For years, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said teachers have to be more respected in the United States. Wednesday, he'll get his wish—the Obama administration plans to form a corps of "master teachers" who will specialize in science, technology, engineering, and math and will receive annual bonuses of up to $20,000.
"If America is going to compete for the jobs and industries of tomorrow, we need to make sure our children are getting the best education possible," Obama said in a statement. "Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support."
The program is the latest in a series of White House initiatives to promote STEM education—the administration says it's critical that American students' achievement improves from the middle of the pack internationally, where they lag behind countries such as South Korea, China, and Finland.
Within the next four years, the White House hopes to spend $1 billion in what Duncan calls "new money" to support up to 10,000 master teachers. The money is included in Obama's 2013 budget request being considered by Congress. Despite the Republican-controlled House's unwillingness to spend on new programs, Duncan said it's imperative that this program is approved.
"I would hope and fully anticipate Republicans and Democrats will come together to support great talent in our schools. It's in our country's best long-term economic interest, and I can't think of a better place for bipartisan cooperation," he said during a press conference call.
According to Roberto Rodriguez, a special assistant to Obama for education, "master teachers" will be chosen by local education leaders and will be expected to spend at least four years in the position.
"They'll be an elite group of teachers leading their communities. They'd lead professional development [courses], mentorship activities, and would be regularly contributing new lesson plans and strategies to transform and improve science and math teaching," Rodriguez said in a media call about the program.
The teachers will be chosen by local school officials, and Duncan anticipates that when the program is in full swing, about 5 percent of STEM teachers will be enrolled. Public schools have long faced a shortage of STEM teachers who have degrees in the subjects they teach, and many of the better-qualified teachers leave for jobs as engineers or mathematicians within five years. Duncan says he hopes the master teacher program will help schools maintain their most talented teachers and will also give new teachers something to aspire to.
"We're trying to reward, encourage, and incentivize [teaching] talent in a way this country has never done before," Duncan said. "It's clear STEM are high-demand fields for both teaching talent and for job growth in high-wage sectors … this will help us attract and retain [teachers]."
Wednesday's announcement comes two years after the creation of the STEM Master Teacher Corps was recommended in a 2010 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In that report, the authors said the program would "significantly and visibly reward excellence in STEM teaching, signal the importance of the profession, and elevate the level of STEM teachers by setting a new bar for excellence."
Tom Luce, who worked on that commission and is chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on STEM teacher training, said in an E-mail that Wednesday's announcement was a victory for America's children.
"This was an important recommendation of the working group I was honored to be a part of," he wrote. "Our finest teachers deserve and want this recognition."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org