In his State of the Union address in 2011, President Barack Obama made a pledge to train one hundred thousand new teachers for the school system. There were many reasons for this – the Baby Boomer generation is about to start retiring, which will leave many open positions in our schools. Also, because of the stigma of low pay, many students don’t want to pursue teaching as a career, and most top tier schools don’t train scientists and mathematicians for the classroom but for the private sector.
And so the idea for STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) was born – the government was to work with major universities on creating programs to educate a new wave of teachers, and produce some 100,00 new teachers within the next decade.
And now the STEM program seems to be moving forward, thanks in part to a large donation from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who gave twenty two million dollars and change to the cause. The money will go toward expanding a program called Uteach into ten of the top ranked research schools in the country. The initial phase will take about five years to implement.
UTeach was started in 1997, at the University of Texas. The underpinning theme of the program was the belief that STEM teachers needed two important elements – a thorough and complete knowledge of their subject, and the ability to teach this subject to students. It turns out this combination of skills is much more rare than previously thought.
Among US high school math teachers, about fifty two percent of them hold a degree in math. Sixty one percent of high school science teachers hold degrees in science. Going down to middle school the numbers get much worse – only twenty three percent of math teachers have in-field degrees, and only twenty six percent of science teachers.
The program will recruit promising undergraduate math and science students from local school districts, and encourage them to join STEM and adopt it as their major. The university will coordinate between the school of liberal arts and the school of education (as well as local public school districts), and when the degree is complete the student will be qualified for STEM and certified for teaching.
STEM students will develop a deep knowledge of their area of focus, and simulteneously learn the teaching skills needed to pass that knowledge on to high school or middle school students.
In the early years of STEM, the results have been noteworthy. Teaching is a profession with a huge amount of loss; over forty percent of teachers quit teaching within five years. Graduates of STEM have a retention rate of over eighty percent. This is attributed to the unique program, and how it allows the students to get their feet wet and beging teaching at the start of their education, giving them a chance to decide if they enjoy teaching or not before being thrown into a classroom.