STEM experts in every school? Maybe

The federal government plan to ensure every Australian school has at least one teacher specialised in mathematics or science is a good idea that might well remain so.
Jul 9, 2018

The federal government plan to ensure every Australian school has at least one teacher specialised in mathematics or science is a good idea that might well remain so, given the already massive shortfall in specialist STEM teachers.

While the practicalities are iffy, the intentions are to be commended according to some experts in the area.

New reports have stated that the plan will require high schools to employ teachers who have studied STEM subjects at university level, and primary schools with more than two or three teachers to employ at least one such teacher.

Dr Jane Hunter of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) says the government’s plan misses the mark, she wonders “where these people who are going to teach the STEM disciplines will to come from? Recruiting teachers to teach the STEM disciplines has been historically difficult in Australia – there is a worldwide shortage of teachers in these disciplines,” she said.

“My STEM research in Australian primary schools shows generalist teachers when given opportunities, time and professional development to focus on STEM in partnership with university specialists are highly capable of stepping up and teaching STEM well.

“Furthermore we don’t need STEM specialist teachers in primary schools as this de-skills generalist primary school teachers. Then STEM becomes the domain of one or two teachers in a school. It takes time to build capacity and it needs greater funding from the Federal government for ongoing teacher professional learning.

“In universities, preservice teachers must have a major and a minor to teach maths and science in a NSW public high school – the problem is, because there are too few maths and science teachers in high schools, the available specialist teachers teach the older years leaving gaps to fill in these subjects in years 7–10 where non-experts are asked to take junior classes.”

Prof Lindsey Conner of Flinders University, however, says that while we already have a large number of expert science and math teachers in schools, the plan is a positive one nonetheless. “The federal initiative will be a great boost to this expertise as there is a huge need for specialist STEM teachers in high schools,” she said.

“We need additional teachers in STEM to bring enthusiasm and inspiration because that’s what will help kids to connect ideas and develop creative future solutions to the worlds issues. Students who have advanced in STEM will be in high demand for a wide range of employment options in the future.”

Dr Anne Forbes of Macquarie University likewise welcomes the plan. “The research is clear that all science and mathematics high school teachers should have deep knowledge of their subject areas,” she said. Imagine your child being taught piano by a ‘music’ teacher who couldn’t read music!

“In NSW, primary teacher education students are able to complete a NESA-recognized teaching specialisation in a priority area, which includes mathematics, or science and technology, so surely we can at least expect the same for high school teachers,” said Dr Forbes.

“The Federal Government’s plan to ensure that all high schools have teachers with expertise in maths and science through study at a university level is to be commended. The trick will be how to recruit and how to monitor compliance.”

Prof Colleen Vale of Monash University highlights that non-specialist teaching occurs more often in remote and rural schools and low socio-economic schools. “According to TIMSS 2015 approximately 25% of Year 8 students were taught mathematics by a non-specialist mathematics teacher,” she said.

“In some of these small schools there is no specialist mathematics teacher or specialist senior science teacher – this is the case for one school in our study of out-of-field teaching.

“In another school in our study, they face the problem of ‘teacher churn’ that is, the continual turnover of staff – both specialist and non-specialist mathematics and science teachers. This includes teachers who were employed and trained through the Teach for Australia program.

“Whilst we should welcome strategies to encourage tertiary students to train as specialist mathematics and science teachers, more needs to be done to attract these specialist teachers to rural, remote and low socio-economic schools and to provide support and opportunities that will retain these teachers in these schools.

“Beginning teachers whether they are teaching their specialist subject or non-specialist subject, need on-going professional learning opportunities that meets their needs, collaborative support to plan, implement and reflect their teaching, and a leadership that focuses on staff well-being.”