President Barack Obama has repeatedly emphasized a need to better educate and train more workers to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, challenging the country to recruit and train 100,000 new science and math teachers by 2021 to fill what is predicted to be a significant shortage of experience and effective teachers in those fields.
Building off that call to action, the National Math and Science Initiative announced Tuesday it will award $1.45 million to each of five universities -- Drexel University, Florida International University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Maryland at College Park -- to create UTeach programs, through which undergraduates simultaneously earn teaching credentials and STEM bachelor’s degrees.“The severe shortage of qualified math and science teachers in the United States is undoubtedly contributing to our nation’s growing STEM education crisis,” NMSI Chief Executive Officer Sara Martinez Tucker said in a statement. “By increasing access to the proven UTeach model, we’re helping create a pipeline of highly-skilled teachers who will both inspire and challenge our students to become the math and science leaders of tomorrow.”
With a $22.5 million investment from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which was first announced last March, NMSI expects five more universities will receive grants to start UTeach partner programs in the fall of 2015. Through that expansion of the UTeach program -- to 45 universities -- the program is expected to produce more than 9,000 math and science teachers by 2020.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama traced a theme of income inequality in America, outlining how changes in different sectors can help alleviate problems for thousands of individuals. One of the solutions he proposed is better educating the future workforce, and arming them with job-specific skills to better fit employers’ needs.
“Teachers and principals...are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy -- problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of this change is hard,” Obama said. “It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.”
Growth in STEM occupations is expected to far outpace job growth in other areas. According to data from the Department of Education, jobs for biomedical engineers will increase by 62 percent by 2020, while jobs in software development and medical science are expected to increase by 32 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
That increase, combined with the number of current workers who will retire in the next few years, will result in 2.4 million STEM job vacancies by 2018, according to a 2011 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. At the same time, just 28 percent of college graduates receive a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
To fill that gap, Obama also urged colleges and universities to graduate an additional 1 million students with STEM majors.But having a highly-qualified army of teachers is integral to achieving that goal, says Gregg Fleisher, chief academic officer at NMSI.
“Basically, it’s a national security issue. If we are going to continue to thrive as a world leader, we need to continue to be a leader in math and science,” Fleisher says. “Without having enough qualified teachers to be able to teach the students and get them excited about it, interested and matriculating into the STEM fields, it’s not going to happen.”
In many states, Fleisher says, colleges of education are producing math and science teachers in the single digits.
“Some states are producing one or two physics teachers a year,” he says. “There’s no way that we would be able to continue to be a world leader if we are going to produce those kinds of numbers.”
In recent years, a nationwide problem with retaining effective teachers has surfaced, due to what’s known as the “revolving door” effect. Teachers often leave the profession within five years -- before they’ve had the time to gain experience. Nationally, 65 percent of teachers are still in schools five years after starting, according to NMSI. But that high turnover rate is particularly harmful for students in disadvantaged schools, which typically receive a disproportionate amount of ineffective teachers.
By comparison, about 90 percent of graduates from the first UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin enter teaching after graduation. And of those new teachers, about 80 percent are still teaching five years later.
While the majority of UTeach partner programs at 35 other universities produced their first graduates during 2011-12, the retention rates are similar: 78 percent of graduates entered teaching, and 98 percent remained employed by a school or district as of January. The majority of those teachers (69 percent) are also working in low-income schools, according to UTeach.
William Kiker, a math teacher at Austin High School in Texas, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, through the UTeach program. He says part of the reason UTeach graduates stay in the profession longer is because they have four years to gain experience in the field, and are supported by professional teachers along the way.[SEE ALSO: Tech Companies Work to Combat Computer Science Education Gap]
“You have an opportunity to see a plethora of successful teachers...that love their job. And you’re exposed to that love and that passion from the very beginning as a freshman,” Kiker says. “That gives the graduates an opportunity to anticipate any challenging situations they may be in when they get into their own teaching career, and gives them the tools to be successful enough to stay and stick it out and find what works and what doesn’t work.”
Other alternative routes to teaching careers, such as the Teach for America program, have been criticized by education groups for their short training periods, which typically last six to eight weeks, and for the fact that many leave after their two years of service. A 2011 study published in the Phi Delta Kappan magazine, for example, found that just 28 percent of TFA recruits were still teaching after five years.
“I see sometimes teachers have become sort of jaded in what their passion used to be. It’s not that they were never once effective, it’s that they were effective and sort of lost that fire that made them want to become a teacher to begin with,” Kiker says. “It is an important job of UTeach to also build the effectiveness of teachers...and to be able to build all of their content knowledge, but also instill that desire to go out and change the world.”