Challenges in 6-12 STEM Education in Kentucky

Over the past two decades, there has been much concern about the state of K-12 STEM education and instruction in the public school system and its ripple effect on the future of the STEM workforce, US economic growth and the STEM competitiveness in a global marketplace that pivots on having a well-educated and well-prepared STEM graduates. Qualified STEM teachers are the single most important factor in inspiring high school students in STEM to excite them about the dynamic nature of the STEM fields. The quality of STEM teachers is increasingly recognized to be a critical factor since teachers have a measurable impact in students’ learning, success and achievements. Highly qualified teachers lay the academic groundwork in STEM, thus inspiring and motivating K-12 students to major in a STEM field. Various reports have expressed the nationwide growing shortage of STEM teachers and the challenges faced in increasing the number of qualified STEM teachers in the public schools.  There is an urgent national need to improve the quality of STEM education by putting well-qualified STEM teachers in high-need schools so they can teach STEM subjects in an effective way that can lead to more students interested in pursuing a STEM degree in college. We need to ensure that K-12 students receive the STEM training essential for future success.  Effective STEM teacher preparation provides a vital function in pursuit for an educated and engaged populace.

Unfortunately, most undergraduate STEM students show no to very little interest in a career in K-12 STEM teaching and it is not even “on their radar” as a career option. The demand for certified STEM teachers nationally has been rising with schools across the country struggling to fill openings with qualified teachers. Fewer STEM students are entering the teaching profession, and school districts are struggling to attract and retain teachers. Moreover, public school enrollments are becoming increasingly diverse and the number of minority students enrolled is growing faster. Students of color comprise nearly half of the student population now and are projected to be the majority in the future. Yet the demographic composition of teachers has changed very little, and teacher candidates do not reflect the demographic make of students in today’s classrooms. Schools in high-poverty communities often do not have qualified STEM teachers or have unqualified teachers who teach outside of their fields.  Classes in high-poverty schools are twice as likely to have an out-of-field teacher compared to low-poverty schools, and out-of-field teachers are disproportionately teaching minority students and are assigned to teach students in high-poverty schools.

Fewer than 20% of Kentucky’s working-age adults have a bachelor’s degree. Kentucky is still producing significantly less certified STEM teachers than needed to fill the vacant middle and high school teaching positions. Compounding the problem, Kentucky is experiencing a downturn in the number of new certified 6-12 STEM teachers, causing school districts to collapse science courses and reduce STEM course offerings. Kentucky shares many of the challenges seen nationwide in recruiting, preparing, and retaining highly qualified STEM teachers and is struggling to increase the number of certified 6-12 STEM teachers across the state. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts, Louisville, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Providence are among the large urban school districts having significant trouble finding qualified STEM teachers. Reports from the National Research Council and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, on teacher preparation concluded that too many STEM teachers teach out of their field. This problem is particularly pronounced in Kentucky. Due to the teacher shortage, most high school STEM teachers are teaching outside of their respective STEM discipline. Specifically, the current distribution of certified STEM teachers in KY is as follows: 34.8% of KY STEM teachers are certified to teach middle school Mathematics and 26% are certificated to teach high school Mathematics. Only 4.5% of high school STEM teachers have certification in Chemistry and only 3.3% in Physics. Since 2010, there has been a 44% decline in the total number of certified middle and high school STEM teachers in KY. According to the latest Department of Education’s report on Nationwide Teacher Shortage Area list, KY reported teacher shortages in the STEM fields. There is an urgent need to increase the number of new certified teachers Physics and Chemistry in KY, since the high school Physics and Chemistry courses are often taught by teachers out of their area of certification who do not have a degree in either Chemistry or Physics. In recent years, there has been a significant decline in the number of certified Physics teachers in KY, which mirrors national shortages.