Hey STEM Professor, You’re a Teacher, Too

Let’s move faculty out of the Ivory Tower and into schools.

“I have three universities in my backyard, and we can’t fill science teacher positions.” shouted Kathleen Butler Gordon, of Orange County, Florida. “Teachers have to report August 17. What can my superintendent do now to get more teachers?”

Affirmations of “yes” rang through the Hyatt meeting room in Savannah, Georgia Saturday, as the Orange County, District 5 board member’s words resonated with attendees of “Creating a Pipeline of Effective Teachers for Urban Schools” – my presentation at the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education.

Unfortunately, much like the drainage systems of New Orleans, the leaky STEM teacher problem can’t be repaired in a month. When it comes to the national problem of producing teachers of science, technology, engineering and math, quick fixes haven’t been solved in university faculty committee meetings, and they aren’t going to address the big problem of postsecondary institutions’ ostensibly low aptitude to convert people who major in one of the critical shortage areas into professional teachers.

Related: The graduation rates for every school district in one map

Each year the U.S. Department of Education puts out a nationwide Teacher Shortage Area (TSA) list. While we don’t need teachers in all areas, our urban districts crave STEM and English as a Second Language teachers as well as those who look like the populations urban districts serve. President Obama adopted the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s goal of producing 100,000 STEM teachers in a decade, but the ACT reported the number of students who aspire to be math and science teachers is half of the annual target.

Still, colleges and universities train enough content experts but our training systems aren’t directing them into teaching. Smaller districts like Grand Rapids Public Schools can’t fill 10-15 positions in spite of having more than eight colleges or universities that could potentially fill the voids.

“Having universities in close proximity to our district but not having them as a responsive partner is frustrating,” said attendee Christopher Barclay, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education. “It would be wonderful to have math professors near us help us with the real problems we have with math instruction and performance.”

Related: Evaluating teachers: Precise but irrelevant metrics?

Colleges of education shouldn’t be the only division charged with producing teachers. The entire university must fulfill its mission of meeting the workforce demands of our urban communities.

The figurative distance between urban districts’ needs and universities’ ability to realize their charge is limiting schools’ capacities to prepare kids for college. In other words, colleges hurt themselves and our communities when they don’t deploy our best and brightest into teaching. This is why we must fundamentally change the way we identify and train teacher talent.

Some attendees stated they resisted Teach for America and other alternate-route teacher preparation programs, which have shorter training periods before their candidates enter the classroom. But the shortage of teachers keeps alternate-route programs (many of which are college based) in business. Alternate-route programs address immediate needs, while the larger pipeline problem remains.

Related: Building a better teacher

Some board members pointed to the university tradition of tenure as a problem. If teaching faculty were rewarded for recruiting, training and placing teachers and to a lesser extent, producing research, we could potentially place more boots on the ground. In addition, university faculty could do more teaching in the K-12 space.

“The tenure structure must shift to recognize contributions that includes scholarship of both a theoretical and practical nature,” said Martha James-Hassan, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. James-Hassan speaks to the age-old issue of granting tenure primarily on scholarship and not practice, which teaching actually is.

Theresa Harris-Tigg, is an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State, and she is the board vice president of Buffalo Public Schools. Harris-Tigg believes her board service is smiled upon but isn’t fully valued as a necessary component to support children and teachers. “There’s no real conversation on how to be an effective university partner to transform communities and schools.”

Related: Study calculates low-income, minority teachers get the worst teachers in Washington State

Tigg and James-Hassan are right. Colleges of education host both practitioners and researchers. Both are valued, but both are rewarded the same. It’s time for curriculum and instruction programs in colleges of education to practice what they preach. Get closer to what they are supposedly training teachers to do. Move the faculty offices out of the Ivory Tower and put them in the schools.

But I’m looking at chemistry, math, geology and other STEM professors to do the same. We can’t address the larger pipeline issue, if biology professors neither see themselves as teachers nor feel a responsible for generating other biologists who are built to teach in K-12 schools.

Professors have to remember they are teachers too.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).