Our STEM Moment

A modern America needs TFA’s emphasis on science and math

“A little ball in the air,” President Eisenhower belittled the Soviet satellite Sputnik after its launch five and half decades ago, but he soon committed a billion dollars in response: not for the military but instead the schools. The 1958 National Defense Education Act boasted a hefty budget and a focus on raising math and science proficiency. Today, many have harkened back to that memory, including President Obama, who branded the present day as “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his 2011 State of the Union address. In a particularly encouraging recent incarnation, Teach For America has placed an emphasis on recruiting young teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in advance of its February 15 application deadline.

The country needs more STEM teachers because it needs more STEM students. The U.S. struggles to cultivate STEM students and professionals at every level. At the elementary school stage, according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the United States ranks 9th in eighth grade math and 10th in eighth grade science internationally. When they reach college, those students who do feel competent and compelled enough to declare STEM majors desert over the next four years a fifty-percent attrition rate. The deficiencies of STEM education then play out in the labor force: There are two unfilled STEM positions for every STEM worker, versus 3.6 non-STEM workers for every non-STEM position. Even after controlling for education attainment levels, a significant STEM wage premium remains in the market.

TFA’s STEM initiative, which currently has 3,200 first- and second-year teachers at work, is fighting a worthy but uphill battle—a battle that appears self-perpetuating. As Melissa Moritz, Head of TFA’s STEM initiative put it, “STEM teachers are the hardest to recruit because they have so many options right after graduation.” The wage advantages triggered by too few STEM workers lure away would-be teachers, as shortage begets shortage, with new students missing out on help from teachers trained in science and math. In middle school, over half of math teachers and 60 percent of science teachers have neither a major nor a minor in those subjects. And there are consequences. A 2008 Congressional Research Service report explains that “among those who teach math and science, having a major in the subject taught has a significant positive impact on student achievement.” Efforts like Math for America, which addresses the incentive issue via sizable bonuses and four (instead of TFA’s two) base-level years of teaching, offer real hope for progress.

This is not to laud STEM education as a national panacea. A liberal arts education and the creativity it may engender remain valuable, and not to be eschewed. Some research suggests that the American system may have an advantage in cultivating creativity. Still, for long-run economic success and equality, diminished in a world with heavy returns to STEM knowledge yet only a small slice of workers to reap them, the U.S. needs more STEM emphasis. But it also needs more than a reignited Sputnik zeitgeist. It needs specific ideas, it needs solutions, and above all it needs teachers. TFA’s new emphasis is a step in addressing the last of those three. And through the sort of seasoned alumni TFA produces, perhaps the first two as well.