It is perplexing to many that we continue to have high unemployment and simultaneously have to import foreign workers to fill so many high tech jobs because of the dearth of sufficiently educated domestic workers. There have been numerous attempts to rectify this problem, but they all suffer from similar fallacies such as the myths that our education system is broken or deteriorating or that our teachers are terrible or disinterested or unwilling to persevere in the profession.
Indeed, 30,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers leave the profession each year according to Good Education and this, no doubt, takes a terrible toll on the consistency and integrity of STEM programs. However, K-12 education loses thousands of teachers each year from all disciplines, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with the needs and specifics of STEM teaching. For example, over 100,000 teaching jobs have been lost in the last year, while over 300,000 have been lost since 2008, according to Fire Dog Lake, primarily due to budget cuts resulting from declining tax revenue.
Furthermore, significant numbers of teachers from all disciplines quit within their first three years because they were not sufficiently prepared or are no longer willing to deal with the demands, stress and intensity of the job. And, as Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Blog pointed out last year, the attrition rates in other professions are also relatively high and this may actually be a good thing, especially for K-12 education, as it helps weed out those who are ill-prepared or ill-suited for the profession.
Of course it’s not just about retaining STEM teachers. It is also about attracting them to the profession in the first place. STEM graduates tend to have more remunerative options than humanities and social science graduates, like working for a biotech or software company. To this end, the White House announced last week the creation of an elite STEM Master Teacher Corps, the members of which will serve as models and inspiration for aspiring young STEM teachers, according to the Good Education report.
The Obama plan will begin this year with 50 teachers, expanding to more than 10,000 teachers over the next four years. These "master teachers" would be required to lead professional development and school reform efforts in their schools and districts, create lesson plans and novel strategies to improve their peers’ teaching, and mentor novice teachers to help keep them in the classroom. In exchange for all this extra labor, the “master teachers” will receive a national award recognizing their excellence and a stipend of $20,000 per year.
The Good Education article suggests that while the stipend “might not put them on par with a hot programmer at Google, the compensation will close some of the gap and make their salaries competitive with other careers they might be qualified for.”
Now $20,000 might seem like a substantial sum of money, particularly when many teachers are making only $40,000 per year (or less). However, for a teacher earning $30-40,000 per year base pay, their new salary would hardly be competitive with the IT or Biotech industries. Furthermore, Good’s estimation looks only at the take home pay, not the amount of pay relative to the amount of labor, status and stress.
The typical workload of a teacher includes managing and controlling classrooms of up to 35-40 students while identifying and serving their diverse and unique needs. This, alone, accounts for 5-6 hours (66-80%) of a teacher’s workday. In the remaining time, teachers must design and prepare creative and effective lesson plans; set up labs and projects; read and grade essays, lab reports, exams and other assignments; attend meetings; fill out reams of paper work; satisfy the sometimes contradictory and often overwhelming demands of administrators and local and state ordinances; and regularly communicate with parents. During this time, they have dozens of intense interpersonal interactions, generally with people who are not very good at articulately or respectfully communicating their needs, thus adding stress and frustration to an already overwhelming work day.
Considering these demands, all teachers, regardless of their discipline or location, should be earning six-figures as their base pay, without having to do a lot of extra work, as required by Obama’s STEM plan.
While it is certainly nice to be offered extra money for extra work, $20,000 does not come close to compensating teachers for the amount of work required by Obama’s STEM program. Mentoring novice teachers, alone, could add another 5-10% to a teacher’s already busy workday, especially if it includes frequent observations and meetings to debrief the observations. Curriculum design, too, can be extremely time extensive. Many teachers devote entire summers and/or additional hours after school (without pay) to curriculum design. Likewise, school redesign and reform efforts can eat up weeks or months during the summer, followed by additional daily or weekly labor during the school year.
It should also be pointed out that all this extra work can burn teachers out, taking away attention, patience and focus from their students. Many teachers no doubt have the energy and drive to make this work in the short-term, but the Obama plan calls for a minimum four-year commitment. It is difficult to imagine 10,000 martyrs across the country not only being able to give up so much of their personal lives to the cause of improving STEM education for four or more years, but being able to do it well, without sacrificing the wellbeing of their students and colleagues.
Under the Obama plan, STEM teachers will still to have relatively low status and autonomy (like other teachers), thus contributing to high attrition and difficulty attracting people to profession in the first place. They will continue to be subjected to arbitrary and ill-conceived reforms and legislation (e.g., No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top), attacks on their working conditions and job security (e.g., tenure and evaluation reform), and little to no academic freedom and autonomy in the classroom. They will also continue to be subjected to unreasonable expectations to solve major socioeconomic problems that are beyond their capabilities (like ensuring that low income 9th graders who are reading at the 2nd grade level are able to graduate on time ready to enter a four-year university).
This brings up another faulty premise of the Ed Deform movement: Kids aren’t graduating prepared for career and college because of defects with their schools or teachers. In reality, the minority of students who are not graduating on time or who are graduating without the necessary basic skills for career or college are overwhelmingly low income students who started kindergarten far behind their peers in pre-reading and math skills and who fell further behind as they progressed through school, not because of bad schools or teachers, but because their more affluent peers had a host of after-school and summer advantages that were unavailable to them.
Therefore, if we want to see more students graduating prepared for STEM careers or college we need to address both the increasing poverty of our students and the growing societal wealth gap, as well as the declining revenue available to K-12 education, since education funding can help ameliorate some of the negative educational impacts of poverty (e.g., free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs; after school childcare for young children of working parents). A much more effective use of the $100 million the Obama administration plans on spending on his STEM program would be to increase funding for programs like free and reduced lunch, restoring nursing and counselors to the schools, and adding more after-school and summer enrichment programs for low income children.
This, of course, is unlikely. First, virtually no policy maker acknowledges how much poverty affects educational outcomes and none is willing to invest in programs that reduce poverty, let alone tax the wealthy to do so. Furthermore, the STEM push is coming primarily from industry which wants greater control of its future workforce and increased consumption of its products. It’s not about helping children, especially poor children.
In the short-term, increased STEM education means more computers and iPads in the classroom, which means more profits for tech companies. In the long term, even if it does result in companies hiring more domestic employees, it will be primarily the elite upper echelon of public K-12 educated students who reap the benefits of high paying, high status tech jobs, as it is today. Lower income kids who are behind in their academic skills and course work will continue to have lower graduation and college admission rates, higher unemployment, and fewer job opportunities. Having better trained science teachers will not erase the effects of poverty, improve students’ reading from the 2nd to 11th grade level, or provide a safe, quiet place for them to study.