Recruitment & Retention Opinion

How Will $1 Billion Change the STEM Teaching Workforce?

By Justin Baeder — July 25, 2012 3 min read
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The Associated Press is reporting that President Obama’s budget proposal includes $1 billion over the next several years for a STEM “Master Teacher Corps.” US News & World Report offers some additional details about the plan’s rationale:

The teachers will be chosen by local school officials, and Duncan anticipates that when the program is in full swing, about 5 percent of STEM teachers will be enrolled. Public schools have long faced a shortage of STEM teachers who have degrees in the subjects they teach, and many of the better-qualified teachers leave for jobs as engineers or mathematicians within five years. Duncan says he hopes the master teacher program will help schools maintain their most talented teachers and will also give new teachers something to aspire to.

The money will go mainly toward $20,000 annual bonuses for the selected teachers. While educators tend not to like things that only benefit a few teachers, I think this is a great development.

EdWeek’s Erik Robelen reports a few more details, including this quote from President Obama:

If America is going to compete for the jobs and industries of tomorrow, we need to make sure our children are getting the best education possible," he said in today's White House press release. "Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support."

Let’s examine the President’s rationale. How might such a program influence the profession?

Competition for Talent
Shifting the economics of being a STEM teacher is a great place to take bold action. STEM subjects currently suffer from competition for talent with higher-paying fields like medicine and high-tech industries. In other words, if you know your STEM content, you can probably do better financially than teaching. This salary gap is so widely known in our society that the creators of Breaking Bad hardly needed to spell it out to make it a central premise of the show: science teachers are underpaid relative to scientists working outside of education, and the same is probably just as true in other STEM subjects. A billion dollars can start to change this.

(Not) Attracting Brilliance
One benefit that the public will perceive to this program is that we’ll be able to get more brilliant domain experts (genius scientists, engineers, and the like) to choose teaching over working in research. I don’t think this will actually happen, or if it does, that it will be a benefit. Genius is not necessarily the difference between an OK teacher and an amazing teacher. A lack of content knowledge can ensure that someone is a poor teacher (especially in more advanced and technical subjects at the high school level), but domain expertise is one of those “necessary but not sufficient” conditions. It also has diminishing returns (Walter White may know his chemistry, but I wouldn’t want my kid in his class).

I think the Master Teacher Corps program will work, but not by plucking geniuses out of labs and dropping them into high school classrooms.

Indirect Impact
Spending a billion dollars to provide stipends that are essentially retention bonuses is not a terribly direct way to increase student achievement in STEM subjects; as with most policy moves, this is somewhat indirect. But it’s not a bad idea, because a talented, professional teaching corps is one of the fundamental building blocks of high student achievement, if the lessons of high-performing nations like Finland are any indication.

How much impact will this program ultimately have? Enrolling 5% of STEM teachers is a laudable target, but it isn’t very many teachers; after all, most secondary schools have fewer than 40 STEM teachers, meaning there would be an average of maybe one or two teachers per school receiving the stipend. But a billion dollars is a healthy chunk of change, so I certainly can’t criticize the ambitious scope of the proposal.

The Catalytic Effect
To really have an impact on recruiting and retention, something will need to be done to encourage school districts and states to replicate this program’s approach on a more local level. Teacher salaries are set at the district (and sometimes state) level, and it’s at this level that we need greater awareness of the need for salary differentials in STEM subjects. While DOE can’t force local authorities to pay STEM teachers more, spending a billion dollars sets a precedent that can’t be ignored.

Career Ladders
The mere existence of a career ladder can play a substantial motivational role for potential STEM teachers. When a sharp college student is considering his or her career prospects, the one where pay is based only on experience, not on performance, is (all else being equal) going to be less desirable. Having the opportunity to advance on your own merits is important both for recruiting and retention.

What do you think of the President’s proposal?

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