Why Focus on TeachersSTEM education is seen as the silver bullet that can prepare students for a future economy and workforce that is rapidly evolving. However, in many schools, some teachers are not prepared for the subjects that they teach. In many areas, teachers do not study a STEM subject while getting their college degrees, instead focusing on a general education path. While this may prepare teachers to function well in the classroom, it ignores content mastery. Fewer than half of science, chemistry and physics teachers hold degrees in their fields while fewer than a quarter of math teachers have a degree in mathematics. This culminates in an environment where teachers can be struggling just to keep up. In these environments, it can be hard to add to provided content with outside knowledge, enrichment activities, or other non-standardized lessons. And if students are not engaged, they risk falling out of the STEM pipeline.
Further, studies have shown that excellent teachers can cram two years of learning into a single school year while a bad teacher can only cover half the required material. In an age when too many students are already behind in STEM, schools owe students every opportunity to help them succeed.
Looking Outside the BoxMost teachers knew in college that they were going to be teachers. They typically entered school or changed majors to get an education degree. Upon graduation, they entered the nation's school systems. At this point, many have to master the content they have been told to teach on the fly to meet with job demands. However, this model leaves out an enormous chunk of students who are already prepared to teach STEM subjects. These students already have content mastery of the material, and they have a passion for these industries. They are, of course, students receiving STEM degrees.
These individuals are a natural fit for the STEM classroom. They know the material, and they are typically the students best prepared to succeed in STEM higher education. A 2003 ACT study found that only 37 percent of general education majors met ACT math benchmarks while only 22 percent met ACT science benchmarks. While those specifically studying math and science education did significantly better, only approximately 3,500 a year were planning on pursuing this path (as opposed to approximately 80,000 pursuing a general education degree). Even more troubling, more than 76,000 students interested in an education degree in 2012 were "fairly sure" or "very sure" that they did not want to pursue a career teaching math or science. All of this combines to create an environment where education programs may be thriving, but they may not have the best supply of students for the STEM classroom.
Instead, some universities and policymakers have started to look toward STEM departments to help bridge this teacher gap. The University of California at Irvine has begun a concerted effort to encourage people in STEM programs to consider education as a career option. Through the California Teach initiative, they have recruited faculty and staff at their school to encourage students to consider education as a career option. They have provided support centers inside the departments for those considering a career in education, and they have helped kindle interest by exposing potential candidates to classrooms early on in their education careers. However, they have not left the education department behind. In many cases, they encourage students to pursue a minor in education so that they have a well-rounded pedagogical understanding of the career that they will potentially enter.
This is just one example of how this sort of recruitment pathway could work. An Education Commission of the States report found that there is a connection between non-standard and innovative paths into education and a higher likelihood that a new teacher will remain in the teaching profession. These kinds of programs provide several implications for people who are interested in expanding the pool of available STEM educators.
Policymakers should work to make it possible for those with STEM degrees to more easily enter the STEM classroom; after all, if a teacher is going to be trained on subject material in order to teach, why can't a STEM degree holder be taught education skills? Further, policymakers at both the state and federal levels can work to create incentives among STEM teaching graduates through loan forgiveness or guaranteed work. Universities should continue to advocate for students in STEM disciplines to consider teaching as a career. And we as a society should continue to move away from the old adage that "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach." If the American school system is going to adequately prepare today's students for tomorrow's workforce, then it needs the best possible educators it can get its hands on. It needs people passionate about education, but it also needs those who are subject masters and who can spark a love of science and math through an infectious shared experience. By making teaching a real option for more people in the STEM sector, schools can start to bridge the STEM teacher gap, enabling the country to better address the upcoming STEM worker problem.