Pioneer Study: Adopt Innovative Approaches to Address K-12 STEM Teacher Shortage

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Endow STEM chairs, explore “executives to educators” options

BOSTON – States and school districts should look to innovations like endowing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) chairs in high schools to address a growing K-12 teacher shortage, according to a new white paper published by Pioneer Institute.

“Engineering a Solution: Elevating STEM Teacher Quality” recommends districts consider “experts in residence” and “executives to educators” programs to attract individuals with life and industry experience who may wish to teach but are deterred by a lack of certification or a potential reduction in earnings if they leave industry.

“A recent article in District Administration found that of the 10 hardest school positions to fill, five are in STEM education,” said Gerard Robinson, who co-authored the paper with Cara Candal. “Today’s students can’t wait for states to produce tomorrow’s STEM teachers,” he said.

Nationwide, around 200,000 education degrees were awarded annually in the mid-1970s, but fewer than 90,000 in 2018-19. The number of STEM teachers graduating from education preparation programs is also falling — from 25,000 in 2010 to fewer than 15,000 in 2022.

Retention is also a problem. Many teachers leave the profession within five years, meaning a large percentage of teachers in some districts are nearing retirement.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to gaps in our teaching workforce, as the use of teachers without the required certifications and training ballooned. Of those teaching with emergency certifications in Massachusetts in 2021, 23 percent were in math, and 51 percent in science.

Failure to attract more STEM teachers could curtail growth in those sectors, which could hit technology-rich states particularly hard. In Massachusetts, for example, 40 percent of all jobs require or depend upon STEM degrees.

“Our country has successfully used incentives to increase the number of students majoring in STEM,” said Candal. “We can use a similar approach to encourage more college graduates to enter and remain in the STEM teaching workforce.”

The paper recommends:

  • Inviting corporations, state agencies, and philanthropists to endow chairs for high school STEM teachers. The endowments would fund state-of-the-art technology, learning resources, and higher salaries.
  • Inviting STEM organizations to lend professionals to school districts for a limited time. Harvard’s Experts in Residence program, for example, gives faculty access to experts in entrepreneurship and venture capital, helping develop new teaching ideas.
  • Making it easier to switch to teaching by offering accelerated evening and/or online programs that allow prospective teachers to keep their day jobs while training. Partners such as chambers of commerce could cover costs and match candidates to jobs.

Some of these programs might be better suited to charter schools, which often enjoy greater discretion in hiring and pay than district public schools.

In some states, vocational-technical schools, which are already focused on preparing students for STEM fields, have autonomy similar to charter public schools. Policymakers should look at laws and regulations to ensure these institutions have the flexibility needed to accommodate innovative approaches to attracting and retaining additional STEM teachers.