Special Report

How to Count to 100,000 STEM Teachers in 10 Years

Talia Milgrom-Elcott is building a coalition of the willing, an army devoted to bringing thousands of educators to the classroom

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smithsonian.com

On January 25, 2011, President Obama set a clear goal in his State of the Union Address regarding STEM education. “Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms,” he said, “we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

One group was already in the process of delivering on the president’s call to action. By June of that year, representatives from 28 organizations—including corporations, foundations, museums, school districts, universities and nonprofits—took to the stage at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Chicago. There, the group of partners officially kicked off 100Kin10, a movement to meet the ambitious challenge, with an initial pledge of $20 million.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott, a program officer in urban education at Carnegie Corporation of New York, where 100Kin10 is housed, is co-leader of the project, which has since grown to include more than 150 partners, ranging from Sesame Street to NASA, and the Girl Scouts to Google. She believes that the key to training and retaining superb STEM teachers is to have organizations, in a wide range of fields, contribute to the cause in ways that they are uniquely suited to do so. For a company like Intel, that means developing online instruction for teachers. And, for GOOD magazine, it is committing to featuring bi-weekly stories on its website about the efforts of 100Kin10 partners.

“Truly, almost any of us—and right now it is at the organization level, but we hope that as we grow this, at some point it can be at the individual level as well—can look at what we do well, find a bridge between what we do and this need, and do something that is critical to hitting the goal,” says Milgrom-Elcott.

Everyone is talking about the shortage of STEM teachers. How would you describe the crisis we are in?

What we have seen around the country is that even in districts that are laying teachers off or that have hiring freezes, STEM teachers remain in high demand. When we talk to partners, like the associations of physics teachers or chemistry teachers, they can’t place their teachers fast enough. We talked to districts that are hiring, and they can’t hire enough of these teachers.

Can you take us back to the beginning? How did you launch this movement?

In September 2010, the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology put out a report. That report listed a few things that really needed to happen for the country to accelerate STEM learning for all students. The lynchpin of the report was this call for 100,000 excellent STEM teachers. The report was nonpartisan; many economists, some business folks and some academics put together this recommendation. The president, in early October 2010, followed up with a call for 10,000 teachers in two years. 

We heard that call and thought, well, here is an urgent and critical call for action by the president—and it is doable. This is something that we can and should do.

We thought here is an opportunity to try to map out a different way of doing business. Can we bring together a diverse array of organizations, all of who might have something to contribute to this goal, and move them to action? We brought together 28 organizations, ranging from corporations and foundations, universities and school districts, to museums, federal agencies and nonprofits. We met in January, the day after the president’s State of the Union. He literally spoke the night before, and this group came together that next morning.

100Kin10 has a three-fold plan (to train teachers, to retain existing teachers and to build a movement) in place to tackle this ambitious goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers in a decade. Can you explain the thinking?

When we think about the 100Kin10 goal, we don’t see that as just increasing the supply of good teachers. You don’t want to just send 100,000 great teachers into a broken system, where half of them leave by five years and pursue other careers. What a waste of their talents and the financial resources that it takes to get them there. So, we have folks both thinking on the front-end, the supply side, about how to recruit and prepare more teachers better, but also on what we call “retaining excellence.”

How do you do the variety of things that will help great teachers stay and help more teachers become great? How do you hire and pay them differently? How do you place them and support them differently? How do you provide them mentorship, internships, opportunities to work with STEM professionals, the resources do the types of scientific experiments and other learning opportunities that they really want for their kids?

Then, we have organizations making commitments to build the movement. It was clear to us that if you are going to sustain an effort like this over 10 years, that you needed people to focus on changing policies, telling stories, creating materials, spreading and sharing those materials, and funding the organizations doing this work.

Can you describe the structure of 100Kin10?

100Kin10 is a networked approach to solving this big challenge. We set out to basically build a national platform that would allow a diverse array of organizations to make specific commitments to action and to work in coordination with each other. This networked approach would allow us to maximize on talent, to tap into resources and visions we would never have thought to pick ourselves.

It is trying to take the best of crowdsourcing and a bottom up, network approach but to balance it with excellence. This is not a “let 1,000 flowers bloom.” It really is trying to have a broad invitation to anyone in theory; anyone is eligible to take action, to step up, but you have to be nominated and vetted. To be funded, you have to meet and match with a particular funding partner whose vision you align with.

How are partners selected?

Every year in the late summer and early fall, we have nomination rounds. We invite any partners to nominate new organizations, who they believe can do important work in the space and do it well. Then, the University of Chicago has a team of vetters who review all of the applications against a rubric, basically based on organizational capacity, boldness of commitment, STEM knowledge and  fit with 100Kin10. Are you providing something that we need in terms of the whole effort? They do that over the course of a few months, and new partners are announced in January.

Can you give an example of a particular organization applying its strengths in a creative way?

Donorschoose.org is a web-based platform in which teachers can propose something that they want to do, but don’t have the funds for. Anybody can fund it, whether it is buying scissors for classroom art projects, to taking kids on their first trip to Washington, D.C. to see the U.S. Constitution.

They made a commitment to a STEM project. That commitment was to inspire 50,000 citizens to deliver $15 million in STEM classroom resources to teachers. So, teachers would propose work that they wanted to do in the STEM space, and DonorsChoose.org would catalyze 50,000 folks from around the country and around the world to provide the resources to make that possible.

To us, it is not only important that students are getting to do STEM experiments, meet with scientists and take trips to NASA headquarters or to collect rocks in a way they wouldn’t before, but also that the teachers who have inspiration and ambition could get the resources to do that. The teachers would do better work, and they would stay longer because they could do the type of teaching that they wanted to do in their classrooms.

What about in training new STEM teachers?

The American Museum of Natural History is a partner, and it has actually brought a cohort of aspiring teachers in house, to train them using their faculty, scientists and researchers and the space of the museum. Over the five years of their commitment, they are training a tiny number of teachers, under 50. So, it is small, in that sense, against the goal of 100,000. But if it works, it is a totally revolutionary model about where teachers can learn. If you think about all the science-rich institutions in our country—museums, aquaria and science centers—and you imagine what it would look like for teachers to get trained with the hands-on science that these institutions excel at, you’ve got an amazing path to 100,000.

How do you measure progress in this movement?

How we will know how many teachers we are training and if they are excellent, if they are staying and if they are improving? We are designing a system and participating in it will be a requirement of partnership. If people self-report their data, the system will be totally confidential, so there is no risk of being judged or exposed.

The University of Chicago will be able to review all of the data. They can also find organizations that are doing something really spectacular. For example, we might see that this organization is able to recruit 10 applicants for every spot it has. What are they doing? And how can we spread that learning? Or this set of applicants is producing far and away more physics teachers than anybody else, and most of those teachers are getting incredible results in the classroom and they are mentoring other teachers. What is happening there?

The target for the first three years was 20,000 teachers. Almost two years in, how is the progress?

We have a conservative estimate of commitments from partners for more than 35,000 teachers over five years. That number continues to grow.

These aren’t just commitments of numbers, they are commitments that organizations are making to excellence, to excellent teachers, to understanding what that means and chasing after it to the best of their capacity and to learning from each other to improve.

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