Collaborating to Solve the STEM Teaching Crisis

06/13/2012 06:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2012

For most K-12 students, the school year has just ended or is about to end. While the kids head out for vacation, a good number of their instructors are deciding whether or not they will return to teaching in the Fall. Teacher turnover is a costly national problem. It takes about $3 billion each year to replace K-12 teachers who leave, according to a conservative estimate by the Alliance for Excellent Education. In addition to the financial costs of having to replace teachers and retrain new ones, high teacher turnover is associated with lower student achievement.

Teacher retention is an issue that cuts across subject areas, but it dramatically affects the learning of science and math. Math and science teachers are the most likely to leave the teaching profession altogether due to job dissatisfaction, and math and science teacher turnover has increased by 33 percent over the past two decades.

One of the most often-cited reasons for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) achievement gap is a lack of skilled and trained teachers. The greatest percentage of under-qualified teachers at the K-12 level is found in STEM disciplines. Forty percent of high school math teachers and 20 percent of science teachers in high needs areas lack a higher education degree in the subject they instruct.

Support, Collaborate, Retain, a new report by Demos and the New York Academy of Sciences, shows that while physical working conditions, lack of access to basic resources, and student demographics create major challenges for teachers, school culture plays a large role in teacher retention. Level of teacher autonomy, the amount of professional respect and the amount of administrative support found within a school all greatly affect whether teachers stay or go.

Beginning teachers who identify their administration as "supportive" and find their schools collaborative feel encouraged along the way, believe they will continually improve in their careers, want to remain at their current schools, and are content with their decision to do so. Teachers who are able to collaborate with other teachers and attend new teacher seminars are less likely to change schools or leave the profession than teachers who do not begin their careers with these types of support at hand.

Collaboration and interaction between teachers can take a variety of forms. The form does not seem to be as important as the opportunity to engage with teachers who have faced similar experiences in a non-judgmental, low-pressure environment to exchange information and to provide mutual support.

Teachers feel more satisfied and competent and perform better when they regularly interact with other teachers in this type of environment. Supportive environments help teachers recognize their interdependence, develop high standards for their work, readily share what they know, and promote continuous learning by all.

Teachers and schools can pursue collaborative opportunities in a variety of ways, formal and informal, on-site and virtual. Creativity in working within the structure of a given school and the reality of the school day are important. Teachers can participate in teacher workshops, ongoing small group discussions, or instructional planning meetings with others. Networking of any sort, whether it is face-to-face or electronic, is extremely beneficial to teachers and is linked to increased retention.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) can provide an effective means of supporting teachers and encouraging collaboration. A three-year longitudinal study of more than 300 teachers who participated in PLCs as part of the California Science Project Teacher Retention Initiative, coordinated by Julia Rankin, found that participation in a PLC was associated with longer retention. PLC participants experienced increased confidence in their teaching abilities, especially with regard to assessing student learning. The more confident teachers felt, the longer they anticipated staying in the profession. The PLCs studied provided the most effective learning experiences and were viewed most positively by participants when they focused on improving student learning and had the flexibility to pursue teachers' needs by evolving their goals, practices, and priorities accordingly.

The creative cooperation of individuals and institutions can achieve impressive results in developing formal and informal opportunities for teachers to gain support and professional development within and outside of their schools. Teachers, for example, can include school culture as an important factor when deciding to teach at a certain school. They can also take steps to build a network of peers who can provide the support that is lacking in their schools. Teachers can look for opportunities to refresh and update their own understanding of STEM subjects, both within and outside of their area of expertise. These opportunities might include engaging in summer internships, participating in workshops, and pursuing links or collaborative projects with the scientific community.

Teacher educators can make teacher networking and networks part of their teacher education programming. They can also build virtual platforms using existing technology (i.e. LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) that will link current students to alumni and endure through time and as teachers move geographically. School leaders can create structural changes that allow for teacher collaboration and incorporate elements of shared planning time, interdisciplinary study teams, and interdisciplinary project-based learning environments. Government, scientific, and cultural institutions can also play a role, by encouraging their scientists and staff to get involved in outreach with local teachers and to provide training and programs to help facilitate this.

Part of the solution to retaining STEM teachers involves influencing workplace culture and helping teachers create more supportive environments and extended networks with better collaboration and communication. Academic research and the feedback of individual teachers suggest that these "softer skills" have the potential to make significant impact on even the hard realities faced by teachers working in challenging situations.

Issues of crumbling infrastructures or dramatic funding shortfalls are real challenges faced by schools. They are not going away any time soon. In the meantime, schools and communities are places where individuals can work together, quite literally, to make important improvements.

For more information, or to learn how you can help solve the STEM teaching crisis, download the Support, Collaborate, Retain report.