How to Keep Science Teachers in the Schools That Need Them Most

As districts nationwide grapple with shortages of math and science teachers, new research suggests that incentives to attract teachers to the job may not be as important in the long run as having a strong professional community within schools offer that encourages them to stay.

“We know that retaining science teachers is important; we can’t just say, let’s hire new teachers,” said Douglas Larkin, professor of teaching and learning at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

As part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here last week, researchers discussed new data from the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships, a two-decade-old program developed and operated by the National Science Foundation that awards scholarships to college students Science, technology, engineering, and math majors in exchange for a commitment to teach for at least two years in schools with high levels of poverty, high teacher turnover, or a high percentage of teachers working outside of their certification area.

While teacher shortages are a problem for principals in all subject areas, it’s particularly problematic in STEM fields, said Francisco Rodriguez, the director of the Los Angeles Community College District. In the decade leading up to the pandemic, many districts sought to expand their offerings of science courses — including more physics, environmental sciences, and other fields — to expand the pipeline of students moving into STEM career fields, but shortages of teachers for Science has forced many districts to shrink those programs, he said.

“Ninety percent of students in low-income schools now don’t have access to physics courses,” Rodriguez said.

Targeted teacher planning required

Toni Templeton, researcher at the University of Houston found It is not enough for teacher recruitment initiatives to encourage teachers to go to high-need schools in general; This effort must also work with local school and district leaders to identify the schools with greatest need and prioritize both teacher recruitment efforts and assistance in retaining those schools.

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Templeton and her colleagues at the University of Houston Education Research Center studied how nearly 1,000 Noyce-supported teachers trained in Texas, a state where more than half of all schools over the age of 20 qualified for the program.

While all of the first-year teachers who entered the classroom through the Noyce program in Texas worked in schools that served a majority of low-income students, only 37 percent of them attended the schools with the highest levels of poverty and those with the most less likely than first-year teachers to stay a second year overall.

In fact, teachers who entered the schools through scholarships remained 9 percentage points less likely than other new teachers, and teachers who had a full degree in math or science were less likely to do so there remained, half as high, teachers who are certified in other content areas.

In part, that might be because science teachers in high-demand content areas might be tempted to move to other schools or other STEM careers, but Templeton said many of the teachers aren’t leaving the training but are moving into non-teaching roles, such as teaching science curriculum designer or teacher mentor.

“We deliberately take the best teachers out of the classroom and into middle management,” she said, arguing that school leaders should consider ways in which effective science teachers can advance professionally while continuing to teach.

Support for professional goals

In a separate series of studies of science teacher retention in four states from 2007 to 2018, schools that retain their new teachers were more likely to include existing science and math teachers in their hiring decisions, and provide subject teachers with opportunities to learn together professionally—not just coordinate lesson plans together.

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Larkin of Montclair State University and his colleagues studied science teacher turnover in high-need schools in North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, particularly among color teachers. While teachers who stayed at their original school mentioned practical considerations like salary or their average commute time, the districts that proved most effective at retaining STEM teachers, especially teachers of color, were those that focused on making sure that new teachers were a good fit for their schools and felt that the school had strong professional communities they could rely on.

“Even if a new teacher is assigned someone as a sort of mentor, the entire science faculty is the real mentor,” Larkin said. “We’ve seen these people over and over again [who stayed in their schools] were able to make substantive connections with other people – places where there were or were large departments [professional learning community] Ways to get help with their content by connecting with others.”

The researchers also found that older teachers who had just started teaching after careers in other STEM subjects were no more likely to stay than other new teachers. They often received the same support as any new teacher, but Larkin said teachers who switched mid-career tended to need different support from new teachers coming straight out of college. While they had more content background and experience, they often had less understanding of pedagogical and classroom management approaches.

Larkin’s study, like some previous research, found STEM teacher more likely to continue teaching when they felt they were making progress in both their science studies and their education.

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“Personal career goals are important, especially for science teachers,” Larkin said. “Teaching is a profession that requires constant professional development and we cannot expect them to grow without watering them. We expect it from [science teachers] if we never expected it from doctors.”

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