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 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, she said. As a result, 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?”

Darling-Hammond said high-achieving countries that rarely experience teacher shortages–such as Finland, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Germany–have made substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades.

That includes offering competitive and equitable salaries, high-quality teacher education that is generally at the government’s expense, mentoring for all beginners in their first year of teaching, and ongoing professional learning embedded in 10 or more hours a week of planning and professional development time.

“By contrast, the United States lacks a systemic approach to recruiting, preparing, and retaining teachers,” she said. “With very unequal spending and resources across districts, and with few governmental supports for recruitment, preparation, mentoring, or support, teachers in the U.S. enter with dramatically different levels of training and support. Those teaching in the most disadvantaged communities typically earn less, have poorer working conditions, and receive fewer supports.”

Educators from Ohio and Nevada discussed ways that teachers can be well-trained to understand and teach STEM subjects in globally oriented and relevant ways.

Lisa Suarez-Caraballo, a middle school mathematics teacher at Luis Muñoz Marin School in Cleveland, said making sure all teachers have clinical experience before becoming licensed teachers and supporting induction programs and better school working conditions will help efforts to recruit and prepare STEM teachers.

Supporting teachers’ development of content knowledge also is essential, she noted, making clear that it’s not just a problem for K-12 school systems and colleges of education to solve.

“There is a misconception … that schools of education teach the content knowledge required of candidates,” Suarez-Caraballo said. “This is not the case. This means that educator preparation must be a university-wide responsibility if we expect to have candidates well-prepared in content knowledge and pedagogical skills.”

College graduates in the STEM disciplines might not even consider teaching a possibility unless it is brought to their attention, said Valdine McLean, a science teacher at Pershing County High School in Nevada, who said she majored in biology in college and never thought of teaching until she took a career-placement exam that displayed “science teacher” at the top of the list.

“Make sure that whatever programs you authorize in legislation ensure that entry-level courses at higher-education institutions in the STEM fields provide exposure to the possibility of going into teaching,” McLean urged lawmakers.

Like Suarez-Caraballo, McLean stressed teacher-induction programs as a key to retention.

“I cannot say enough the importance of not leaving new teachers alone to flounder in their first few years of teaching,” she said. “Induction programs need to pair mentoring with advanced content and methods strategies. New teachers are trying to make the classroom work, and there are so many decisions and routines to get used to that advanced methods are often lost.”

Robin Willner, vice president of IBM’s global community initiatives, talked about IBM’s Transition to Teaching initiative and how the program, which currently has 85 participants, supports STEM teachers and education.

Through the program, IBM employees receive reimbursement for tuition and a stipend as they pursue degrees or credentials to become certified K-12 teachers. “We know there is a huge gap between mastery of a subject and the ability to teach that subject to others, especially when the others are a group of sometimes wayward, sometimes bored, and sometimes poorly prepared teenagers,” Willner said.

Also at the briefing, AACTE released “Preparing STEM Teachers: The Key to Global Competitiveness,” a report highlighting more than 50 teacher-preparation programs across the country that are dedicated to increasing the number of effective STEM educators in K-12 schools.

The University of Southern California, for example, offers a 13-month master of arts in teaching program, with concentrations in teaching math and science. Students enrolled in the program attend math and science camps, where they work with K-12 teachers. Eighty-six percent of the program’s graduates have been retained in teaching beyond three years.