The lack of a systemic approach to recruiting, preparing, and retaining teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has contributed to a shortage of highly qualified instructors in these fields–and this shortage, in turn, threatens the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy: So said speakers at a June 21 briefing on Capitol Hill.

Hosted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and the U.S. Senate’s STEM Education Caucus, the briefing sought to convince members of Congress and their staffs of the need for national strategies and solutions to attract and retain teachers in the STEM disciplines–subjects that are vital, participants said, to preparing students to participate in an increasingly global society.

“It is well known that the country’s ability to succeed in the global economy is lagging and that we are losing our unrivaled edge in mathematics, science, and innovation to competitor nations,” said Sharon Robinson, AACTE’s president and chief executive.

“The 16-percent annual turnover rates of both math and science teachers is the highest of all fields,” Robinson said. “Shortages of [highly] qualified math and science teachers exist in most states and districts across the country. Thus, unprepared teachers are assigned to teach math or science out-of-field.”

Shortages of well-trained math and science teachers create a domino effect of problems across the United States, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education.

Because math and science often are not taught well, the nation’s schools are producing math-phobic citizens who increasingly are unprepared to pursue higher level math and science instruction in college, Darling-Hammond said. As a result, she said, there are far too few majors in those fields in college, which means schools are competing with the private sector for fewer college graduates with a math or science degree. And because teachers earn much less on average than programmers or engineers, graduates often opt for the higher-paying jobs.

“There isn’t a shortage of teachers in this country; there’s a shortage of people who are willing to work for too little salary and in poor working conditions,” Darling-Hammond said.

“We must ask ourselves why we have these recurring problems, and why other nations with whom we compete do not,” she added. “What do other nations do, and what would it take to create a foundation for excellence in mathematics, science, and technology education here?”