To increase the retention and effectiveness of STEM teachers, a team of researchers from multiple universities, including Washington State University, has been awarded almost $1.3 million by the National Science Foundation.

Amy Roth McDuffie from WSU Pullman, and David Slavit from WSU Vancouver, both professors of mathematics education, are part of the American Institutes for Research project that is examining the attributes of potential STEM teachers in order to better predict later retention and success.

More than 85 percent of the nation’s STEM teachers graduate from traditional teacher education programs, such as the one administered by WSU’s College of Education. That means that, for the overwhelming majority of individuals, if they are not admitted to one of these programs, they will never become teachers.

Many of these individuals may have great capacity to be STEM teachers, yet little is known about the attributes of the best potential STEM teacher candidates, in particular, what attributes of these potential teachers predict retention and effectiveness.

Roth McDuffie said this is a glaring research gap.

“Currently, it is not clear that colleges and universities are asking questions that matter when gathering information from applicants,” she said. “In some cases, universities are simply using a generic application that isn’t connected to teaching at all. Yet we know that the admissions process is a primary gatekeeper for the profession – so this process is a critical first step in developing a strong teaching force. This study aims to systematically find out what information is important, so that we can develop research-based strategies to recruit and make admissions decisions.”

David Slavit

Given the overwhelming evidence that teacher quality influences student achievement, especially in STEM, Slavit said the need for research on STEM teacher retention and effectiveness is clear.

“Teacher turnover is a general problem in the U.S., including for STEM teachers,” he said. “If we can find ways of identifying early what qualities best predict STEM teacher quality and effectiveness, we might be able to reduce that turnover rate and, at the same time, improve the quality of STEM instruction.”

Day one in dire districts

In terms of “effectiveness,” teachers have much to do with student achievement on standardized tests.

Like it or not, it’s not surprising then that policymakers focus so much time, effort, and money, on teachers to improve STEM outcomes. This has brought with it a desire to have these teachers ready to teach on day one.

In many schools, that’s not happening, especially in the most vulnerable.

Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, has written extensively about teacher effectiveness and teacher quality gaps in the United States. This includes the importance of teacher readiness in districts considered ‘high-need’ since those students are already more likely to receive instruction from novice teachers.

In Washington state, high-poverty schools (where more than 75% of students have free or reduced lunch) are twice as likely to have classrooms staffed by novice teachers than low-poverty schools (where less than 25% of students have free or reduced lunch).

Roth McDuffie said the team is focused on social justice and equity, and that manifests itself in a two-pronged focus.

“First, we want every student to have a teacher who is well prepared, so every teacher matters, and a consistently strong teaching force begins with effective recruitment and admissions,” she said. “Second, we know students from minoritized backgrounds benefit from teachers who look like them and/or share their cultural background. Yet the teaching force is predominantly white and middle class. In addition, college admissions processes have been challenged to overcome cultural, racial, and ethnic bias that can limit the number of diverse applicants who are admitted. Our study aims to interrogate potential hidden, implicit, and unintended bias so that we do not miss out on applicants who could make a difference as teachers.”

Newest anticipated research

Other team members of the project are: Washington State Office of Financial Management; Central Washington University; Pacific Lutheran University; University of Washington; and Western Washington University.

For this specific project, each of the five universities agreed to provide additional admissions data on all applicants to their university and/or their teacher education programs. It is anticipated that these data will be connected to teacher workforce outcome data, high school and college transcript data, admissions processes, and survey data.

Roth McDuffie/Slavit said this data will help draw connections between the information collected from potential STEM teachers before they enter their programs to their later outcomes.

“STEM education is vital in supporting all citizens in making important decisions throughout their lives—how to stay healthy, when to buy a house—these are incredibly important issues we all face,” he said. “Further, there are many jobs that require specific STEM understandings and skills. Our project is ready to support the development of a STEM teaching workforce ready to take on these challenges for all students.”

The grant begins July 1 and is effective for five years.