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Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 05/19/2011

How to fix the STEM deficit

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This was written by Arthur Levine, the author of many books and articles on education, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University and a former professor there, and the former chair of the Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

By Arthur Levine

This week, 85 math and science teachers are receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Widely regarded as the nation’s highest honor for a K-12 educator in those fields, this award comes with a $10,000 prize.

For those deserving educators, and for the students lucky enough to be in their classes, it’s an occasion to celebrate. For the rest of us in education, however, it’s a wake-up call. The Presidential Award program has slots for 106 teachers, so there should be 21 more awardees: A fifth of the annual awards went unclaimed because not enough science and math teachers at the elementary level made the cut.

Last year, when the awards were handed out to secondary-school science and math teachers — the National Science Foundation, which manages the program, alternates between elementary and secondary teachers year to year — the news wasn’t really better so much as less bad: only three awards went unclaimed.

The truth is that despite the well-documented national-security and economic prosperity consequences of graduating too few STEM-oriented students, and despite years of good-faith efforts by many dedicated people and organizations, the nation still does not have enough qualified STEM teachers. Even with jobs scarcer than they’ve been in generations, schools have had chronic trouble finding and holding onto well-qualified science and math teachers.

We need a new model for how we prepare STEM teachers, and we need it now. We need to be able to successfully recruit, prepare, and retain career-changers and other nontraditional teacher candidates who are deeply knowledgeable about the subjects they teach, and who are amply prepared to hit the ground running on their first day of class.

The good news is that there is a proven model for prepping and placing these hardest-to-get teachers in some of the hardest-to-staff schools, and that model’s nascent success is now inspiring wider adoption.

This week, as the too-small group of STEM awardees is being honored in Washington, Ohio announced its first-ever class of Woodrow Wilson Ohio Teaching Fellows. It’s the third state announcement of new fellows in as many weeks.

The fellowships use state, philanthropic, and other resources to support, prepare, and place recent graduates and career changers with strong STEM backgrounds in classrooms where they’ll do the most good. Each fellow receives a $30,000 stipend to use during a year of master’s-level teacher preparation at a designated university. In exchange, fellows commit to teach in a high-need urban or rural secondary school for three years, with ongoing mentoring.

The investment is significant — and so is the impact these teachers are poised to make. All told, with Ohio and Indiana, which launched the first Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship in 2009, plus Michigan, which announced its first group of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Woodrow Wilson Michigan Teaching Fellows last week, more than $30 million has been committed over three years. More than 500 new math and science teachers will be teaching in high-need schools. More than 50,000 students annually will directly benefit.

It’s the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows themselves — both how they’re prepared and the skills and experience they offer — that make the program unique. They are expert engineers, neuroscientists, industrial chemists, statisticians, and top college grads who could have chosen medical school or lucrative corporate careers. They hold patents, they have worked with young people in many contexts, and they believe in the power of teaching.

These fellows attend designated partner universities that commit to redesign their teacher education programs, providing fellows rigorous coursework and practical classroom experience in local high-need schools as they progress toward their new teaching careers.

As this year’s new fellows begin their preparation, several additional states are already lining up to join Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. We’re going to need lots more to join this effort if we’re serious about filling the gap between the number of STEM-minded graduates we’ll need and the inadequate number our precious few STEM teachers can currently supply: We need those graduates ready to succeed in the jobs and the economy of the future.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next 10 years. Unless we meet that challenge, this and future presidents at future STEM-teacher award ceremonies will find themselves looking at an awful lot of blank spots.
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By  |  03:00 AM ET, 05/19/2011

 
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