As Americans mark Teachers' Day on Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced that 30,000 "excellent" new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers have been trained, but their peers in the field worry that without major systemic changes, this crop may soon wither.
Five years ago, in response to the president's initiative, the 100Kin10 network was launched with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York. This network of corporations, schools, and nonprofits set the ambitious goal of training 100,000 new STEM educators by 2021.
According to a press statement Tuesday, some 280 national partners, across all 50 states, have collectively pledged more than $90 million to support the development and ongoing support of 100,000 new STEM teachers.
These partners have committed to "recruiting, training, placing, supporting, and advancing teachers, promoting policy change, providing funding, and telling the STEM story," according to the statement.
The initiative seeks to address a potentially dire shortage of STEM teachers in the United States in the coming decades. According to data gathered from 1.8 million students in the high school graduating class of 2014 who took ACT exams, barely 5,500 said they were interested in teaching science or math.
“It’s a systemic problem. Students don’t come to college wanting to be teachers because they have had bad experiences with their teachers in high school,” says Arthur Bowman, a professor of biology at Norfolk State University and a science education consultant for the NASA, in a telephone interview.
Dr. Bowman adds that students are swayed by salary concerns.
“Become a finance person and make $100,000. Become a teacher make $30,000,” he says. “Right now as we’re talking look at what we’re doing in Detroit to teachers and we have a 'sick-out.' What message is that sending to students about being a teacher of any kind?”
On Tuesday only three of Detroit's 97 schools were open, as teachers staged their second day of protests over pay.
What's more, even after a STEM teacher is attracted to the field, trained, and hired, there is still the matter of retaining that teacher.
“Science teachers have many reasons to leave, namely low salaries, too much testing, lack of resources, and lack of support from administrators,” National Science Teachers Association’s executive director, David Evans writes in an email.
One solution to teacher retention is convincing them to continue their education and join professional associations for support.
“Those who graduate and never go to a professional conference, never go to another training, never join an organization, those are the ones who, unfortunately, do not remain relevant in the classroom and are the ones most likely to leave the field,” says Michael Daugherty, Chair of the International STEM Education Association and head the University of Arkansas's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, in a phone interview. “The research shows that the more teachers are engaged professionally the more likely they are to stay in the field.”
In addition to his own organization, Dr. Daugherty recommends the International Technology and Engineering Educators’ Association and the National Science Teachers’ Association, among others, all of which allow teachers to network, find mentors, and learn about developments in the field.
“Unfortunately, a number of these teachers are lured away to other fields where their STEM education is valued,” Dr. Evans writes. “NSTA is working with new teachers, and veteran teachers alike, to provide them with the support and resources they need to help them succeed in the classroom.”
But Daugherty cautions that this generation of teachers may be its own worst enemy, “Across the board, most association leaders will tell you that this generation are really non-joiners. Maybe it’s the online culture.”
Another impediment to retention is the nature of the high-stakes testing environments these newly minted educators will be thrust into.
“High-stakes testing is a problem. I understand it. You want to know how your students are doing. Unfortunately, it pulls teachers away from some of the more creative ways of teaching,” Daugherty says. “Because they’re so concerned about their students’ performance on the test they tend to just teach to the test, rather than teaching the content. Sometimes to teach the content you need creative methodology and a problem-based learning situation, rather than you just writing the formula on the board for them.”
That loss of creativity may explain not only why teachers are leaving but also why more students do not aspire to follow in their STEM teachers’ footsteps.
Dr. Bowman concludes, “When they think of teaching they think of the teachers they had in high school. If all they see is someone who’s unhappy and teaching to the test that’s not saying much for teaching.”