Las Vegas Sun

October 14, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Quality STEM education requires commitment to STEM educators

In recent years, Americans have embraced the need for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education for our children.

But naturally, that’s going to require an infusion of STEM teachers into our classrooms. And as suggested by the authors of a new Brookings Institution report, creating an adequate supply of those educators is going to require a lot more than posting want ads.

The report points out that schools are facing significant struggles in recruiting STEM teachers due largely to a combination of two problems. One is a shortage of teachers in subjects across the board. Two, there’s a relatively small number of STEM educators within the overall teacher ranks due to what the report calls a “wage penalty” — the difference between what they could earn in the private sector versus education.

“Individuals with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are hit the hardest when they choose to enter teaching over other careers in their field,” the report says. “Since the STEM teacher pipeline relies heavily on STEM graduates, the large wage penalty faced by these graduates impacts the size and quality of the STEM teacher workforce.”

The authors — who include Brookings senior fellow Michael Hansen and Mary Blankenship, a UNLV undergraduate pursuing the Brookings minor in public policy — say their research concludes that school districts need to increase pay to STEM teachers to make education a more attractive option to graduates in the field.

Stuck with shallow pools of candidates, schools have turned to such means as lowering their teaching certification standards or issuing emergency certifications to fill vacancies. That’s obviously not an ideal outcome for our children.

Another troubling aspect of the shortage is that it’s felt most deeply in high-poverty schools, where relatively high turnover and the short supply of replacements have prompted some schools to reduce STEM class offerings.

“During the 2013-14 school year, only a third of high schools where black and Latino students made up three-fourths or more of the student body offered calculus, and these schools were less likely than other schools to offer physics and chemistry courses,” the report says.

The result is that students lag behind in science and math proficiency, not only at high-poverty schools but in general.

To build a deeper pool, the authors suggest changes in both salary and recruitment strategy. Although teacher unions tend to resist higher base salaries for STEM teachers, other options include incentives for hard-to-staff subjects and retention in low-performing schools.

The report also spotlights a program, UTeach, which allows STEM students an opportunity to obtain their teaching certification and their primary degree on a parallel track without needing extra time to graduate.

Nevada made headway in education during this year’s legislative session, as lawmakers approved funding for teacher raises and other school needs. That should help in attracting and retaining teachers in our state.

But as the Brookings researchers point out, the challenges with filling STEM teaching vacancies are a whole other animal. To build a pipeline capable of meeting the critical need for these educators, communities nationwide need to make the classroom a more attractive place for STEM grads.