Friday, December 12, 2014

State’s long-term growth stems from STEM

*First appeared in Dec. 11 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

For years, I’ve heard anecdotes about Mississippi having too many elementary education teacher graduates. Yeah, yeah. Too many college-age students want to teach kindergarten or first grade as a profession. So what?

Recent data from the Institutions of Higher Learning puts the issue into perspective.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 1,091 students graduated in a teacher education program within our public university system. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher education graduates earned a degree in elementary education. These statistics reflect similar outcomes from the previous school year (2012-2013) in which a little more than sixty percent of all teacher education graduates majored in elementary education.

Considered as a stand-alone data point, this may not raise your eyebrows. But it should, and here’s why.

In the 2013-2014 school year:

Alcorn State University had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. ASU had one mathematics education graduate.

Delta State University had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and mathematics education. DSU had one biology education graduate.

Jackson State University had one graduate in mathematics education.

Mississippi State University had zero graduates in the field of chemistry education. MSU had five biology education graduates; 14 mathematics education graduates; and one physics education graduate.

Mississippi Valley State University had zero mathematics education graduates and one biology education graduate.

Mississippi University for Women had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. MUW had one physics education graduate.

The University of Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. UM had two biology education graduates and 12 mathematics education graduates.

The University of Southern Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. USM had seven biology education graduates and seven mathematics education graduates.

See a trend? A very small portion of Mississippi’s future teaching crop is choosing STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) subject areas. This is particularly troubling, given that STEM-related fields are among the fastest growing and highest paying sectors in the current and future labor market.

If our children are going to be successful, we’ve got to make sure they have access to quality teachers who can prepare them for the workforce or college. Whichever path they choose, STEM skills will be a vital component to success.

But with graduation numbers like these, is access to STEM education a reality? I’m not sure.

One avenue that might help alleviate these numbers is encouraging more women to pursue teaching careers in STEM areas. According to the OECD, “gender differences are…apparent in young people’s choice of field of study. Engineering, manufacturing and construction are by far the most popular fields of study for boys.” Inversely, the OECD has found that girls are more dispersed among social sciences, business and law, health and welfare, and other services.

According to National Education Association data, Mississippi’s teacher population is overwhelmingly female, with men making up just 17.9 percent of those in the profession.

In fact, the low percentage of male faculty may partially explain why our public universities are graduating so few teachers in STEM areas, given gender biases for specific fields.

The state has an interest in shifting teacher graduates to high-growth fields. It’s a positive move to secure our state’s future growth prospects, since STEM careers don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But it also helps balance the job search process: Too many elementary education teachers may over-saturate the market, resulting in unemployment for even qualified teachers. On the other hand, I’ve never met an unemployed chemistry education graduate.

To bring this full circle: Teaching is a noble profession, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with elementary education. Except that there are too many college students who pursue teaching careers in that field.

The state’s future is better served by a concentrated push to increase quality teachers in the STEM fields.

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