How to close the STEM skills gap

Competing on a global level starts with attracting—and retaining—the best and brightest teachers
By: and | Issue: March, 2015
February 12, 2015

We all want our children to succeed in life after school in profitable, rewarding careers, but Vince Bertram believes our education system falls far short of preparing them to pursue those goals.

Bertram, formerly superintendent of Indiana’s third-largest urban school district, and now president of Project Lead The Way, says STEM fields will present graduates with the most job prospects and highest earnings, yet there is a disconnect between who teaches those subjects, how they are taught and how they are applied in the real world.

In his new book, One Nation Under-Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Crisis (2014, Beaufort Books), Bertram shows why we must rethink how we attract and retain teachers who are skilled in these subjects, and who can instill a curiosity in students that will lead them to becoming passionate about learning.

Education spending has gone up over the years, teacher and administrator hires have increased, yet scores have flatlined. Why aren’t we seeing results?

It’s absolutely essential to our economy and to our growth as a nation that we continue to invest in education, but I believe we need to spend our money wisely. We have to get to the core of teaching and learning and what happens in the classrooms.

If we invest in things like professional development, invest in our teachers rather than in hiring more peopleÑwe may find a way to pay our teachers more and to encourage more highly qualified people to come into teaching. Then we can retain our best and brightest.

How have schools failed in hiring more STEM teachers? Is it at the local level where it’s more important to get a body into the school?

Yes. The problem is a lack of qualified people in STEM fields. For example, if you want to offer computer science in schools, who is going to teach that course? In mathematics and science, we are just not graduating enough people with those credentials. There’s a real shortage across the country.

We have to find ways to attract more people to those areas. The marketplace has a high demand for people with STEM skills and K12 education is competing for those people.

So we must find ways to attract those teachers but, more important, to encourage them to stay on the job rather than leaving for a more lucrative engineering position.

Right. If you understand computer science and you know how to code, and we want you to teach high school students and we’re going to pay you $35,000 to do that, we are about 60 percent below the market for coders. So how do we attract people into those positions? It’s very challenging.

One of the other things that I address is continuing to look at alternative licensure opportunities across all states, and to look at partnerships. Who are the people in industry that may want to go into teaching? How do we share those resources within communities? And just looking at teaching a little differently within our school settings.

Critics ask why we should pay teachers more if they aren’t doing their jobs. What do you say to them?

There will always be a strand of teachers, as in any profession, who are ineffective. Those people should be removed from the classroom just like they should be removed from the medical profession or the legal profession. The vast majority of our teachers are doing an outstanding job.

We don’t recognize the challenges teachers face. We cannot ignore the conditions that we put teachers in and the conditions in which students arrive at school.

I’m suggesting that once we recognize that and we build professional development models, we stop looking at school on an agrarian calendar, but rather make a real commitment to early childhood education, look at the length of our school days, the length of our school years.

I know people who make those claims and statements just as you’ve shared. They aren’t the people who are teaching our children. They aren’t the people who are in classrooms every day who see these students and are absolutely committed to their success.

We’re doing a disservice to our schools and to our country by creating such a culture around teaching that people don’t want to be part of it. I think that’s where we have to change the conversations. Rather than focusing on our ineffective teachers, let’s spend most of our time building up the majority of our teachers who are doing a wonderful job.

And compensating them in the right way.

Yes. There just aren’t many professions wherein you can start someone out in the low 30s and give them 1.5 or 2 percent raises a year for the next 20 years and expect them to be satisfied.

Knowing what the financial realities are, many people choose not to go into teaching. So we have to make teaching more attractive. We have to make schools a place in which teachers want to teach and want to be employed.

You refer to the math/science death march. What is that?

It’s often used to describe what happens in higher education when students get into engineering or into other STEM fields and they confront very challenging math and science courses. Those are courses they take right away and they tend to drop out at high rates and pursue other disciplines.

When you look at the students that we attract into STEM fields through K12 education, we keep their interests and they go into higher education, and then we lose a high percentage of those students because of their ability to perform in math and science.

In higher ed we often say we are marching these students through these courses and then the ones who persist, great. Those who don’t go into something else and then they find other majors or they drop out of school.

There are a number of things we can do to curtail this. One is making sure that our students are better prepared in K12 education to understand how math and science are relevant and how that applies or will apply to the real world.

That’s the thing that we’re really missing. We’ve layered courses, we’ve sequenced courses, but we really haven’t made learning relevant.

We haven’t helped students understand that math is a set of tools to solve problemsÑnot just math problems, but real world problems. That will help generate more interest and I think improve success in math and science.

Historically in K12 and higher education, math is taught in isolation, science is taught in isolation. We should focus on an integrative approach that shows how math and science connect to virtually every discipline.

In the book, you give one of the best arguments I’ve read in support of Common Core.

It just makes sense to me that we have a common set of standards across our country. You can look at a number of factors, such as students moving from school to school, district to district, state to state. And without a common set of standards, students really struggle with that mobility.

But beyond that, we need to understand that students are not competing for jobs and careers with students sitting right next to them or even within their own stateÑwe’re in a global marketplace, and we need to devise a way to evaluate student performance.

When I look at things like the SAT, ACT, AP courses and so on, clearly people support these common standards and common assessments. And they understand that our students are going to colleges and universities all over the country and that we need a common way to evaluate their performance.

And we understand at the same time that GPA and grades don’t necessarily reflect that commonality. So we have a common assessment and common standards. It just makes sense that we have a similar expectation throughout the K12 education world.

The other argument that I would make is that if these standards aren’t high enough, then you could increase them. Common Core sets a minimum standard. We certainly can ask more of our students beyond the Common Core.

That seems like a no-brainer. Why is it so misunderstood?

Because it’s become a political issue. People viewed it as a federal intrusion and pushed back. In my opinion, that’s the absolute wrong reason to dismiss something that has been a profound and fundamental change and opportunity across our country.

When you look at the origin of the Common Core, when the people and the states came together, it was an amazing collaboration, with governors from both political parties and the vast majority of states supporting it. At some point it became political and some people started retreating.

But I believe that there’s still strong support, and I hope that will continue to move forward in a positive way.

Tim Goral is senior editor.