This piece originally appeared in The 74.
Now more than ever, a high-quality STEM education matters. The STEM fields cultivate curiosity and creativity while preparing students to reach their highest potential in work and life. They are also critical for personal and national prosperity: In the next decade, almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations will require intermediate or advanced knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.
Unfortunately, access to a high-quality STEM education is deeply inequitable, limiting opportunities for students while they are still in high school. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of African-American and Latino students don’t offer Algebra II — a prerequisite for many higher-level STEM courses — and a third of these schools do not offer chemistry. Given the existence of these STEM deserts, it’s no surprise that people of color are significantly underrepresented in the growing STEM workforce.
One reason schools struggle to provide access to STEM courses is a shortage of effective STEM educators. More than half of U.S. public school districts, including more than 90 percent of districts serving large populations of African-American and Latino students, report difficulties recruiting and retaining certified, knowledgeable STEM teachers.
Those shortages make the focused development of future STEM educators critical. The National Math and Science Initiative has widely replicated the UTeach program, an initiative at the University of Texas at Austin to help students pursuing undergraduate degrees in math and science also secure teacher certification. As of spring 2016, more than 60 percent of educators certified through the UTeach Expansion program were working in school systems that serve high proportions of African-American and Latino students.
But there is more to do. Without a great STEM teacher in every classroom, we will continue to fall short — depriving students of opportunities and hindering economic progress.
So what can we do? Over the past several months, Education First and the National Math and Science Initiative have been working on a strategy for how to best address this issue. Although our work isn’t complete, we’ve learned a few lessons:
1. Teacher shortages must be understood — and addressed — at the local level.
Though the STEM teacher shortage is a national issue, it disproportionately affects students in low-income urban and rural communities. Often, local teacher shortage numbers are artificially depressed by the lack of STEM offerings in schools. For instance, if a high school doesn’t offer calculus — and half of our nation’s high schools do not — the school is not counted as lacking a calculus teacher. We should dig more deeply into local data to identify specific shortages and their causes, and then craft tailored strategies to address them.
2. STEM majors need better incentives to become STEM teachers — and stay in the classroom.
Graduates with STEM backgrounds typically have many career options that are higher-paying and perceived as more prestigious than teaching. Increasing salaries in subject shortage areas and creating flexible, high-quality paths to teacher certification for STEM professionals could help recruitment efforts. Additionally, more opportunities for expert teachers to learn from and collaborate with one another through programs like Math for America would enable STEM teachers to grow in their expertise and could help schools retain strong STEM teachers.
3. STEM teacher preparation programs should focus more on content-specific pedagogy and match production goals to local needs.
Learning to teach well looks different across content areas, grade levels, and localities. Yet many STEM teacher preparation programs don’t focus on the development of teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge — the skills to effectively teach a specific subject — leading many to struggle in the classroom. Furthermore, many teacher prep programs don’t encourage and recruit candidates to train in subject areas that are in demand locally, causing an overproduction of teachers in certain grades and subject areas and leaving key shortages unaddressed. Supporting teacher prep programs in STEM deserts to work more closely with local districts could help.
4. Organizations must work together to increase awareness of this urgent shortage.
Though the causes and manifestations of the STEM teacher shortage differ across localities, the impact on students in low-income communities and students of color across the country is widespread and pernicious. Key players, including teacher prep programs, school districts, policymakers, industry leaders, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropies, should come together to tell this story in a compelling way to inspire strategic action.
Recruiting and retaining effective STEM teachers, especially for traditionally underserved communities, isn’t easy. But with a strengthened internal strategy, and with support from policymakers, educators, and advocates, we can move forward.
Melissa Moritz, former deputy director of STEM initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education, is vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Math and Science Initiative. Emily Weiss, former deputy chief academic officer at the New York City Department of Education, is a principal at Education First Consulting.