Is STEM Education in Permanent Crisis?
Perpetual STEM teacher shortages hold our country back
In 1983, "A Nation at Risk" raised grave concerns that America's schools, particularly in the academic area we now call STEM, were damaging the country's ability to compete. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war," warned the report from a federally appointed commission. Twenty-two years later, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a report from the National Academy of Sciences, leveled a similar charge: "[O]ur overall public school system—or more accurately 14,000 systems—has shown little sign of improvement, particularly in mathematics and science."
How can education in science and mathematics be in such crisis for so long? If fixing the crisis has the urgency of responding to foreign attack, how can it be that after 33 years of warnings, we are still stuck?
For some student populations, there is improvement. The best measure of long-term performance is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-Term Trend Assessment. For 9- and 13-year-old white, black, and Hispanic students, math scores have increased since they were first measured by NAEP in 1978. Schools moved racial and ethnic groups in middle school ahead by around four years of learning: In fact, the scores of black and Hispanic 13-year-olds in 2012 almost matched the scores of black and Hispanic 17-year-olds from 1978.
But high school Long-Term Trend NAEP scores tell another story: Flat since 1990, NAEP math scores understate the scale of our problem. The United States stands apart from Europe and Asia in its conception of how much science and math is appropriate for all students. The United States has a culture of lower expectations for its students—one that will be hard to change, even if we want to.
Our country's single biggest obstacle is a perpetual STEM teacher shortage. In surveys of school districts, openings in physics, chemistry, and math are regularly near the top of the list of positions hardest to fill. As a result, a large percentage of high school STEM teachers have neither a college major nor minor in their main assignment, or they lack full certification. Forty percent of math teachers fall into one of these categories. In physics, chemistry, and earth science, the number is over 60 percent.
Why do we have this STEM teacher shortage? It exists because incentives to change it are weak. For students who major in a STEM subject, the decision to become a teacher can add time and cost to their degrees. Teaching jobs pay tens of thousands of dollars less per year than nonteaching jobs in science, technology, engineering, or math. For university colleges of science, where all STEM teachers take content coursework or get their degrees, every staff or faculty position devoted to preparing STEM teachers is one not devoted to STEM researchers bringing in grants.
How do we ensure that all students have access to well-trained and qualified science teachers? Education Week Commentary invited teachers, professors, and teacher-educators across the country to weigh in on this pressing challenge. This special section is supported by a grant from The Noyce Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors' own, however.
For many companies reliant on a strong STEM workforce to remain competitive, there is an inexpensive alternative to using their money and influence to solve the STEM teacher shortage: Hire scientists and engineers born and educated abroad. Fifty-three percent of the Ph.D.-level computer scientists in this country were born abroad, and 75 percent of Ph.D.-level aerospace engineers. Those are staggering numbers.
In 2005, the "Gathering Storm" report suggested a coordinated response to the STEM crisis, including the goal of producing 10,000 new STEM teachers a year by providing $20,000 a year in college scholarships for STEM majors who committed to teaching; $10,000-a-year salary increases for STEM teachers in hardest-to-staff schools; and $5 million incentive packages to universities to create programs for STEM majors to get bachelor's degrees and teaching certificates simultaneously.
The report highlighted UTeach, which I co-founded in the late 1990s and currently co-direct. UTeach integrates STEM bachelor's degrees with teacher certification and has expanded to 45 universities in this country. More than 85 percent of our graduates become classroom teachers, and more than 60 percent of them are in schools with majority low-income populations. Retention rates are strong: After five years, more than 80 percent of those who began teaching are still in schools.
These efforts—and those of other programs—could enable the United States to greatly reduce the STEM teacher shortage. A recent survey of more than 6,000 current and recently graduated STEM majors, which was sponsored by the American Physical Society, indicates that 35 to 55 percent would consider middle or high school teaching. There is also encouraging news in the finding of a relationship between STEM departments where college faculty simply discuss the possibility of teaching and increased student interest. Furthermore, 80 percent of those considering teaching say that incentives such as scholarships would make them more likely to teach.
But federal scholarships for STEM teachers are funded at less than 10 percent of the level "Gathering Storm" recommended, and what STEM majors and new STEM teachers say they most want are better working conditions and higher salaries. These are the hardest goals to achieve.
The current election season underscores the profound discontent with economic prospects and income inequality in the United States. There is no clear solution on how to address it. But education must be part of the solution. Kids from all economic classes and ethnic groups must have true access to fields ranging from computer science to finance. And there will be no cheap online fixes. Unless we finally resolve to pay what it takes to prepare and retain teachers for key STEM subjects, the next 30 years, like the last 30 years, will find us still shocked that our kids are behind, held back by our permanent STEM crisis.
Vol. 36, Issue 10, Page 28Published in Print: October 26, 2016, as STEM Education: A Permanent Crisis?