Gerard Robinson is a professor at the University of Virginia. This was originally published by The Conversation.
Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit Oct. 4, 1957, America has been struggling to recruit and retain STEM teachers in its public middle and high schools.
In the 2017-18 school year, approximately 100,000 teacher jobs in STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — went unfilled at the high school level. At the middle school level, there were about 150,000 unfilled STEM educator jobs.
The situation has been getting progressively worse over the past decade or so. For instance, in the 2011-12 school year, 19% of public schools were unable to fill a teaching position for biology or life sciences. By the 2020-21 school year, that number had grown to 31%. The situation was similar for other subjects, going from 19% to 32% for mathematics and 26% to 47% for physical sciences, such as physics, geology and engineering.
Science shortages were a problem even before Sputnik, but the launch served as a wake-up call. Three months afterward, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated during his Special Message to the Congress on Education that federal action was necessary to educate more science and mathematics teachers.
As a professor of education policy — and also as a former state secretary of education in Virginia — I have examined the STEM teacher shortage from multiple vantage points. In a September 2023 policy paper, a colleague and I recommend that, to solve America’s STEM educator shortage, elected officials and education leaders should adopt something that is widely used in higher education — an endowed chair position for STEM teachers.
We think endowed chairs have the potential to retain and attract more STEM educators at the K-12 level, but it requires a willingness to rethink the ways that schools employ STEM educators.
What’s behind the gap?
Two factors contribute to so many unfilled vacancies in STEM education:
Prior efforts to close the gap
Since developing a strong STEM workforce is vital to the nation’s security and economic well-being, several U.S. presidents have used their position to advance a STEM education agenda.
For example, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Eisenhower and Congress came to realize that the nation needed to focus on what takes place in the classroom space — not just outer space.
The Senate and House passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958, and Eisenhower signed it into law Sept. 2, 1958.
This set in motion a national STEM education agenda for American colleges and K-12 schools for decades to come.
Fifty-three years later, President Barack Obama utilized his 2011 State of the Union address to advance the national STEM agenda. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said. “And, over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”
Through the leadership of 100Kin10, now named Beyond100K, the initiative exceeded the goal in 2021.
But the goal of the 100,000 STEM teacher campaign was to narrow the gap, not end it.
A shortage of STEM teachers remains. According to a survey of 53 states and territories, 39 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands had teacher vacancies in all subjects, STEM disciplines included, as of Feb 9. One additional reason for the current shortage is that public schools lost approximately 7% of their teachers — 233,000 instructors — between 2019-21, which included STEM teachers.
Currently, President Joe Biden is promoting STEM education programs for teachers, the Department of Education has dedicated $120 billion to support STEM, and the National Science Foundation is supporting teacher fellowships.
The endowed chair as a potential solution
Federal investments in programs and fellowships to produce more STEM teachers are good. But those alone will not be enough to retain and attract the quality STEM educators we need.
That’s why a colleague and I recommend endowed chairs for K-12 educators.
Traditionally, an endowed chair is a prestigious faculty position funded through annual spending from a university’s endowment fund.
The interest earned on the endowment will partially or fully fund the salary of the position for as long as the university exists. Endowed chairs are awarded to those who are the best in their field.
The benefit of an endowed chair is that it will be paid for decades to come by the interest on investment. In our paper, we suggest that K-12 schools could use endowed chairs to support a K-12 STEM teacher’s salary, benefits and professional development, all the while saving money for the district and state.
If structured right, the interest on the endowment will pay a teacher’s salary and benefits, something the district would subsequently not have to pay. The endowment can be used to purchase STEM supplies. The money saved by the district can be used to invest in another teacher. The money could come from private individuals, corporations or foundations.
An endowed chair could also provide funding for teachers and students to have access to state-of-the-art learning technology. As part of the endowed chair contract, a teacher can participate in a fully paid externship at a STEM-focused public or private sector company during the summer months. The goal would be to bring to the classroom the experiences and insights the teacher learned from the externship.
An endowed STEM chair salary may never outpace what educators could earn if they entered the private market. But it can potentially help elevate their position and, perhaps, enable educators to make a salary that would be higher than what it would otherwise be.