STEM and Teachers: The Critical Link

Recruiting, training, and equally distributing effective math and science teachers must be a priority.


Yolie Flores, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member, is CEO of Communities for Teaching Excellence.

It's becoming a well-known fact that American students' math and science skills are simply inadequate. We've all heard the numbers. For example, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. 12th graders were almost last among students from 20 nations assessed in advanced math and physics. But what's even more alarming is that within our own country, entire segments of our student population are being denied a high-quality education in math and science. 

The gap separating black and Latino students from white students in math and science proficiency is distressingly large. On the 2009 NAEP Math assessment, 33 percent of white 12th graders were proficient, while only 11 percent of Latino 12th graders and a mere 6 percent of black 12th graders were. We see similar gaps on the 2009 NAEP Science assessment, where only 27 percent of white 12th graders were proficient, but only 8 percent of Latino 12th graders and 4 percent of black 12th graders were. 

If the United States is going to create generations of young people who are prepared to compete in the global economy, we need to ensure all of our students are prepared for success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. 

A critical step toward accomplishing this goal involves teachers. Fifteen years of research makes clear that of all things within a school's control, the quality and effectiveness of a child's teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. If we're going to improve our students' knowledge in math and science, then we must focus on improving our teachers' knowledge of these same subjects. This requires nothing short of rethinking the way we recruit, retain, evaluate, and support teachers in these critical fields. 

Right now, there is a shortage of qualified and effective math and science teachers in our classrooms. Recent analyses indicate that an astounding number of STEM field teachers did not major or minor in the discipline they teach. About 30 percent of high school math students and 60 percent of those enrolled in physical sciences have teachers who either did not major in the subject or are not certified to teach it. The situation is even worse for low-income students: 70 percent of their middle school math teachers majored in some other subject. 

How can we expect our students to master content when their teachers may not have mastered it? How can we ask teachers to prepare lessons in subjects in which they lack background knowledge? How can we close the achievement gap that separates low-income students from their wealthier peers when we provide low-income students with so many teachers lacking the necessary subject-area knowledge? 

Recruiting, training, supporting, and equally distributing highly effective math and science teachers must be a top priority for the United States. Fortunately, there are schools, districts, and universities dedicated to this goal; their efforts can show us the way forward. 

As part of its new teacher evaluation and support program, the Denver Public Schools system is rolling out peer observers to assist current teachers. As one peer observer told us, "I've been able to apply my math background, teaching experience, and knowledge of best practice as I observe and provide feedback to math teachers here in Denver. This targeted feedback helps teachers reflect on their instructional practice, implement immediate changes, and begin improving results with students right away." Denver also has a teacher residency program focused on increasing the supply of STEM teachers and retaining excellence, in part by using content-focused classroom effectiveness rubrics for current teachers. 

In Los Angeles, the LA Math and Science Residency is a partnership between Loyola Marymount University's Center for Math and Science Teaching and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. The program advances student achievement by developing highly trained, effective math and science teachers who are dedicated to becoming transformative leaders in math and science education in high-need urban schools. It pairs highly trained, certified math and science teachers with aspiring STEM teachers who have strong math or science content knowledge.