As a result, students go to college underprepared for demanding courses and unmotivated to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses of study. The situation is unfortunate because STEM disciplines hold great employment opportunities: Overall there are 3.6 unemployed people for every job posting, but in STEM fields, for every unemployed person there are 1.9 job postings. Shortages of STEM workers are particularly acute in the physical sciences where 1 in 4 workers are foreign born.
It is shocking that, despite repeated calls for action stretching over more than 100 years, the situation has improved very little, if at all. Things may soon change. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget, released April 10, contains the beginning of a national strategy to address teacher shortages in STEM.
The nation needs a coordinated strategy to ensure that all teachers in the physical sciences are well prepared, not just a small fraction. The Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP), which recently completed a four-year study, found that “the national landscape of professional preparation of physics teachers shows a system that is largely inefficient, mostly incoherent, and completely unprepared to deal with the current and future needs of the nation’s students.”
The good news is we know what works. T-TEP identified several exemplary programs that could serve as models for a more systematic national effort. For instance, Rutgers University runs one of the most active physics and physical science teacher preparation programs in the nation; the program supplies a large number of highly effective teachers to northern New Jersey. School districts express a high degree of satisfaction with these graduates, who receive rigorous preparation, including five courses on physics pedagogy closely integrated with teaching experiences. A national strategy is needed to expand these and similar successes, so they become the norm rather than the exception.
Mr. Obama’s budget contains $265 million in new initiatives for K-12 STEM education, including STEM Innovation Networks that partner school districts with universities and other entities to improve STEM instruction. It is encouraging that this plan is aligned with the central recommendation of the T-TEP report, which is to establish a network of university-based regional centers for educating teachers in physics. However, some critical improvements are needed if STEM Innovation Networks are to become the basis for a successful national program to address the nation’s need for effective teachers in the physical sciences.
One thing we must take into consideration is that not all STEM fields have the same needs. Programs with the label “STEM” tend to neglect physics, partly due to the relatively small numbers of teachers compared to biology. Yet the need is arguably greater. In contrast to the severe shortage of teachers in physics and chemistry, teacher shortages in biology are much less common and a high percentage of biology teachers (73 percent) have a degree in the subject. Teacher shortages in the physical sciences will not be resolved without a concentrated effort specifically in these disciplines. The UTeach program, which has a goal of graduating more STEM teachers, has had great success in math and biology but little impact on physics. By comparison, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), which concentrates specifically on physics teachers, has shown dramatic increases in program graduates.
In addition, it is critical to prioritize the education of new teachers. Most of the federal funds are directed toward professional development for practicing teachers, and while professional development is important, this approach is unlikely to solve the shortage of effective teachers in the long run. Practicing teachers who are underprepared to teach physics typically do not have the extensive time required to develop content knowledge and pedagogical skill at a deep enough level. A more robust solution must give top priority to building high quality programs for educating new teachers, so they supply effective teachers in sufficient numbers to meet the national need.
We must make sure our students are ready to compete in a high-tech economy, and that means making sure that every physics and chemistry classroom has a well prepared teacher. With a president who strongly supports STEM education, we have an important opportunity to transform teacher education through establishing regional centers and solving these longstanding teacher shortages.  But without getting the details right, we risk continuing the long-established trend of mediocrity.
Vokos is professor of Physics at Seattle Pacific University and is chairman of the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP).