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Can the White House's $1 Billion Plan Keep Math and Science Teachers in the Classroom?

The Obama Administration's throwing their muscle behind a STEM Master Teacher Corps.

We know that without great science, technology, engineering, and math teachers it's impossible to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Unfortunately, 30,000 STEM teachers leave the profession every year and it's tough to lure STEM grads into the classroom when becoming an educator is seen as something you do when you don't have any other options.

In order to ensure great STEM teachers stick around and top-notch students put teaching on their short list of career options, today the White House announced plans to create an elite STEM Master Teacher Corps, a nationwide community of outstanding public school teachers that are effective with their students and can serve as models and inspiration.

The initiative will launch this year with 50 teachers selected locally in 50 sites and will expand over the next four years to 10,000 teachers across the nation. Each "master teacher" would be expected to serve in the corps for a minimum of four years and would lead professional development and school turnaround efforts in their schools and districts, develop lesson plans and strategies to transform the practice of their peers, and mentor new educators so that they’re more likely to stay in the classroom.

For their efforts, these teachers will receive perks including a national award recognizing their excellence in the classroom. And, although many educators go into teaching because they’re altruistic, when your friends from college who majored in STEM are pulling down big salaries in Silicon Valley, it gets tough to justify staying in the classroom. To that end, the STEM corps teachers will receive a stipend of $20,000 per year on top of their base salary. While that might not put them on par with a hot programmer at Google, the compensation will close some of the gap and make their salaries competitive with other careers they might be qualified for.

The big question is, where will the money to pay those bonuses and generally fund the initiative come from? An initial $100 million to get things off the ground will come from an existing program for teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the administration also has a $1 billion request included in the 2013 budget in front of Congress right now. Despite the extreme partisanship in Washington D.C. and a Republican dominated Congress, he's confident that money will be approved. "This has nothing to do with politics," says Duncan, adding that it doesn't matter what your political affiliation may be, everyone has to come together and support STEM education because the economy depends on it. "I can't think of a better opportunity for bipartisanship," says Duncan.

Given the recent fight over student loans and the looming duel over sequestration, whether Duncan's right remains to be seen. But, what might help is that the administration's actively harnessing the support of private companies who have a significant stake in ensuring there's enough STEM graduates in the workforce. They're also working closely with powerful nonprofit entities, including 100K in 10, the Carnegie Foundation-led effort to boost the number of STEM teachers in the nation.

However, what this effort doesn't address is the factor that researchers say really influences a teacher's willingness to stay in the classroom: working conditions. As high school science teacher Shawn Cornally wrote last year, being a teacher in our severely underresourced schools is like having the impossible job of teaching everyone you meet to play a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, even those without lips." You'd take up the challenge, but, says Cornally, eventually you find out, "You're going to get one trumpet, no recording equipment, 15 sheets of staff paper each year, and professional training from your administrators on how to teach saxophone.

While this STEM teacher corps would, ideally, provide an environment with more professional development, give teachers more autonomy to make decisions for their students, and help them incorporate new research and technology into the classroom, it can't solve the frustrating problem of a chemistry teacher in a low income community having to teach classes without having access to a lab or the proper materials. As Cornally says, "a well-funded equipment closet with a budget for repairs and updates" would go a long way toward making teachers stay in the classroom.

Duncan acknowledges that the effort won’t be perfect on day one. But, when it comes to identifying the best teachers and encouraging them to stay in the classroom, says Duncan, we need to take action now and "reward and encourage and incentivize that great talent in ways that this country has, quite frankly, never done."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user woodleywonderworks

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