In an earlier post a couple days ago, the looming shortage of bright students going into the sciences, math and engineering and future implications was discussed. If the U.S. is to get serious about addressing the potential problems and issues associated with the current trends, it will almost necessarily begin with getting more and highly qualified teachers into the middle schools and high schools around the country. However, there are some problems with this.
Probably the most pressing issue has to do with the one entity that drives most things in life, money. There have been surveys done that show teaching is now, on average, the lowest paying job among all professions. Also, a NEA analysis shows how pay for college-educated teachers has differed over time from non-teacher college-educated professionals. The results are quite telling:
Male College-Educated Non-Teacher Pay Compared to Male Teacher Pay
Year % Non-Teachers Earn More (or Less) than Teachers
Female College-Educated Non-Teacher Pay Compared to Female Teacher Pay
Year % Non-Teachers Earn More (or Less) than Teachers
While teacher salaries have just been keeping up with inflation for the most part, more lucrative opportunities have presented themselves to highly educated men and women. Teacher pay has fallen behind dramatically over the past couple of decades, and one cannot blame today's students from thinking twice about going into teaching, which is consistently rated as one of the highest stressed jobs in addition to one of the professions with the least amount of financial reward in the near term. Historically, teaching has been dominated by women, but as the number of female professionals has increased tremendously since the 1950s, more lucrative business, legal, medical, and technological career opportunities have allowed highly educated women to have many more options for employment.
Teaching has certainly become an unattractive career in part because of salaries that cannot compete with other professions, and I've been told this by many friends and acquaintances over the years. This is also the likely driving force behind the phenomenon of about half of new teachers leaving the profession within their first 4 years or so. It is a demanding, time-consuming job where many feel the money is not adequate enough to stay in the field; so why not take on a less stressful job for more money? Makes sense.
Then there is the stigma attached to teaching. The old saying goes something like, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I was reminded of this by an email I received from a former student who is studying physics at Stanford. She is leaning towards becoming a high school physics teacher. She is amazing at physics, as shown when she was selected as a member of the U.S. Physics Team while in high school and now sets the curve in one of the elite physics programs in the world. She is taking heat for her interest in teaching, because why would one who can do physics ever want to 'waste' it by teaching. There is a seemingly widespread lack of respect for teaching as a career as well as for teachers. Our best and brightest grow up hearing and seeing the lack of respect, and the low level of public regard for the profession, and there is some level of peer pressure to avoid making the move to teaching. My own experience reflects all this as well, both from friends and family members. Why would I, with a Ph.D. in physics from a top ten program and the premier particle accelerator lab in the world, and author or coauthor of one hundred published journal articles (certainly a benefit of working with a large experimental collaboration!), ever waste myself on high school students? Supposedly I've shown I can do physics, and I now choose to teach. I certainly felt pressure to pursue postdoctoral offers rather than a job in a Chicago public high school, but for me it was the right choice because I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, and hopefully I've done that every now and then over the past 11 years. And I must say I've met countless teachers who 'can do' their areas of expertise (many with master's degrees and beyond in their field) and would be productive professionals in academia or the private sector if they chose that path, but they love working with kids who need the guidance and assistance to prepare for life.
For those who may be considering teaching over some other profession, one way I look at it is it is possible to make a bigger impact on your field than some of those who are in the field. What I mean by this is the following: The odds of making a real difference in a field through a major discovery/contribution is small, especially now as collaborations continue to increase in the number of members. However, over the last 8 years or so, I have taught some 500 or so high-end students, with a majority of them going into some field of science (including two or three dozen who have gone into physics), engineering, or math. From their kind feedback, I played some role in keeping their interest high and motivating them to pursue these fields as majors in college. I like to think I am making another valuable contribution to the fields of physical science and engineering by doing this, because progress tends to happen when lots of good minds work together on tough problems, and the more minds the better. Pre-college teachers are the first step in making this happen.
While I can give all the pep talks in the world, in reality the problem will continue until there is a more attractive financial reward and more societal prestige associated with teaching high school science and math, as well as all other subject areas. If nothing happens and the trends continue, the U.S. will continue to see gradual erosion in its scientific and technological lead over the next couple of decades. Numerous countries are making rapid and significant progress in their attempts to become competitive with the U.S. in research and technology development, and we cannot afford to become complacent just because we have the lead at the moment.