As a former superintendent in Arizona, I understand the significance of adopting the Common Core State Standards which promote learning in our nation’s classrooms. In order to augment student outcomes, states must align their high school graduation requirements to Common Core; yet only 11 states, including Arizona, have done so (Out of Sync). I find it more troubling that 90 percent of Arizona’s eighth grade math teachers do not have an undergraduate major in math (2012 Arizona Vital Signs). Arizona is not alone. Many states are facing a critical shortage of teachers with strong backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This STEM teacher shortage is impacting student learning; 71 percent of Arizona eighth graders fall below proficient in math (Expect More Arizona).
Add to the STEM teacher shortage the pervasive problem of turnover and you have an alarming predicament. Rural, suburban, and urban districts are all grappling with recruitment and retention issues. Recruiting highly qualified science and math teachers and retaining them long enough to make an impact is an immense challenge. School districts spend thousands of recruitment dollars on teachers. In Arizona, many teachers depart the community within 2-3 years for another school district, or even another career. Nationally, 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years.
Students and their families deserve teachers who are devoted to making a lasting impact not only in the classroom, but within the greater community. And we know that having teachers with strong content knowledge, especially in the STEM fields, is essential to our nation’s economic vitality as the leader of global innovation. That’s why it is critical to seriously consider alternative pathways into the teaching profession for dedicated community members, veterans, career-changers, and others, particularly those with a STEM background. In order to get these qualified individuals into the classroom, we need to eliminate the barriers associated with traditional routes to licensure. It’s often said that Bill Gates would not be considered qualified to teach students about computer science in many states; yet who better could lend experience and knowledge to our students?
Across the nation, there are many successful role models within local communities who, as teachers, can share their expertise and inspire learning, as well as provide realistic expectations for life after graduation. Clark Sarge, a 10-year Navy veteran and U.S. Naval Academy alumnus with a degree in mechanical engineering, chose to serve his country again as a high school math teacher in Pennsylvania. Sandy Debrick was a medical technologist for 27 years before transitioning into the classroom and teaching physical science, chemistry, earth science, and physics in Missouri. Both are highly involved with their local communities, and they love teaching and helping students grow.
There are many more inspirational stories of career-changing professionals and veterans who made the transition to teaching. By opening the door for others like Clark and Sandy with years of field experience to make the move into the classroom, school districts can grow their own teachers from within the community, rather than recruit from other locales, states, or even countries. This is a sustainable solution to ensuring America’s children have highly-qualified, passionate and dedicated teachers in their classrooms.
Shawn Arévalo McCollough is President and CEO of the American Board.