America’s colleges and universities have fallen short for decades in providing K-12 schools with teachers, particularly secondary school teachers, in the high-need STEM fields of physics, chemistry, math, and computer science. These shortages continue to have an impact on the quality of STEM education with the ripple effect of discouraging young students from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math themselves. According to an April 2016 report by the Center for Public Education, schools report teaching vacancies in STEM fields more than in other subject areas.
Here’s the good news: Conversations about teaching—between STEM majors (who are not enrolled in teaching-prep programs) and their professors—can change the status quo. In other words, those in higher education are in a position to make a difference, just by encouraging this dialogue. And yet, there is evidence that many university and college professors, particularly in the STEM fields, do not discuss the option of middle and high school teaching with their students.
This leaves students who major in science, math, and related disciplines in the dark about the realities of a profession that might actually interest them if they were exposed to it. A report in January by the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs (for which Michael Marder is the chair-elect) found that student misconceptions about the teaching profession, as well as a lack of discussion on the part of professors, contribute to the current shortage of STEM teachers.
To learn about STEM majors’ attitudes and opinions toward teaching, as well as what colleges and universities can do to increase the number of graduates who pursue K-12 teaching pathways, we surveyed more than 6,000 current undergraduates and more than 1,100 recent graduates from high-need STEM fields (including some who did go into K-12 education) with help from the American Chemical Society, the Computing Research Association, and the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership.
Of the students surveyed, more than 3,500 were computer science majors and there were about 1,000 majors each from physics, chemistry, and mathematics. About half of all STEM majors expressed at least some interest in teaching, indicating a substantial pool from which more teachers could be recruited.
In preliminary findings from this same survey work (which Marder wrote about last fall for the opinion pages in Education Week), we touched briefly on whether STEM professors who discuss K-12 teaching as a profession can have an impact on student interest in teaching. But upon closer inspection of the data, it’s become clear that faculty members can play an even larger role in piquing the interest of their STEM students in teaching, and STEM majors have a greater lack of knowledge than we previously understood. And so, there is more work to be done to help undergraduates understand the full spectrum of STEM career options.
Undergraduate STEM majors underestimate teacher compensation by almost $20,000 per year."
Part of the disconnect between such majors’ interest in teaching and their decision to enter the classroom seems to be caused by a lack of information about working conditions and salary. For example, nearly 100 percent of STEM majors with some interest in teaching say that higher salary would increase their interest. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a U.S. middle school teacher in 2015 was $58,760 and more than $60,000 for a high school teacher. While a teaching salary does lag behind some other STEM professions, undergraduate STEM majors underestimate teacher compensation by almost $20,000 per year. The starting salaries they report would interest them are close to reality for middle and high school teachers.
Undergraduates who major in math indicate the most interest in teaching (54 percent) and are most swayed by incentives, such as scholarships with a teaching commitment or certification programs for undergraduates that do not add time to their completion of a four-year degree. This spike in interest is, in part, because of a stronger teacher-preparation presence in many college and university mathematics departments (as opposed to other STEM disciplines). Predictably, more than half of those majors said their math professors discussed teaching as a professional option. In contrast, in computer science courses, where professors are least likely to discuss teaching as a career, only 36 percent of undergraduates show interest in teaching.
We have several recommendations for STEM professional societies and university and college disciplinary departments to help spark STEM majors’ interest in teaching:
• Impress upon professors and advisers in such departments the importance of promoting middle and high school teaching with undergraduate and graduate students, providing them with accurate information about the teaching profession.
• Support high-quality academic programs that prepare students for STEM teaching and expand strong models to more universities, such as those that support students and graduates financially and academically.
• Advocate for increases of $5,000 to $25,000 in annual teacher compensation, including summer stipends, for teachers in the hardest-to-staff STEM disciplines.
• Support programs that improve the professional life and community of STEM teachers, such as Math for America (which provides professional development for math and science teachers) and Columbia University’s Research Program for Science Teachers.
Providing an equitable and prosperous future for the young people of this country requires helping successful undergraduate and graduate majors become STEM teachers in critical STEM fields, as well as increasing the prestige and benefits of teaching so that those students want to stay in the classroom. It is a challenging task, but one that faculty at public colleges and universities must adopt for the welfare of their communities, and for the benefit of K-12 students who will become the STEM majors of tomorrow.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as Let’s Send More STEM Majors Into Teaching