A Corps of STEM Master Teachers

Claus von Zastrow, Change the Equation photo

Today, President Obama announced the immediate creation of new national corps of leading math and science educators to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The STEM Master Teacher Corps initiative aims to help schools and districts do what they haven’t traditionally done very well: broaden the reach of our best teachers.  The program has some hurdles to clear, but it could have a real impact if it succeeds in creating a culture of professional learning in schools.

Master teachers will model lessons, lead professional development, help with school turnaround efforts and mentoring younger teachers, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  In exchange for their services, the teachers will receive up to $20,000 more in salary each year.  The stakes for this effort are high.  It is well known that U.S. students lag far behind their peers in top performing nations, and companies are having trouble filling STEM jobs, even during the downturn.  As STEM jobs continue to grow, shortages will only become more acute, and the U.S. risks losing its innovative edge.  Teachers can have an enormous impact on student performance, yet all too many teachers of math and science lack degrees in the fields they teach.  As rigorous new common standards in math and science come down the pike, teachers will need all the mentoring they can get to come up to speed.

The STEM Master Teacher initiative is ambitious.  It aims to include10,000 teachers during the next four years.  (Compare that to Teach for America, which just reached the 10,000 milestone this past fall, more than 20 years after its founding.)  Given that there are almost 100,000 schools in the country, we’ll need every one of those Master Teachers.

Even when it reaches full force, the program will have to address multiple challenges. Among them:

Create strong professional learning cultures that help Master Teachers to share their gifts and expertise.  This is harder than it seems.  Master teachers can be very effective, but only if their schools and districts have structures in place to promote true collaboration among teachers and other staff.  Schools, may, for example, have to reconceive their schedules to give teachers time for common planning.

Ensure that the Master Teachers go—and stay—where they’re needed most.  Nowhere are strong professional learning cultures more important than in struggling low-income schools.  All too often, our most accomplished teachers move from such schools to more stable high-income schools after they have a few years under their belts.  Turnover at struggling schools is notoriously high and disruptive.  Master Teachers will need strong incentives to stay at schools that serve our most vulnerable children.

There is, of course, one more immediate hurdle the STEM Master Teacher initiative faces.  It depends on the success of the President’s budget request, which includes $1 billion for the program.  In these lean times, that money is hardly a foregone conclusion.  The President is getting the ball rolling with an initial investment of $100 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which will support the program at 50 sites across the nation.  According to Secretary Duncan, more than 30 school districts have already signaled interest in the new TIF grants. (Proposals are due on July 27).  This early investment may give the Education Department, districts, and schools time to work through some of the biggest challenges before the program goes to scale.

The good news is that the STEM Master Teacher initiative comes amidst a broad national focus on boosting the quality of STEM teaching.  Last year, for example, the President announced the 100Kin10 initiative, which rallied more than 100 organizations (including Change the Equation) around the goal of bringing 100,000 excellent new STEM teachers into classrooms.

None of these initiatives is easy, but we can’t face our biggest national challenges by making do with small-bore solutions.

Claus von Zastrow is the Chief Operating Officer and director of research for Change the Equation.

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