LAWRENCE — Everyone from industry leaders to the President has called for the United States to produce more graduates in sciences, technology, math and engineering — the so-called STEM disciplines. To accomplish that goal, the country must first produce more science and math teachers, and a new report from the University of Kansas shows science teachers already in the field will be eligible to retire at alarming rates over the next few years.
Steven B. Case, director, and Steven Obenhaus, a faculty member at the Center for Science Education at KU, recently authored “An Analysis of Secondary Science Teacher Retirement in Kansas” to explore the idea that, like much of the workforce, science teachers in Kansas will be eligible to retire in large numbers in the next five to 10 years.
“It is important to note that in the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement,” the authors wrote.
That number does not address the specific group, secondary science teachers, that the researchers wanted to know more about.
Case and Obenhaus wanted to find out if there was a pattern, geographically speaking, of where the most retirement-eligible secondary science teachers in Kansas were working. Studying 2009-10 data, they found that 320 teachers, or 13 percent of the state’s secondary science educators, are eligible for retirement right now. In some rural districts, the only science teacher could retire, leaving the district without any.
“There’s not a distinct pattern, it’s spread out across the state,” Case said of districts with 41 percent or more of their science teachers eligible for retirement. “In Kansas, though, it does matter where they are, because if you can’t find someone to fill a job, you have a teacher shortage.”
The report only examines secondary science teacher retirement eligibility. Another report detailing secondary math teachers will be released soon.
Many rural and small districts face challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers to live and work there. Case and Obenhaus argue that policy changes are necessary to help prevent potential teacher shortages in rural and small community districts.
“We need policies at a state level that will help encourage kids to go back to these rural towns,” Case said.
The policies are necessary on a state-by-state basis because overseeing education is a state level responsibility in the United States. Each state will also need to work to produce more secondary science and math teachers if the nation is to meet the goal President Barack Obama presented in his 2011 State of the Union Address.
“Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math,” Obama said.
Complicating the problem is the fact that retirement is not the only reason teachers leave the field. More desirable jobs, higher paying careers, teacher layoffs and several other factors cause teachers to move on.
“This makes these retirement numbers even more alarming,” Case said.
The authors note that extending the retirement numbers five and 10 years into the future can help establish a target number for teacher production. The numbers show that in Kansas, more than 60 school districts will have more than 50 percent of their secondary science teachers be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.
The number of science teachers leaving the field could be accelerated by a number of factors. The Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, known as KPERS, has been proven to be underfunded, Case said, and changes to benefits could dissuade teachers from joining the field or encourage them to work in other career fields. Many eligible teachers haven’t retired because the ongoing recession has taken a heavy toll on their retirement portfolios.
The Center for Science Education is home to UKanTeach, a program that allows students to become licensed science or math teachers in four years while simultaneously earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Now in its fourth year, the program has graduated 41 math and science teachers, and has set a goal of producing 90 to 100 science and math teachers each year.
Case and Obenhaus maintain that while the problem could extend to all school districts, it is most immediate in rural areas, and not only in Kansas.
“Rural and small town districts are taking the brunt of this,” Obenhaus said. “There are in fact secondary science teacher shortages and it’s going to get worse, just based on retirement eligibility.”
The report is available at www.kuscied.org.