Six years ago, I founded 100Kin10, a national network focused on training and retaining excellent K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers. Originally inspired by Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address, we knew that we were preparing to take on a huge and daunting problem; for years, our education system has faced an acute teacher shortage. There simply aren’t enough qualified educators to meet the needs of our students, especially in STEM.

Every year we punt on this problem, we not only do a disservice to our children, we also damage our country’s economic future, which relies heavily on STEM professionals. To tackle the world’s future problems—from food security to climate change—we will need future generations of STEM professionals with creativity and technical know-how. And that must start with ensuring that every child receives an excellent STEM education.

100,000 teachers by 2021
To address the shortage of qualified STEM teachers, we set an ambitious goal of adding 100,000 excellent STEM teachers to America’s K-12 classrooms by 2021. In order to reach that goal, we enlisted hundreds of leading organizations across sectors, including academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies, and government agencies. Each of these organizations made a commitment to help achieve our common goal, and, as the hub of this network, we support their efforts and amplify their impact—helping our partners convene, collaborate, and learn from each other.

And it’s working: We recently announced that the 100Kin10 network has successfully trained and retained more than 54,000 STEM new teachers and is on track to prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers on time, by 2021. It’s an exciting milestone. Not only are we past the halfway mark toward our goal, but we have met or exceeded our annual benchmarks every year since our inception.

But we have also learned that what is far more challenging, and equally necessary, is to address the factors that got us here in the first place. Despite the amazing work of our partners, the underlying, systemic questions remain: What is preventing young people from pursuing careers as STEM teachers? Why do so many veteran STEM teachers choose to leave the classroom? What is driving the persistent shortage of qualified STEM teachers in this country?

We knew we had to get to the heart of this problem. We had to understand all the components before we could determine how best to attract people to the profession and retain them.

Detailing our process
We began by tapping our incredible network and partners. We polled thousands of teachers, principals, professors, mentor teachers, and others, and asked them, “Why is it so hard to get and keep great teachers, especially in STEM?” This generated a list of more than 100 root causes facing the STEM teaching landscape, including lack of access to culturally relevant STEM curricula, the low number of teacher-preparation faculty with expertise in elementary STEM, the time for teachers to collaborate during the school day, and holding school leaders responsible for creating a positive work environment.

We then grouped those 100 root causes into common categories, which we call the “grand challenges” facing STEM teaching today. The challenges are vast and varied: everything from the prestige of the profession, borne out in better pay or loan forgiveness for teachers; to the practical need for better instructional materials and high-quality curricula for teachers.

For us, identifying these grand challenges also meant adapting tools from fields like ecology to map these 100 distinct points, and to test and examine which of these issues have the highest possible leverage—meaning those problems that, if addressed, would have the greatest impact on other issues. Our research has found that each of the grand challenges has at least one root cause with the greatest potential to improve the larger system.

How one organization is changing the #STEM education landscape

These include:

  • Prestige: scholarships or loan forgiveness for STEM undergraduates who become STEM teachers
  • Teacher preparation: statewide tracking of STEM teacher supply and demand
  • Elementary STEM teachers: teacher-preparation faculty with specific expertise in elementary STEM
  • Professional growth: greater teacher collaboration and professional development during the school day
  • Teacher leadership: school leaders who create positive work environments
  • Instructional materials: districts’ identification of high-quality engineering curriculum
  • Valuing science, tech, and engineering: a greater number and range of STEM courses required in high schools

This networked approach to problem-mapping allowed us to synthesize thousands of diverse and expert perspectives into a coherent map. The map points the way forward, and we can use our network’s collective expertise and passion to focus on the highest-leverage problems and effect lasting change in STEM education.

A call for action
The past few months, we’ve heard calls for change from teachers across the country. For too many, their professional creativity and aspirations have been stifled by a decade of stagnant pay and deteriorating school conditions. To address these challenges in perpetuity, and not just punt on them for the expedient now, will require reckoning with the interrelated root causes that got us here in the first place. That includes pay, loan forgiveness, school culture, and instructional materials.

Hundreds of leaders across every sector have joined in standing with teachers and their dream of schools where both students and the adults who serve them can thrive; you can stand with teachers, too.

The last six years have taught us that we can leverage the commitment, trust, and learning of a network so that all the necessary players work together to achieve our common goals—and that we’re thinking long term and systemically about the challenges we tackle and the solutions we pursue. Here’s to the next 46,000 and beyond!

About the Author:

Talia Milgrom-Elcott is the co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10 (@100kin10).