Julie A. Luft, Ph.D., Distinguished Research Professor, University of Georgia
Erika Shugart, Ph.D., Executive Director, National Science Teaching Association
We are both fortunate to engage with and hear from science teachers working in different settings. They often share the joys of the profession, as well as the struggles they encounter. Most recently, we are hearing more about the struggles. There are shortages of teachers in schools–the result of teachers leaving the profession and fewer individuals aspiring to become teachers (Garcia & Weiss, 2019). Educational researchers have been pointing to the potential shortages for many years (Ingersoll & Perda, 2010; Sutcher et al., 2019) Without ample numbers of educators, those in the profession may be assigned courses outside of their expertise, have inadequate pedagogical training, or be asked to engage in additional responsibilities in their school (Donitsa-Schmidt & Zuzovsky, 2016; Shah et al., 2019).
Emerging educational initiatives to address the shortage of teachers include relaxing teacher certification qualifications, which exacerbates the issues just described. Florida, for instance, now has an educational pathway that does not require a bachelor’s degree to become a teacher (Florida Department of Education, n.d.). Many states are lowering their academic requirements for teachers. In 2021 only 15 states required potential teachers to pass a basic skills test (Putman & Walsh, 2021). Along with the relaxing of standards for teacher preparation is a notable expansion of different pathways to become a teacher. There is great variation in the configuration of these programs. New graduate schools, for-profit, district-developed, and teacher residency programs are on the rise and have different amounts of mentoring, pedagogical training, and content knowledge requirements (Cochran-Smith et al., 2020; Wilson & Kelley, 2022).
Science teachers, teacher educators, and administrators are following this emerging teacher education terrain, considering new ways to recruit, retain, and induct science teachers. In this blog, we contribute to the discussion by offering two overarching suggestions.
- Teacher educators need to pay better attention to the data pertaining to the recruitment, retention, and induction of teachers to identify new opportunities and improve upon our work with them.
- We need to focus on providing early career teachers with collective opportunities for learning, so they are supported within a community to strengthen their work as professionals.
Suggestion 1: View Data as a Pathway Toward New Solutions
Many science (and STEM) educators are data watchers. We like to study trends, engage in comparisons, and make predictions. In the area of recruitment, retention, and induction, important data to watch include the following:
- The number of newly minted teachers is increasing over time, with the most common (modal) teacher in the 2017-2018 workforce being a first-year teacher (Ingersoll et al., 2021).
- Schools with high numbers of students in poverty (e.g., Title 1 schools) experience greater teacher turnover. Among mathematics and science teachers, there is a 70% increase in teachers leaving high-poverty schools when compared to their peers who are not in high-poverty schools (Carver-Thomas et al., 2019).
- Approximately one third of teachers in alternative pathways in 2017-2018 identified as teachers of color, while around one fifth of traditionally prepared teachers identify as teachers of color (Lamb, 2022).
While many areas in science teacher education need attention, increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the teaching workforce is one area of interest for many of us. Alternative certification programs lead the way in this work with enrollments staying steady while traditional program enrollments decrease (Lamb, 2022; see Figure 1). These programs vary significantly from one another in duration and composition (Grossman & Loeb, 2021; Lamb, 2022). They attract individuals who are not likely to attend traditional programs because they offer modified schedules, in-school learning opportunities, and different course work formats (e.g., online, modules, or in school). They often come with options to reduce the financial burden of attending a full-time or multiyear certification or education program. While each of these program components has been the subject of critique and concern among educators, the alternative certification programs are diversifying the teacher workforce and increasing in popularity (Carver-Thomas et al., 2019).
Figure 1: Trends in Educator Preparation Program Completers (Lamb, 2022)
If educators aspire to produce a more racially and ethnically diverse workforce, there is something to be learned from the data. However, if we want to enhance these and other teacher education pathways, we need more data about new teacher learning and the early years of teaching, especially in alternative certification programs. For instance, it will be important to examine the ways newly hired teachers from different certification programs make instructional decisions and the ways the pedagogical content knowledge of newly hired teachers is influenced by their certification programming and teaching out-of-field. These data will be difficult to collect because early career teachers are immersed in learning to teach and are often reluctant to participate in educational research studies. Yet, with this data, we can gain insights into the efficacy of supports such as educative curriculum, site-based disciplinary mentors, team teaching, and comprehensive induction programs in the early years of teaching.
Suggestion 2: Reinforce Opportunities for New Science Teacher Learning
Learning is central to becoming a teacher. Science teacher educators, district and school administrators, and colleagues of new teachers are responsible for providing early career teachers with a variety of learning opportunities during their preservice and induction years. For science teacher educators at institutions of higher education (IHE), the learning opportunities consist of well-conceptualized courses and opportunities to work in classrooms with students and experienced teachers (Cofré et al, 2022). Outside of IHE programming are a multitude of learning opportunities for early career teachers. Disciplinary-focused induction programs have the potential to strengthen and sustain the knowledge and practices of teachers in their initial years (Luft et al., 2022). At conferences, newly hired science teachers learn when they interact with other educators and when they find sessions that address their personal and in-class needs (Navy et al., 2019). Informal settings provide new teachers with opportunities to build their knowledge of science and doing science, and they can acquire new skills and approaches they can use in their classrooms (Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010; Kyndt et al., 2016).
Understanding the learning of new science teachers is important and was the focus of the review of research by Navy et al. (2022). They specifically wanted to know “What are the opportunities to learn for new science teachers?” Their extensive search found 48 empirical studies that provided insights into the learning of newly hired science teachers. The following are a few key findings:
- New teachers learned about students while engaging with them in purposeful practices (e.g., science and engineering practices and understanding student thinking) associated with the teaching of science.
- A collaborative and supportive community within one’s school and the larger education community were important in the continuous learning of early career teachers.
- Professional learning programs focused on science instruction and reflection on practice were an important opportunity to learn.
- Social and material resources were important in supporting early career teacher learning. Social resources are the people to whom teachers have access, while material resources are curriculum, instructional materials, or technology.
For early career science teachers, not all of the ways they support their learning are directly through programs or courses. Instead, they have opportunities to learn that are a result of their own purposeful actions or those of their colleagues or educators who support their work while they are learning to teach (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016; Luft et al., 2022). It is important to emphasize the value of formal teacher education programming and its essential role in preparing teachers, but the reality is that pathways to teaching are changing.
Our opportunity as educators is to consider and implement new ways that ensure teacher learning. The challenge we face is looking beyond what we have always done in our work with teachers. For instance, we should consider how to support new teachers’ learning in ways that are not bound by specific amounts of time. By personalizing the learning of newly hired teachers, there would be a curated set of events that vary in duration and focus. These just-in-time events could improve the knowledge and instruction of teachers over time by being collaborative, reflective, instructive, and/or student-focused. This vision of teacher learning leverages on what teachers need to know and the opportunities that exist to support their learning.
If Not Us, Then Who?
The face of teacher education is changing. For those of us in IHEs and organizations that prepare and support early career science teachers, our challenge is determining how to cultivate and support a diverse and effective workforce that is knowledgeable about teaching all students science. The changes we need to make in teacher education will be a shift and not merely a drift from what is currently underway. Looking for potential solutions requires that we collect new data and examine existing data to find what is possible, promising, and novel. It also requires that we keep teacher learning at the forefront of our decision making.
Fortunately, the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program (Noyce Program) has provided extensive funding to IHEs for the recruitment, retention, and induction of teachers. For current and future Noyce Program awardees, the time is now to innovate, study, and report about cultivating well-started early career science teachers. New understandings and approaches pertaining to early career teachers will come from this program. We are pleased to highlight two Noyce Program studies in this blog series. One study by a team from the University of West Florida reports on the attrition of teachers from the process of teacher certification, while the other study from Stephen F. Austin State University describes how networks of rural educators can better support rural teachers.
Additionally, the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and the Association of Science Teacher Educators (ASTE) have position statements to supplement the thinking of those preparing and supporting early science career teachers. Developed by individuals with knowledge in the areas of preparing and supporting early career teachers, these documents synthesize research to guide the development of novel pathways and enhancements to proposed and existing programming.
The work ahead of us will not be easy, but it is essential. We cannot continue down the same path we have traveled historically in working with our early career science teachers. We have some information in front of us, but we certainly could benefit from more. With additional data and new ideas, teachers, administrators, and teacher educators can begin to envision novel and enhanced approaches to the recruitment, retention, and induction of early career teachers. We are the group to do this work, and our time to do this is now.