Shortage of STEM teachers at crisis point

Swelling secondary student numbers and a drought in mathematically qualified teachers sounds crisis bells, Professor Tim Brown, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Director said.

Australian secondary student numbers are expected to soar by over 650,000 annually as universities struggle to attract mathematics graduates to teaching and little data on mathematics preparation in teaching qualifications is available.

Entrenched and severe, Australia’s out-of-field mathematics teaching crisis has been building for over three decades and is likely to get much worse as student numbers soar. AMSI’s latest Occasional Paper confirms isolated solutions such as a graduate recruitment will not be enough to address this shortfall.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering welcomed the report on the crisis in maths teaching but warned that the problem of out-of-field teachers extends across the entire STEM subject range.

Academy President Professor Hugh Bradlow said the report highlighted a long term concern about maths being taught by teachers without suitable maths qualifications.

“But the issue goes much deeper,” he said. “We need to ensure high quality, discipline specific teacher training in all STEM subjects.

“The future prosperity of Australia will depend on embracing new technology to address critical national challenges.

“We will need a STEM skilled workforce to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities this will bring.

“The Academy has put forward six science and technology priorities for the federal government, where immediate action will result in significant benefit to Australia.”

The Academy’s recommendations on STEM education include:

  • phasing out, as soon as feasible, the out-of-field teaching of STEM subjects in Years 7 to 10
  • investing $20 million to enable all schools to have access to the Academy’s STELR (Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance) schools program, which has been demonstrated to increase the number of students undertaking senior STEM subjects via relevance-based, in-curriculum modules, and
  • preparing the workforce of the future for technology disruption by ensuring that school education encompasses both STEM and human disciplines and providing continuing education for those already in the workforce.

Brown said: “We have been sounding warning bells on this issue for decades with little action to stem the decline and now the impact of inaction is being felt in the classroom.

“This issue goes as far back as the 1980s and cannot be solved with quick fixes or band aid solutions.

“It is critical that we take a long term approach that focuses on strengthening teacher qualifications with rigorous subject knowledge benchmarks, implementing professional development for current mathematics teachers that do not meet the knowledge benchmarks, as well as measures to attract specialist graduates into full time education and retrain our existing teacher workforce.

“Perhaps most importantly, we need transparency on the current status of Australia’s mathematically prepared workforce.

“Time is running out for action, the state and federal governments must prioritise the collection of subject specific teacher qualification data to track workforce standards and inform planning, as well as implementing professional development. Without these, measures to address this long standing, unsolved problem are unlikely to succeed.

“We’d urge the federal government to make this issue a priority, with an education policy that includes:

  • retraining of existing teachers to lift mathematical level
  • measures to strengthen Australia’s mathematical workforce, and
  • delivery of initiatives to change attitudes to maths in school, such as AMSI’s national CHOOSEMATHS.

AMSI Schools Teacher Outreach Manager and one of the paper’s authors, Michael O’Connor warns recruitment of new teachers would have little effect without measures to strengthen the current workforce.

“It is critical any solution takes a long term approach with focus on strengthening both new and existing teachers’ mathematical knowledge and confidence.”

Australian Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) results remain behind England and the USA. Both countries have introduced measures to tackle out-of-field teaching. For more information go to Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute Occasional Paper 2: