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

by Staff

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

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

As part of the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting here last week, researchers discussed emerging data from the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships, a two decade-old program developed and run by the National Science Foundation, which provides stipends for college students in science, technology, engineering, and math degree fields in exchange for a commitment to teach for at least two years in schools with high poverty, high teacher turnover, or high percentages of teachers working outside of their certification area.

While teacher shortages are a concern for school leaders across subject areas, they are particularly problematic in STEM fields, said Francisco Rodriguez, the director of the Los Angeles Community College District. In the decade before the pandemic, many districts tried to expand their science course offerings—including more physics, environmental science, and other areas—to widen the pipeline of students headed into STEM career fields, but science teacher shortages have forced many districts to shrink those programs, he said.

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

Focused teacher planning needed

University of Houston research scientist Toni Templeton found it isn’t enough for teacher recruiting initiatives to encourage teachers to move toward high-need schools generally; these efforts also need to work with local school and district leaders to identify the highest-need schools and prioritize both teacher-recruitment efforts and retention supports to those schools.

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

While all of the first-year teachers who entered teaching through the Noyce program in Texas worked in schools serving a majority of low-income students, only 37 percent of them went to the highest-poverty schools, and those in the highest-need schools were less likely than first-year teachers overall to stay for a second year.

In fact, teachers who entered the highest-need schools through scholarships turned out to be 9 percentage points less likely to stay in their schools than other new teachers, and teachers who had been fully certified in math or science were half as likely to stay as teachers certified in other content areas.

In part, this could be because science teachers in highly sought content areas could be tempted to go to other schools or other STEM careers, but Templeton said many of the teachers were not leaving education, but were moving into non-instructional roles, such as curriculum designer or teacher mentor.

“We’re taking the best teachers out of the classroom deliberately and putting them into middle management,” she said, arguing that school leaders should consider ways to allow effective science teachers to develop professionally while continuing to teach.

Support for professional goals

In a separate series of studies of science teacher retention across four states from 2007-18, schools that retained their new teachers were more likely to involve existing science and math teachers in their hiring decisions, and to provide opportunities for content teachers to learn together professionally—not just work together on coordinating lesson plans.

Larkin of Montclair State University and his colleagues looked at science teacher turnover in high-need schools in North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, particularly for teachers of color. While teachers who stayed in their initial school did mention practical considerations like salary or their average commuting time, the districts that proved most effective at retaining STEM teachers, particularly teachers of color, were those that focused on ensuring new teachers were a good fit with their schools and felt they had strong professional communities to rely on at school.

“Even if there’s somebody assigned to a new teacher as a kind of mentor, the whole science department is the true mentor,” Larkin said. “Again and again, we saw that people [who stayed in their schools] were able to make connections with other people in content—-places where there were large departments, or people had [professional learning community] opportunities 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 fields, were not likelier to stay than other new teachers. They were often given the same supports as any new teacher, but Larkin said mid-career-switching teachers tended to need different supports from new teachers coming directly from 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 prior research, found STEM teachers were more likely to continue teaching if they felt they were continuing to develop in their science fields of study as well as in education.

“Personal career goals matter, particularly for science teachers,” Larkin said. “Teaching is a profession that requires constant professional development, and we can’t expect them to grow without watering them. We expect it of [science teachers] when we would never expect it of doctors.”

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