Melissa Moritz, former deputy director of STEM initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education, is vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Math and Science Initiative. Emily Weiss, former deputy chief academic officer at the New York City Department of Education, is a principal at Education First Consulting.
Now more than ever, a high-quality STEM education matters. The STEM fields cultivate curiosity and creativity while preparing students to reach their highest potential in work and life. They are also critical for personal and national prosperity: In the next decade, almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations will require intermediate or advanced knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.
Unfortunately, access to a high-quality STEM education is deeply inequitable, limiting opportunities for students while they are still in high school. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of African-American and Latino students don’t offer Algebra II — a prerequisite for many higher-level STEM courses — and a third of these schools do not offer chemistry. Given the existence of these STEM deserts, it’s no surprise that people of color are significantly underrepresented in the growing STEM workforce.
One reason schools struggle to provide access to STEM courses is a shortage of effective STEM educators. More than half of U.S. public school districts, including more than 90 percent of districts serving large populations of African-American and Latino students, report difficulties recruiting and retaining certified, knowledgeable STEM teachers.
Those shortages make the focused development of future STEM educators critical. The National Math and Science Initiative has widely replicated the UTeach program, an initiative at the University of Texas at Austin to help students pursuing undergraduate degrees in math and science also secure teacher certification. As of spring 2016, more than 60 percent of educators certified through the UTeach Expansion program were working in school systems that serve high proportions of African-American and Latino students.
But there is more to do. Without a great STEM teacher in every classroom, we will continue to fall short — depriving students of opportunities and hindering economic progress.