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Do I Stay or Do I Go?: The Role of Retention Strategies in STEM Education Reform

Do I Stay or Do I Go?: The Role of Retention Strategies in STEM Education Reform
Reported by
Nicole Cojuangco

Posted May 08, 2012

Presented By

Presented by Demos and the Science Education Initiative


"When I was teaching, I found myself in love with teaching, but completely disgusted by the education system that we were working in," remarked Meghan Groome, Director of the K-12 Education Initiative at the New York Academy of Sciences. Fortunately, Groome had the resolve and the resources "to use her skills in education to make a difference" outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, not everyone has this persistence, and many highly qualified and motivated new teachers burn out from exhaustion, frustration, or dissatisfaction with their profession and ultimately leave teaching or education altogether. On March 7, 2012, the Academy and Demos brought together experts and professionals from all aspects of education at Do I Stay or Do I Go? The Role of Retention Strategies in STEM Education Reform, a panel discussion focusing on the reasons STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) teachers in particular leave the profession and on generating possible ways to prevent a loss of valuable educators in STEM disciplines.

Julia Rankin of The Science Collaborative, Inc., panel moderator and former K-12 Director of Science for the New York City Department of Education, opened the forum by referencing the annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which found that only 44% of teachers are very satisfied with their job, the lowest percentage since 1989. The survey also revealed that 29% plan to leave in 5 years, whereas 17% expressed that desire in 2009. Rankin believes the scientific community should think about how we "can work together to really support such teachers, to make them feel valued and [to] make them want to stay in the system." She cited Sheila Tobias, author of the book Science Teaching as a Profession, who identifies loss of autonomy, control, and stature, not money, as the key factors in low retention. According to the research conducted by the Center for Teaching Quality, a teacher's confidence and perceived effectiveness, the degree of a teacher's identification with a professional learning community (PLC), and the relevance of professional development to that teacher all play into the teacher's decision to stay in the field. The panel's contributions supported these findings as they began to pool anecdotes and statistics to generate solutions for increasing STEM teacher retention.

Many novice STEM teachers lack confidence or feel ineffective or underappreciated. As David M. Steiner, Dean of the Hunter College School of Education and former president of the University of the State of New York and Commissioner of Education testified, the quality of education students in universities goes up, but it takes time for that quality to manifest in the K-12 classroom. Steiner suggested that policy makers do not consider this delay, and therefore impose initiatives such as Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which are based on faulty assumptions about the pace of change. According to Steiner, the latest teacher evaluation system, for instance, was "built for a labor pool that is considered weak...[and built]...out of fear of low performance," contributing to job anxiety in teachers and to micromanaging by policy makers, education reformers, and administrators. Michael Holmes, a teacher at the High School for American Studies at Lehman College and winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science, conveyed his frustration with the lack of trust demonstrated by such policies: "...When you're in your classroom, and you're in the mode of thinking, 'What's best for the students?', your mind might wander back [to these evaluation systems] and you may stifle those things that are best for your students in hopes of achieving what Race to the Top [or] NCLB...want you to be." According to Holmes, the lack of trust "takes away a lot of what keeps teachers there, the idea of autonomy, the idea of being self-directed."

Several members of the panel and audience believe that treating teachers as true professionals would help the system retain more science teachers. Hines confirmed the need for trust by citing the research of Richard Ingersoll, whose findings suggested that "the majority of science teachers stayed where they had a voice in the community and left where their voice was neglected." More specifically, Steiner suggested that policy makers, administrators, and members of education reform groups need to "break the cycle of distrust," which inspires "deep neuroses of poor performance and not a celebration of excellence." An audience member, the principal at a Long Island City high school, recognized this phenomenon and queried the panel on what he should do to keep the teachers that he considers talented. Panelist Preeti Gupta, Director of Youth Learning and Research at the American Museum of Natural History, challenged him to extend the trust even further and to include these teachers in the conversation about what would make them more likely to stay. To help teachers and administrators alike trust teachers' abilities, education schools have the responsibility to improve their own methods, to demand high quality education students, and to push them to even higher standards. Embedding quality and trust within the system will "revolutionize" the field, according to Steiner, establishing teaching as an attractive and respected profession, a niche in which they feel safe and valued.

A collaborative effort, such as the one suggested by Gupta, seems to be another link needed in the chain that keeps individuals in STEM education. She and most of her fellow panelists maintained that professional learning communities (PLCs), a collaboration of teachers and administrators who share, reflect on, and apply practices in order to increase student learning and achievement, are crucial to retaining high quality STEM teachers. Often, teachers feel unprepared before they are thrown into their own classrooms. Once in their own classrooms, they can lack the confidence or the complete grasp of content needed to be model scientists, either because they have long since left the lab or because they had limited scientific training. STEM teachers must be supported to develop as teachers and as scientists, both before and during their teaching experience (pre- and in-service).

To help future teachers become masters of both education and science, panel members advocated deploying a variety of PLCs, where "theory and practice are linked together" as powerful tools for teacher preparation and retention. Pre-service, Steiner suggested, America should follow the model set by schools of education in Finland by making the process of admitting education majors more selective, in student number and quality, so as to provide financially sustainable and outstanding in-class training programs, called "residency programs." Active classroom training and participation in PLCs pre-service can provide a controlled environment in which to make reparable mistakes. For teachers new to the classroom, school-based PLCs are still crucial, according to Gupta, in order to provide content-specific support and to position teachers in a community of like-minded people. An audience member mentioned a successful weekend program in which physics teachers, who are usually the only physics teacher in their own schools, pay to meet and collaborate with physics teachers from other schools. Being involved with a PLC also enhances the sense of professionalism and, therefore, teachers' confidence and effectiveness.

PLCs should not just be school-based, however. Gupta suggested that partnerships with cultural institutions pre-service and in-service can be similarly effective, both financially and professionally. She has had 15 years of direct involvement with professional development of teachers via museums and science centers and bears witness to the advantages of "teaching at the elbow of another." Many scientists and educators are already involved as paid members or volunteers with cultural institutions such as museums, and, Hines affirmed, if science teachers can partner with these non-K-12 educators, the resulting mentor-candidate relationships can decrease new teacher anxiety while simultaneously helping the veteran science educator still feel relevant. A scientist-teacher duo helps the teacher become more knowledgeable about science content and its application. In addition, scientists-turned-teachers can solidify their sense of self during such pre-service training as they find that aspects of teaching are a lot like research, Hines remarked. Gupta also reiterated the value of having candidates teach science to children pre-service, but outside the traditional classroom environment, an experience that facilitates the future teachers' professional growth as they repeatedly communicate and apply science to the diverse group of learners who visit these cultural institutions.

The final focal point of the discussion on teacher retention was the allocation of resources for relevant and effective professional development (PD). Even in the midst of budget cuts, many teachers, including Hines, have experienced listening to a well-paid individual speak on a subject of little relevance to the development of their teaching skills, under the auspices of professional development. On the other end of the spectrum, audience member Sam Silverstein of Columbia University runs a PD program that brings science teachers to the scientist and into research, which, he explained, is based on the premise that "you can't teaching something you've never done." He testified that, "Scientists understand completely the problem of science education" and that effective PD can change what goes on in science classrooms. Regarding the annual NY State budget allocation for professional development, he claimed, "There isn't a shortage of money...there is $550 million that is spent for PD. If that PD were any good, the system wouldn't look the way it looks now." In agreement, Steiner drew attention to the money spent on education majors who never enter teaching and asserted, "There is a massive use of funds, both pre-service and in-service. No other industrialized country has done as badly [with that investment]."

Steiner attributed this profligate spending to the lack of standards for PD programs and suggested measuring outcomes of existing PD in order to set appropriate criteria. Silverstein suggested partnering teachers with any of the 224 higher education institutions in New York to create summer research programs for science teachers. Another audience member, a teacher of 15 years, advocated providing quality PD for literacy as well as for science, as navigating texts is crucial to science as well. Steiner responded that the newly introduced Common Core State Standards are aligned with these aims. The hope is that better equipping teachers will encourage them to stay in the profession. Such actions, coupled with better budgeting and raising public awareness of misuse of public funds, should incite the necessary political will to effect lasting change.

The circumstances that are causing low STEM teacher retention should not imply teachers' desperation or incompetence. Rather, the situation seems to have resulted from a misuse, repression, or underdevelopment of highly qualified and talented individuals, both scientists and educators. The impact of this profession seems to be undervalued and its members mistrusted by policy makers. If basic steps are taken to improve the standards and quality of content development, both for science and education, educators can trust their teaching expertise and their knowledge of science content as they master their profession.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Media available from panel discussion featuring:
Moderator: Julia Rankin, PhD (The Science Collaborative, Inc.)
Panelists: Michael Holmes (High School for American Studies at Lehman College)
David M. Steiner, PhD (Hunter College School of Education)
Preeti Gupta, PhD (American Museum of Natural History)

Presented by

  • Demos
  • The New York Academy of Sciences

Do I Stay or Do I Go? Panel Discussion, Part 1

Moderator: Julia Rankin Morandi (The Science Collaborative, Inc.)

Do I Stay or Do I Go? Panel Discussion, Part 2

Moderator: Julia Rankin Morandi (The Science Collaborative, Inc.)



The American Museum of Natural History runs a variety of Professional Development programs for science teachers.

Information about and applications to the Summer Research Program, founded in 1990 by Dr. Samuel C. Silverstein, can be found here.

The Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) collaborates with teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts in professional development programs that emphasize high quality, standards-based, technology integrated curriculum materials and administrative counsel.

Annenberg Learner, a program of the Annenberg Foundation, uses media and telecommunications to advance excellent teaching in American schools. This mandate is carried out chiefly by the funding and broad distribution of educational video programs with coordinated Web and print materials for the professional development of K-12 teachers.

The Rutgers Center for Mathematics, Science, and Computer Education (CMSCE), the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition, and the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Sciences (DIMACS) sponsor a variety of professional development programs for grade K-12 teachers of mathematics.

The Center for Teaching Quality seeks to improve student learning and advance the teaching profession by cultivating teacher leadership, conducting timely research, and crafting smart policy—all in an effort to ensure that every student in America has a qualified, well-supported and effective teacher.

The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, conducted annually since 1984 by Harris Interactive, shares the voices of teachers and others close to the classroom with educators, policy makers and the public.

Journal Articles & Books

Hamos JE. Framing K-12 partnerships in order to make a difference. Acad. Med. 2006;81(6 Suppl):S11-14.

Hulse RA. Preparing K-12 students for the new interdisciplinary world of science. Exp. Biol. Med. (Maywood) 2006;231(7):1192-1196.

Kubota C. Preparation and professional development of K-12 science teachers in the United States. Peabody Journal of Education 1997;72(1):129-149.

Laursen S, Liston C, Thiry H, et al. What good is a scientist in the classroom? Participant outcomes and program design features for a short-duration science outreach intervention in K-12 classrooms. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 2007;6(1):49-64.

Nucci J. Strengthening K-12 science education through teacher development. PhysicsToday 2012.

Pearson PD, Moje E, Greenleaf C. Literacy and science: each in the service of the other. Science 2010;328(5977):459-463.

Pelaez NJ, Gonzalez BL. Sharing science: characteristics of effective scientist-teacher interactions. Adv. Physiol. Educ. 2002;26(1-4):158-167.

Sharing strategies in K-12 science education: outreach events for local teachers/students at scientific meetings. Physiologist 2010;53(5):153.

Tobias S. Science teaching as a profession: why it isn't, how it could be. Arlington VA: NSTA Press National Science Teachers Association; 2010.


Julia Rankin, PhD

The Science Collaborative, Inc.

Julia Rankin has extensive experience in K-20 education with students of all ability levels. She is the former K-12 Director of Science for the New York City Department of Education and the Director of Science/Life Skills, K-12 for Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut. Committed to urban education, she helped develop NSTA's Urban Science Education Leaders (USEL). As CEO and President of The Science Collaborative, Inc, she works to build and enhance professional learning communities. For the last three years, she coordinated the California Science Project Teacher Retention Initiative (CSP TRI) and the Science and Math Initiative for the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP). Presently, she is the Project Manger for the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) developing the FoLAR River Rover, a mobile education interpretive center.


Preeti Gupta, PhD

American Museum of Natural History

Preeti Gupta is director of Youth Learning and Research at the American Museum of Natural History and is one of the faculty of the newly state funded Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. Before coming to AMNH, Gupta was Senior Vice President for Education and Public Programs at the New York Hall of Science and was responsible for strategic planning and program development for the internationally-emulated Science Career Ladder Program, as well as for teacher professional development, out of school time programming, digital learning, family learning, and the museum's science technology library. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Bioengineering from Columbia University, a Master's Degree in Education from The George Washington University, and a doctoral degree in Urban Education from the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Michael Holmes

High School for American Studies at Lehman College
e-mail | website

Michael Holmes received both his BS (1997) and MS (2000) in Chemistry from NC Central University. Prior to teaching, he worked in research institutions in developmental biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and at the Population Council. Holmes was invited to participate on the NYC Teaching Fellows Advisory board for the 2012 academic year, was selected as a Jhumki Basu Foundation Fellow at NYU in 2011, and was awarded the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science. He also received a Funds for Teacher Grant to examine Nuclear Testing Sites in the southwest United States. Throughout Holmes's teaching career he has been involved with various projects with the American Museum of Natural History, New Visions, and PBS.

David M. Steiner, PhD

Hunter College School of Education
e-mail | website

David M. Steiner was born in Princeton, New Jersey and was raised in Cambridge, England. He earned degrees from Balliol College, Oxford University (BA and MA) and from Harvard University (PhD). From 1999 to 2004 he was a professor of education in Boston University's School of Education in its department of administration. From 2005 to 2009 he served as dean of Hunter College–CUNY's School of Education. At Hunter, Steiner led a national partnership with the KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and Teach for America to create a dedicated teacher preparation program for charter and non-charter school teachers geared to the unique challenges of urban schools. Known as Teacher U at Hunter, the partnership has gained national attention for rethinking what rigorous teacher preparation looks like. Steiner was appointed by the Board of Regents as President of the University of the State of New York and Commissioner of Education in October 2009 and served in that capacity until 2011 when he returned as the Klara & Larry Silverstein Dean of Hunter College School of Education.

Nicole Cojuangco

Nicole Cojuangco is a high school biology teacher for the New York City Department of Education and has been teaching in central Brooklyn for more than four years. Nicole has a BS in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, and has recently earned an MS in Science Education, via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Since 2009, she has been a member of the Academy, through which she finds the opportunity to enrich, develop, and fuse her passions for teaching and for science.


Presented by

  • Demos
  • The New York Academy of Sciences