Head of Science Teachers' Association Forced Out

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In the midst of the biggest changes to U.S. science education in the past 2 decades, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has removed its executive director. The decision has caught science educators by surprise.

The governing board of the 55,000-member organization, based in Arlington, Virginia, last month decided to part company with Francis Eberle after 4 years. His last day was Monday. Gerald Wheeler, who retired in 2008 and returned to his beloved Montana after leading the association for 13 years, has agreed to serve as interim executive director until a replacement is on board.

"The board decided to make a change in the association's leadership," says Patricia Simmons, the current NSTA president and head of the department of math, science, and technology education at North Carolina State University. "We were fortunate to be able to coax Gerry out of retirement." Asked why the move was made, Simmons called the secret vote a "personnel decision," and said, "I would rather not discuss the reasons." A letter sent out to affiliate organizations thanks Eberle "for his service to the association … and for his efforts to improve science education." Eberle did not respond to several phone messages.

A former secondary school science teacher, Eberle took the helm at NSTA in September 2008 after leading the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance for more than a decade. Eberle has kept NSTA in the thick of efforts to develop voluntary science standards for public school students in all 50 states. Such standards do not now exist, as the federal government has historically deferred to states in deciding what topics should be taught at each grade level, how they should be taught, and how to test students on what they have learned.

The so-called Next Generation Science Standards are being assembled by a coalition of private organizations led by Achieve, the National Academies, NSTA, and AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider). A panel from the National Academies issued a report last summer setting out an instructional framework, and another panel is working on a second report on the best ways to assess what a student knows. A first draft of the standards could be out this month, with a final version by the end of the year.

Science educators and former NSTA officials contacted by ScienceInsider expressed surprise and shock at hearing that Eberle had been removed.

Page Keeley, a past NSTA president and long-time colleague of Eberle's at the Maine alliance, calls him a "wonderful science educator … who is very well-respected by the community." Keeley says Eberle took the time to listen "not just to the heavy hitters, but right down to the level of a first-year teacher. He also understood that NSTA couldn't go it alone, and that you need to build coalitions to get things done."

The next NSTA executive director faces a formidable set of challenges. The most immediate may be the need for continued fundraising for a new headquarters building, announced 4 years ago, that would include an interactive learning center named for former senator and astronaut John Glenn. Simmons said she hoped that the association would be able to raise enough money "in the next 1 to 2 years" to be able to move forward with its plans for the building.

Wheeler and Simmons also ticked off a slew of issues that are common to any scientific membership organization. They range from maintaining membership rolls and attendance at annual conferences to attracting the next generation of professionals. "Every day, 10,000 people retire in the United States, and our demographics are not any different," says Wheeler. "We also need to find a way to go beyond a 2.0 version of current education technology."

A search for a new executive director will be launched shortly, says Simmons. Asked about the timetable for filling the job, Simmons said "as soon as possible."

Posted in Education