Science Teacher Retention: It Takes More Than Money

Sheila Tobias
Photo © Sheila Tobias

A study of high school science teachers revealed surprising results on what might motivate them to stay in the classroom: the teachers valued recognition as professionals and autonomy in their classrooms over salary increases.

The finding that salary was not a primary motivator for science teachers "flies in the face" of many recommendations, said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. Malcom discussed the study's results at a 16 June AAAS event along with Sheila Tobias, an influential education writer and one of the study's leaders. Tobias co-authored the new online book "Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn't. How It Can Be."

Efforts to bolster science teaching in high school by producing more teachers have had too narrow a focus, Tobias told the AAAS audience. Instead, the focus should be on how to keep high school science teachers in the teaching profession. Tobias spoke at an informal salon-style event—part of the 'Inside the Practice Circle' series—organized by the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

"We're walking down a single path, which is inadequate to solve the problem," Tobias said. During the discussion at AAAS, Tobias described how keeping teachers in their jobs has been an ignored strategy in science education. "It's like filling a swimming pool with a hole in it," she said.

Tobias and her co-author, Anne Baffert, a high school chemistry teacher, decided to explore whether patching "the hole in the swimming pool" might have value in helping to increase the number of science teachers. They surveyed some 500 secondary science teachers, through an interactive Web site and group interviews, asking them about their work lives. Tobias and Baffert also asked the teachers whether they were thinking of leaving their teaching jobs, and if so, what would motivate them to stay. The results were surprising: science teachers valued recognition as professionals over salary increases.

The discussion and the book come at a time of renewed interest in science teaching. With the election of Barack Obama, "we have a president who wants to be a cheerleader for science, and we have money to try to drive reform," said Malcom while introducing Tobias at the AAAS discussion.

The 16 June event is part of a series intended to provide a small group setting to explore and dissect ideas and solutions related to student learning and faculty experiences. "The spirit of the 'Practice Circle' is to draw out a skilled practitioner and draw in others who work to apply the best and latest approaches, research, and techniques," Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity, said after the event.

Tobias is the author of seven other books on math and science teaching and learning, including "Overcoming Math Anxiety" and "Revitalizing Undergraduate Science." Baffert is a chemistry teacher and chair of the science department at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona. An online version of their book on science teaching is available from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and a print version will be available in the fall.

In the discussion at AAAS, Malcom asked Tobias why she wrote her new online book with Baffert. Tobias said she was frustrated with the single-mindedness of attempts to increase the number of science teachers in high schools. For instance, she said that the 2007 report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," recommended improving K-12 science and mathematics education and called for the production of 10,000 new teachers each year in these fields.

But only one sentence in the report mentioned attrition and how to retain science teachers. "I was struck by the breadth of analysis of the problem and the single solution," Tobias said. "The solution is production, production, production."

With funding from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a private foundation, Tobias and Baffert produced an online interactive questionnaire. Rather than have a stagnant survey of set questions, the survey evolved over time. New questions were added based on answers to previous questions. The survey ran for 15 months, starting in December 2007, with 17 questions posed during that time. Each time the co-authors posted a new question to the website, Baffert sent an announcement to various science teacher listservs.

Tobias and Baffert believe they had about 500 teachers who chose to participate as regular responders. Tobias was careful to say during the AAAS discussion that the questionnaire was not a scientific survey with a stratified, unbiased sample of individuals ranging in levels of satisfaction in their jobs. The authors call their survey a 'listening project.'

But Tobias is less concerned about the study's design than in what the survey reveals and how the results can be applied to retaining science teachers in K-12 education. The survey is "serious because of the significance of the problem," she said. "It's serious because there has to be another set of solutions."

Higher-paying jobs in research labs can lure away science teachers burned out by low pay, hectic work days, excessive paperwork, student disciplinary problems, and other issues in teaching. "The secondary science teacher has the most opportunity to work outside of school of any of the teachers," Tobias said. "They can go right from school lab into a high-tech industry," she said, adding that science teachers know lab safety and other lab techniques and can be readily trained to use lab equipment.

For the participants in Tobias and Baffert's survey, though, prestige in their school districts and control over the pace and content of curriculum and influence over testing were motivations to stay. And, "if they continue to see those eroded, then they're going to" leave teaching, Tobias said.

In "Science Teaching as a Profession," Tobias and Baffert suggest ways to improve the prestige of science teachers, including board certification and summer opportunities to hone research experience by working with scientists in various venues. Empowering teachers, such as giving them more of a say in making decisions that affect their classrooms, could also help. For instance, Tobias discussed how science teachers could be elected to advisory groups within their district to counsel the district's superintendent on the needs science teaching and the needs of science teachers.

Florence Fasanelli, who attended the discussion led by Tobias and Malcom, agreed. One of the most important aspects of professional development with teachers is building their confidence to exert influence in the hierarchy of the school district, said Fasanelli, who directs the AAAS-managed program D.C. Fellows for the Advancement of Mathematics Education. The program equips District of Columbia middle-grade mathematics teachers—who, like science teachers, also can feel that they have little control over curriculum—with deeper content knowledge, confidence, and leadership skills. Alumni from the program have gone on to assume leadership positions in their schools and receive leadership awards.

"The subject of teacher attrition has not been addressed before," Fasanelli said after the discussion, while commending the book by Tobias and Baffert. She emphasized that the book is written for teachers and also stressed the importance of viewing teachers as professionals.