Highly Trained STEM Teachers Needed to Boost America’s Global Competitiveness, According to New Study

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 14, 2017 – The United States' global competitiveness is at risk as the nation confronts persistent shortages of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers in subjects such as physics, chemistry, and computer science. More than half of all high school physics teachers lacked certification in the discipline in 2012, for example.

As a result, students who are interested in STEM careers find themselves ill prepared to compete in an increasingly highly technical workforce. A new study by the American Physical Society, in collaboration with the American Chemical Society, Computing Research Association, and Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership, addresses the reasons why STEM students shy away from teaching as a career and offers ways to counter the trend.

"Many of the best opportunities in the United States for challenging and rewarding jobs will require mastery of subjects such as computer science and physics. Every student in every high school deserves a great teacher in these fields — but right now the teachers are simply not enough," said Michael Marder, a physicist at The University of Texas at Austin who co-authored the study.

Companies such as Apple, ExxonMobil, and Boeing rely on employees with technical talent to provide world-class products and services, and careers in STEM-related disciplines are expected to be some of the best paid and fastest-growing during the next decades.

But too few U.S. students complete STEM degrees. One possible reason: exposure to STEM disciplines is limited during high school. In European and Asian countries, high school students often take four or five years of physics. But in the U.S., only about 40 percent of students take as much as one year of physics, and only half of those courses will be taught by a teacher who majored or minored in the discipline.

The report found a quarter of all STEM majors are "somewhat interested to very interested" in the teaching profession. But several factors keep them from pursuing teaching careers, including concerns about salaries.

Misconceptions about teaching abound, the study showed. For instance, students often believe teachers are poorly paid and teach in unruly classrooms. The truth is that they earn more money than most people think they do, and they have control of their classrooms.

Middle and high school teachers earn an average of $58,760 and $60,270, respectively, according to the study — more than the average college lecturer or instructor. Interestingly, undergraduate STEM majors underestimate teacher compensation by around $17,000 per year.

To encourage more STEM majors and graduates to become teachers, the report recommends professional societies and disciplinary departments:

  • Impress upon university faculty and advisers in STEM disciplinary departments the importance of promoting middle and high school teaching with their undergraduate majors and graduate students, and of providing them accurate information about the actual salary and positive features of teaching.
  • Support high quality academic programs that prepare students for STEM teaching and expand good models to more universities. Strong programs provide improved coursework, prevent certification from requiring extra time, and support their students and graduates financially and academically.
  • Support expansion of programs that provide financial and other support for students pursuing STEM teaching.
  • Advocate for increases in annual compensation, including summer stipends, on the order of $5,000 - $25,000 for teachers in the hardest-to-staff STEM disciplines.
  • Support programs that improve the professional life and community of STEM teachers.

Contact: Tawanda W. Johnson, APS, tjohnson@aps.org, (202) 662-8702

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The American Physical Society is a non-profit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents over 53,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (Headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, D.C.