Support. Collaborate. Retain: Strategies For Improving The STEM Teaching Crisis
Every year about this time, as college grads clamor for their elusive first job, a debate naturally arises about which degrees are the most employable. “College Grads Need Skills, Not Liberal Arts,” is the title of one such heated exchange hosted on Time.com. Framing the issue this way misses the point. College graduates looking for jobs need a wide range of skills. Many different types of degrees, liberal arts included, can be a route to gaining them.
Still some degree holders, most often those earning degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM subjects), are more attractive to potential employers. Hidden behind all of this is an assumption that these more “concrete” majors magically confer employable “skills,” and that liberal arts and social science majors do not.
The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has pointed out that the demand for workers holding STEM degrees is really a "proxy for the demand for underlying competencies.” Critical thinking; active learning; problem solving; and mathematical, inductive and deductive reasoning – skills valuable in work and in life generally – are just a few of these competencies.
The National Governors Association estimates that 70 percent of all jobs – not just those in technical fields – created in the next few years will require at least some STEM competency. What stats like this suggest is that every college graduate, regardless of whether he or she is earning a degree in classics or computer science would benefit from a solid STEM foundation.
That foundation begins with early childhood and elementary education and proceeds through high school and college. The ability to reason and to solve problems scientifically – the true skill set so in demand by employers – is something we should start learning in elementary school.
When the numbers are added up, many feel our educational system is producing enough qualified individuals to fill the ranks of most PhD-level positions. The larger issue is that we fail to provide basic science and math problem solving skills to the majority of American school children. Troubling statistics show that even after 25 years of rhetoric around the vital nature of STEM education, the average number of hours an elementary school student spends studying science continues to decline, and the U.S. remains behind other industrialized nations in achievement tests of math and science.
One of the most often-cited reasons for the STEM achievement gap is a lack of skilled and trained STEM teachers. The greatest percentage of under-qualified teachers at the K-12 level is found in STEM disciplines – 40 percent of high school math teachers and 20 percent of science teachers in high needs areas lack a higher education degree in the subject they instruct.
The recruitment of highly qualified teachers into the STEM teaching workforce has received a tremendous amount of attention in the past few years. But once teachers are in the classroom, they often experience poor workplace conditions, lack of support from peers and school leadership, and pay that does not reflect their qualifications or amount of work. Without solving the retention crisis, America has little chance of making a dent in the STEM crisis.
Demos and the New York Academy of Sciences have just released a report called Support, Collaborate, and Retain which talks about ways to address the STEM teaching crisis and offers concrete suggestions for anyone wanting to help solve it.
While physical working conditions, lack of access to basic resources, and student demographics create major challenges for teachers, school culture plays a large role in teacher retention and student achievement. Level of teacher autonomy, the amount of professional respect, the amount of administrative support, and the number of opportunities for collaboration found within a school all greatly affect teacher retention.
Math teachers, for example, who feel a high degree of classroom autonomy are 70 percent less likely to leave their schools than their cohorts who do not. New teachers who feel they have collaborative relationships at work are 40 percent less likely to leave their schools than those who do not.
As we say in the report, autonomy, collaboration and support in schools can take a variety of forms, and we can all play a role in making them happen. What is encouraging about all of this work is that there are concrete things that those working in education, those of us in the policy world, and engaged scientists and business people who care about this issue, can do to improve the teaching of STEM skills. This is the first and the most essential step in making sure that every graduate leaves schools with the “skills” that will benefit them most in the long term. - Jennifer Wheary
This summary was reprinted with permission from PolicyShop, the policy blog of Demos.