Labor will need more than scholarships to make teaching science an attractive career

Why are there so few specialist science teachers? from www.shutterstock.com

Labor has proposed to invest $400 million to ensure that all high school science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teachers are fully qualified.

While this education policy may look appealing, there is a distinct lack of breadth in what is on the table.

The aim of the policy is to boost STEM grades and take up of these subjects at school and university. But does research say this will help?

Why are there so few specialist teachers?

The decline in participation rates in STEM subjects in secondary school is well documented.

The number of students choosing to study advanced maths secondary school dropped from 16% in 1994 to 9% in 2012. In 1994, 38% chose to study intermediate maths, which dropped to 27% in 2012.

Similar trends have occurred in physics (falling from 21% in 1992 to 14% in 2012) and chemistry (from 23% in 1992 to 18% in 2012).

The main reasons for this include: more choice of subjects available to secondary school students; the lack of qualified teachers and the way the subjects are taught; the belief that choosing STEM subjects risks lowering the university admissions rank (ATAR) because it is difficult to get high grades in them; and the way universities prescribe prerequisites for tertiary entrance.

This has had profound implications for STEM subjects at university where participation rates are less than in comparable countries such as Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK.

This decreasing pool of STEM students is strongly linked to the lack of qualified STEM teachers in schools.

In 2013, between 11% and 29% of secondary teachers in maths, physics and chemistry had not studied second year university subjects in those disciplines.

This means that they didn’t meet the graduate standards as prescribed by the accrediting body AITSL, to teach the STEM subject as their “minor” teaching area. Let alone it be their “major” teaching area.

The standards set a minimum requirement for what someone looking to teach in a certain subject should know. Secondary teachers graduate with a major teaching area and a minor teaching area. The major teaching area requires third year discipline subjects, while the minor teaching area only requires second year discipline subjects.

Due to a shortage of specialist teachers in STEM, it means other teachers, who aren’t qualified in these areas, often end up teaching these subjects, despite their lack of knowledge.

For example, 18% of teachers in junior science have no science qualification, while in senior physics, 24% of teachers have no physics qualification. The Australian Academy of Science says this is a major concern and it can have a profound impact for what happens in the STEM classroom.

Becoming a STEM teacher

Labor’s policy assumes that the best STEM teachers will take teaching as a postgraduate qualification, and that scholarships will attract and retain them. But this is only one pathway to being a STEM teacher.

The other pathway is through an undergraduate university degree course in teaching. The STEM subjects are completed as part of the degree, to attain the AITSL graduate standards before graduation. There’s no literature I’m aware of that suggests that this approach produces an inferior type of STEM teacher.

One might argue that a student who has positive STEM experiences, an aptitude for STEM and makes a positive choice to be a STEM teacher as they leave school, will very likely be effective in that role.

Labor’s policy is not aimed at encouraging potential STEM teachers to consider this pathway.

A lot of ongoing research focuses on recruitment and retention strategies of STEM teachers directly from secondary school.

For these students the “what to teach” and “how to teach” are taught concurrently.

The research says that it is the interplay between content and learning that needs to be better understood. With these skills trainee teachers are more able to focus their learning of the STEM discipline content in the knowledge that they need to teach it later on.

But there is an even bigger effect at play here. And that is the low level of esteem in which a teaching career is held.

Much of this is to do with the workplace environment, such as high workloads, a lack of support and challenges with classroom management.

Fixing the stigma associated with the job would impact teacher recruitment dramatically.

Labor’s policy is too narrow

Labor has put forward two STEM education policies.

The first is to do with “upskilling” existing teachers through professional development.

The second encourages STEM graduates to take further study in teaching through $15,000 scholarships paid in two instalments - at the start and end of the first year of teaching. These STEM graduates may have been in the workforce for some time, or may come straight from a previous STEM degree.

While these strategies broadly align with the Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal plan for the mathematical sciences they have a very narrow focus.

With the current demands from industry for STEM graduates, how many are going to give up high paying jobs in industry for the short term sugar-hit of $15,000 and the stress of the classroom?

Labor’s policy implies we’ve given up on attracting students straight out of secondary school into a STEM-focused teaching degree.

A more shrewd investment would be to attract high achieving students of STEM direct from secondary school. Beyond that, investments in improving teacher training and making the workplace more attractive are critical.