School & District Management

Educator Loss in STEM Area Called Issue

By Debra Viadero — March 06, 2009 7 min read
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Two University of Pennsylvania researchers are questioning a basic tenet of national efforts to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness: the idea that colleges and universities are producing too few mathematics and science teachers to meet the demand in the nation’s classrooms.

“I admit I’m being heretical,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the university. “But it’s not that we’re producing too few math and science teachers. It’s that we’re losing too many.”

Mr. Ingersoll and his research partner, David Perda, calculate that colleges and universities are producing 2½ times more math and science teachers than schools require to replace those who are retiring.

Moving On

Dissatisfaction topped the list of reasons for leaving their jobs that teachers gave on federal surveys that were examined in a recent study.


SOURCE: Richard M. ingersoll and David Perda

Once analysts factor in the “reserve pool” of teachers—in other words, those who left teaching and are returning to the field, or students who earned education degrees but never taught—the supply is sufficient to replace all the math and science teachers leaving their jobs, for whatever reason, in a given year, the scholars say.

The findings are important, Mr. Ingersoll said, because they suggest that national efforts aimed at expanding the pipeline of new math and science teachers are misdirected. If policymakers really want to ensure that those subjects are being taught by skilled teachers, he said, they ought to focus on retaining the much larger pool of science and math teachers who are already in schools.

Mr. Ingersoll shared the not-yet-published findings last month at the Arlington, Va., headquarters of the National Science Foundation. Whether other experts will buy the argument, however, may depend on how they define “supply.”

“He’s defining the supply of teachers in a different way than economists would,” said Douglas N. Harris, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has also studied teacher-supply issues. “Economists look at how many teachers are willing to teach, given the current wages and working conditions. [Mr. Ingersoll is] saying anybody who’s prepared to teach is part of the supply.”

That definition doesn’t account for undetermined numbers of graduates who veer off the teaching path before they set foot in the classroom, possibly to take a job outside the profession.

“We know we should be paying more attention to teachers in their induction years,” said Hank Kepner, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va. “But this assumes there’s some sort of national assignment of teachers. It’s not like I get a degree and someone immediately sends me to an opening.”

Three Data Sets Eyed

While teacher supply-and-demand issues are much debated, there have been relatively few efforts to examine the issue empirically, Mr. Ingersoll said. The new findings extend previous research he has done that highlighted retention as a central problem for the teaching field overall.

“One of the reactions I received to my earlier work was that, while many agreed that my thesis was true overall, many also claimed that some fields are the exception and truly do have supply shortages—and math and science are always mentioned,” said Mr. Ingersoll.

For their new study, the University of Pennsylvania researchers relied on data from 1999, 2000, and 2001 from three different federal databases: the Schools and Staffing Survey and its supplement, the Teacher Follow-Up Survey, which periodically surveys 50,000 teachers and follows up on 7,000 of them; the Baccalaureate and Beyond Survey, which tracks a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 new bachelor’s-degree recipients; and the Integrated Postsecondary Data System, which gathers a wide range of information from postsecondary education providers.

While some may view the data sets as somewhat dated, the statistics were the most recent available that allowed researchers to study the same time period in all three surveys, Mr. Ingersoll said.

The researchers counted teachers as part of the “supply” if they were qualified to teach and had not taught the previous year. The pool of would-be-teacher hires includes graduates of master’s- or bachelor’s-level education programs, as well as those who earn noneducation degrees in math and science fields but signal their intention to pursue teaching—either by obtaining teaching licenses, taking teacher-certification exams, or applying for teaching jobs.

The researchers calculate, for example, that colleges produced 13,654 eligible science teachers in the 1999-2000 academic year. That’s twice as many as the number of newly minted science teachers who were hired for that school year—6,261—and more than three times as many as the 3,935 science teachers who retired that year.

But the number of new entrants into the pool of science teachers was far smaller than the 21,627 science teachers who left their jobs, for whatever reason, the same year. The total number of science teachers employed for that year was 223,080, the data show.

The pattern is similar for math, where twice as many eligible teaching candidates entered the field as retired in 1999-2000. But the 8,021 newly minted would-be teachers that year fell far short of the 13,750 who left for any reason. The total number of math teachers employed for that year was 182,456.

While the actual number of teachers in the reserve pool is unknown, the researchers were able to determine how many of the teachers hired in 1999-2000 came out of that group. When the researchers added those numbers into the mix, the supply of teachers in both fields was roughly the same as the demand, according to the study.

Feeling the Pinch

None of this means schools aren’t feeling the pinch when it comes to staffing their classrooms. The study shows that over half of all secondary schools—54 percent—had job openings for math teachers in 1999-2000 and 38 percent were looking for physical science teachers.

But the researchers maintain that those difficulties stem more from teacher turnover than from supply-side problems. “For science, those leaving teaching at the end of the year represented 130 percent of those who entered at the beginning of that year,” the study says.

For math, the number of teachers leaving their jobs was 120 percent of the number who entered the pool of qualified candidates at the start of the year. In both fields, retirements accounted for only a small percentage of leavers, suggesting that most of the attrition is not the result of a graying workforce.

The high rate of nonretirement-related job movement led Mr. Ingersoll to suggest that retention, rather than supply, is the key to solving schools’ staffing problems.

“Production is really not the right diagnosis, because we’re pouring water in a leaky bucket,” he said.

The study also found that turnover rates were similar across all teaching fields. Mr. Ingersoll said staffing problems may seem more severe in math and science because the “cushion” of available teachers is thinner in those fields than it is in other subject areas, such as English, for which there is an oversupply of candidates.

The researchers found that math and science teachers leave their jobs for the same reasons as teachers in other fields. Among teachers leaving the profession, for example, 56.8 percent of math teachers, 47.2 percent of science teachers, and 50.1 percent of teachers from all other fields cited “job dissatisfaction” as their main reason for going. In each of the three groups, only about a third left to pursue other jobs.

Schools can reduce turnover, Mr. Ingersoll said, by improving their working conditions—supporting new teachers, for example, offering better pay schedules, getting a handle on student-discipline problems, or showing more effective leadership.

“I’m pleased to see this report talking about retention, because so much of the focus has been around recruitment,” said Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. “I don’t want us singularly to be there.”

Yet other experts said teacher turnover has advantages, too, though they are often overlooked.

Erling E. Boe, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert who is not connected with the study, said his research shows that, in their first five years, teachers who say they’ve had little preparation for the job are five times more likely to leave than those with “considerable preparation,” implying that they possibly should not have been teaching.

And many teachers who switch schools, he said, are moving from an out-of-field to an in-field teaching assignment.

Mr. Boe’s research also suggests that 30 percent of teacher turnover comes as they move into other education jobs: becoming principals, perhaps, or going to work in school districts’ central offices.

“It’s not like there’s a mass exodus of leavers going outside the field,” he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Educator Loss In STEM Area Called Issue


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