The National STEM Teacher Shortage Threatens Future Prosperity
America’s competitiveness in the global economy depends on our ability to remain at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological production. Innovation in the STEM fields is so important to the national interest that, for decades, it has been a major priority for presidential administrations, state governments, business and industry leaders, and the education community, as exemplified by the federal five-year STEM strategic plan released earlier this month.
Our collective investment in STEM speaks to a stark, enduring truth: if America does not produce the next generation of breakthrough discoveries and technologies, or a STEM workforce capable of doing so, we will be eclipsed by more ambitious nations.
Perhaps we already have been. Although American institutions and business continue to drive innovation in STEM fields, the ability of our public education system to sustain the pipeline of STEM talent that enables such innovation is very much in doubt. For years, educators, policymakers, and the public have watched with alarm as American students are consistently outperformed in STEM by their international peers. But even as we have rushed to strengthen STEM education at all levels in the U.S., we have not done enough to address one of our most fundamental obstacles. We do not have nearly enough STEM teachers in our public schools.
The national teacher shortage is no secret. In fact, in Arizona, nearly 23 percent of teacher vacancies remained unfilled as of January 2019. The shortage affects classrooms in all academic disciplines, but perhaps most significantly in the STEM fields. It has risen to national importance with the current administration, identifying the shortage as among the most significant impediments to its plan to grow American excellence in the STEM fields. But despite the severity of the shortage and its very real consequences, there has been a surprising lack of urgency at the state and federal levels to find sustainable and scalable ways to expand and strengthen the STEM teacher workforce.
More than half of the school districts in the U.S. report that they struggle to recruit and retain qualified STEM teachers. Here in Arizona, the shortage of STEM educators spans the entire K-12 education continuum and leaves classes on core STEM subjects like math, general science, biology and chemistry without knowledgeable teachers. For example, just 20 percent of eighth grade students have a teacher who majored in math (the national average, 31 percent, is only slightly less dismal). In fact, 40 percent of administrators surveyed by the Morrison Institute, at Arizona State University, say that they have the most difficulty filling math teaching positions.
At the local and national levels, the STEM teacher shortage is likely greater than we realize. Documented shortages only reflect vacant positions for courses that are offered. But when a school knows that it will struggle year after year to fill a STEM teacher position, it may not even offer that course in the first place. As a result, the teacher shortage contributes not only to the decline in the quality of STEM education, but also to the narrowing of STEM learning opportunities at a time when we need many more, not fewer, young people learning STEM en route to higher education and careers in STEM fields.
So how can we prepare, recruit and retain the teachers we need to fill every STEM classroom with a skilled and knowledgeable teacher? It is imperative that we recognize that the STEM teacher shortage is not just a problem for our schools to deal with on their own, or a problem that will be entirely solved by further raising teacher pay. Rather, it requires a collective and multifaceted response, at both the federal and local levels. One thing our community needs to do is to work with our universities and teacher preparation programs to find ways to better incentivize young people to come into the teaching profession and further encourage them to focus in the STEM areas. Community-based and STEM-focused organizations can also provide STEM teachers with professional development opportunities that ensure they feel supported in their work—and have the knowledge and competencies to excel in the classroom.
In addition, we can provide STEM teachers with ongoing training and professional development opportunities that will help teachers engage their students in the STEM fields and increase student academic achievement. Helios Education Foundation and the Arizona Science Center are working together to create more opportunities like this for teachers that will ultimately increase their content knowledge and scientific practices for their classrooms.
This collective response is more urgent than ever. With each passing school year, as more and more students do not have the opportunity to benefit from a quality STEM education, America falls farther and farther behind.