the root educational problem—the inability of localities to adequately support their school systems. The national educational policy of aiding one field and ignoring another, which took shape with the establishment of the National Science Foundation, was stabilized by the 1958 national defense education legislation. This policy has continued to favor the requirements of selected fields of knowledge over other knowledges equally in need of support. It has ignored the most deleterious educational problem of all: the plight of two generations of elementary school children without qualified teachers, particularly in our ghetto schools.

The science shortage myth left two bequests to our public schools: (1) an established educational policy which ignored the most crucial educational problem of the post-World War II era—the shortage of elementary school teachers, and (2) a high school curriculum which classified subjects as "preferred" and "common"—with science and mathematics in the former category. In addition, it is possible that the national fever to recoup hallucinatory intellectual losses in the late 1950s may have done irreparable damage to thousands of not-so-gifted students.

Ironically, despite the crash efforts to induce more of our talented students to enter careers in science and engineering, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of our most academically able students entering these fields during the past decade. This decline has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the proportion of gifted students electing careers in the social sciences.43 We are beginning to realize that as long as individuals in our society are free to choose their curricula and careers they cannot be manipulated as "human resources" to serve the interests of national policy-makers. High school and college students have become increasingly concerned with pervading social problems, and their career choices reflect these interests and commitments. At the 1968 meeting of the American Physical Society, Professor Harvey Brooks of Harvard observed that there appeared to be a "revulsion against science by the whole society, but especially among young people." Gifted youth are seeking relevance in today's troubled society, and they tend to regard science and engineering as fields which have compounded the problems of man and society through new weaponry, environmental pollution, and electronic dehumanization,44

While national policy has failed to affect the career decisions of our most talented youth in the "desired direction," despite a myriad of impressive federally-sponsored programs, a new curriculum hierarchy has been created through the influence of specialized groups and technical interests. The social consequences of such actions have a distorting effect on how we perceive and act On our social needs and priorities. In the words of Dewey: "The scheme of a curriculum must take account of the adaptation of students to the needs of the existing community life; it must select with the intention of improving the life we live in common so that the future will be better than the past.... The things which are socially most fundamental, that is, which have to do with the experiences in which the widest group share, are the essentials. The things which represent the needs of specialized groups and technical pursuits are secondary."45

  1. Teacher Supply and Demand in Public Schools. First through Thirteenth Editions. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1948-60.
  2. Ibid.
  3. United States Congress, Senate, Military Affairs Committee, Hearings on Science Legislation. Hearings before Subcommittee, 79th Congress, 1st Session, on S. 1297 and Related Bills. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1945.
  4. Ibid., p. 53.
  5. US. News and World Report, November 30,1956, p. 71.
  6. lbid.,p.72.
  7. Ibid,, p. 74.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Harold C. Hand, "Black Horses Eat More than White Horses," AAUP Bulletin, XL1I1, Summer, 1957, p. 273.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Teacher Supply and Demand in the United States, 1948, Part III.
  13. Teacher Supply and Demand in Public Schools, 1955, p. 5.
  14. Teacher Supply and Demand in Public Schools, 1958, p. 16.
  15. United States Code: Congressional and Administrative News, 85th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 4733.
  16. Ibid., p. 4742.
  17. Teacher Supply and Demand in Public Schools, 1958, p. 3.
  18. Ibid., p. 4.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., f.16.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p. 5.
  23. United States Code: Congressional and Administrative News, 85th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 4733.
  24. United States Congress, Senate, Committee on Loans and Public Welfare, Science and Education for National Defense, 85th Congress, 2nd Session, on Science and Education for National Defense. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958, pp. 576-577.
  25. Ibid., p. 6.
  26. Ibid., p. 138.
  27. Ibid.
  28. lbid.,p. 54.
  29. Ibid., p. 42.
  30. Ibid., p. 54.
  31. Ibid., pp. 65-67.
  32. Ibid.,p.71.
  33. Ibid., p. 72.
  34. Ibid., p. 73.
  35. Ibid.,p.72.
  36. 76zW.,p.74.
  37. Ibid.,p.26.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
  40. Ibid., p. 28.
  41. Michael J. Moravcsik, "Scientists in Politics—and Out," Bulletin of the Atomic Sci entists, XXII, January, 1966, p. 32.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Donivan J. Watley and Robert C. Nichols, "Career Choices of America's Most Able Youth." Evanston, Illinois: National Merit Scholarship Corporation, 1968 (Mimeographed) .
  44. The New York Times, February 4,1968, p. E7.
  45. John Dewey. Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 72 Number 4, 1971, p. 605-614
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1680, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:50:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Laurel Tanner
    Temple University
    Laurel Tanner is associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Temple University.
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