Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, America has been struggling to recruit and retain STEM teachers in its public middle and high schools.

In the 2017-2018 school year, approximately 100,000 teacher jobs in STEM – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – went unfilled at the high school level. At the middle school level, there were about 150,000 unfilled STEM educator jobs.

The situation has been getting progressively worse over the past decade or so. For instance, in the 2011-2012 school year, 19% of public schools were unable to fill a teaching position for biology or life sciences. By the 2020-2021 school year, that number had grown to 31%. The situation was similar for other subjects, going from 19% to 32% for mathematics, and 26% to 47% for physical sciences, such as physics, geology and engineering.

Science shortages were a problem even before Sputnik, but the launch served as a wake-up call. Three months afterward, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated during his Special Message to the Congress on Education that federal action was necessary to educate more science and mathematics teachers.

As a professor of education policy – and also as a former state secretary of education in Virginia – I have examined the STEM teacher shortage from multiple vantage points. In a September 2023 policy paper, a colleague and I recommend that in order to solve America’s STEM educator shortage, elected officials and education leaders should adopt something that is widely used in higher education – an endowed chair position for STEM teachers.

We think endowed chairs have the potential to retain and attract more STEM educators at the K-12 level, but it requires a willingness to rethink the ways that schools employ STEM educators.

Two factors contribute to so many unfilled vacancies in STEM education:

 There are fewer college students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education that ever before.

Between 1959-1976, bachelor’s degrees in education were the most popular college major in the United States, and they accounted for about 20% of all degrees. Between 1975-2021, the percentage of students majoring in education fell from 17% to 4%.

STEM graduates can earn more money outside of education.

When STEM majors go into a STEM career, they will earn, on average, US$101,100. When STEM graduates become a math, computer science or science teacher, they will earn, on average, only a fraction of that amount – roughly $60,000.

This salary gap between STEM professionals and STEM educators is what is known as the STEM teacher “wage penalty.”

Read the full article about STEM educator shortages by Gerard Robinson at The 74.