Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 1:

How do we attract and support a greater number of future K-12 ESS teachers who represent the diversity of K-12 learners?


Nationally, fewer college students are enrolling in teacher education programs, with a decline of 30% enrollment reported over the last five years (Barth et al., 2016). However, students entering teacher education programs now have stronger academic profiles (as measured by incoming SAT/ACT scores), and more entering students are completing their programs (Barth et al., 2016). Yet as many as a quarter to half of graduates of teacher preparation programs do not go into teaching (DeMonte, 2016). Retention of new teachers has also improved nationally, with 17-20% leaving the profession in the first four to five years - as opposed to older reports of nearly 50% leaving the profession within the first five years (Gray and Taie, 2015; Goldhaber, 2015; Brown, 2015). These same reports suggest that higher quality incoming teachers are retained in the profession at higher rates.

Amid this mixed news of national teacher preparation and retention, the ESS continue to have the least number of discipline-trained teachers within the sciences (Figure 2). Teachers of young children typically teach a wide range of content (e.g., Language Arts, math, science, and social studies) with increasing disciplinary specialization as grade levels go up. Thus elementary teachers have limited preparation in ESS content, whereas middle and secondary teachers may be prepared as content specialists. Based on analysis of data provided by the National Science Foundation, however, Wilson (2016) estimates that only 3% of secondary teachers hold a degree in the geosciences. Sixty-five percent of elementary teachers, 75% of middle school teachers, and 61% of high school teachers report taking at least one ESS course at the undergraduate level (Banilower et al., 2013). According to the same report (Banilower et al., 2013), only 28% of middle school and 30% of high school teachers have taken one or more ESS courses beyond the introductory level. Clearly, opportunity exists across all grade levels to expand the Earth and Space Science teacher workforce.

Yet growth of this workforce should reflect the growing diversity of K-12 learners, inclusive of gender, race/ethnicity, ability status, and more. Nationally, four out of five teachers are white, yet nearly 50% of school-age youth are ethnically diverse (AACTE, 2013). This issue is compounded in the geosciences, where less than 11% of bachelor's degrees in geoscience are conferred to students of African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Native American/Alaskan race or ethnicity (Wilson, 2016). Compounding this issue, minority-serving institutions are less likely to offer degrees in the geosciences; Petcovic et al. (2016) found that only 2.5% of institutions with degree granting geoscience departments were designated as minority-serving. As yet the fraction of teacher preparation programs in ESS at minority-serving institutions remains unknown.

Research is needed to identify roadblocks that deter individuals, especially persons of color, from choosing or staying on the path to become ESS teachers. Research is also needed to identify mechanisms that are successful in both attracting individuals to K-12 ESS teaching and supporting their long-term success. This research will need to consider how pathways for entry into and persistence in ESS teaching may differ depending the grade bands that an individual intends to teach; in other words, different factors likely influence whether someone enters and persists in teaching elementary, middle, or high school grades.

There is considerable overlap between this challenge and GC#2; here the focus is on understanding how to better attract and support the individuals who make up a diverse pool of future K-12 ESS teachers, whereas GC#2 focuses on broader institutional models, partnerships, and best practices in ESS teacher education.

Recommended Research Strategies

Here we recommend short and long-term strategies that could yield insight into Grand Challenge #1 and ultimately drive forward both knowledge and practice. While short and long term strategies can both be approached immediately and simultaneously, short term strategies (#1-4) tend to focus more on synthesis of current literature, surveys of our current state of knowledge, or application of excising research to the field of teacher education. In contrast, long term strategies (#5-7) require more significant time and resource investment (such as support by external funding), focusing on more large-scale empirical students that can build the knowledge base.

  1. At present, the research community lacks a baseline understanding of how individuals, especially persons of color, decide to become K-12 ESS teachers. Understanding how and when individuals decide to become K-12 ESS teachers is important foundational data to collect and compile.We call for a systematic review of existing literature that would establish our current understanding of what attracts individuals to ESS teaching. This review should encompass literature in other STEM fields in order to establish what may be unique to ESS teaching in addition to what is common with other fields. It should also highlight critical theoretical and conceptual frameworks that provide explanatory power to findings.
  2. The research community also lacks a baseline understanding of what efforts in recruiting a diverse pool of students to K-12 ESS teaching have been successful. Again there is a need for systematic literature review that identifies the existing strategies for attracting students and determine what components of these are effective for underrepresented populations. Learning what external factors contribute to or inhibit interest in becoming a K-12 ESS teacher, especially among persons of color can help us move forward. We should look to other STEM fields for examples of successful interventions as well as to the results of programs specific to ESS teacher recruitment. Along these lines, there may be a need for comprehensive evaluation of NSF-funded GEOPATHS programs that focus on ESS teacher recruitment and preparation.
  3. To better understand the population of current and future K-12 ESS teachers, we suggest a survey of teacher preparation institutions that focuses on their recruitment methods. We especially would want to know how these institutions reach a diverse pool of potential applicants and the extent to which partnerships with two-year colleges and minority-serving institutions exist. It would also be useful to survey current K-12 ESS teachers to determine what other courses they teach, what certification(s) they hold, and how they describe their preparation to teach the ESS. This work could also refine our knowledge of the current and potential future demand for ESS teachers.
  4. The broader K-12 teacher education community has a good understanding of what factors support the transition from preservice teacher education to inservice teaching, inclusive of teachers of color (e.g., Ingersoll & May, 2011). However this work has not been communicated within the ESS teacher education community. We call for review and synthesis of this existing literature from which researchable questions specific to K-12 ESS teacher transitions may arise.
  5. The geoscience education community has done some work examining awareness of, and barriers to, underrepresented populations pursuing study and careers within the geosciences (e.g., O'Connell and Holmes, 2011; Levine et al., 2007; Huntoon & Lane, 2007; Stokes et al., 2015; Baber et al., 2010; see also references in GC#5 Access and Success). To our knowledge, no work has yet been done to identify barriers and attractors to careers in K-12 ESS teaching. Building this understanding could take an ethnographic or phenomenological approach, drawing experiences from current K-12 ESS teachers of color to identify critical experiences (e.g., Levine et al., 2007). Initial work could be followed up with broader surveys of the current K-12 STEM teaching community to identify critical experiences, incidents, or factors that lead to greater interest in ESS teaching. Conversely, these surveys could also identify factors that serve as barriers or deterrents to students interested in K-12 ESS teaching.
  6. Significant research supports the notion that reformed teaching practices lead to greater retention of STEM students, especially women and students of color (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014). Is the same true for future STEM teachers? To address this question, we call for a comparative study of whether institutions with transformed STEM course design might attract and support a more diverse pool of future K-12 ESS teachers than institutions with more traditional courses.
  7. We see a need for longitudinal phenomenological research that follows pre-service ESS teachers into the first few years of teaching to identify factors that contribute to thriving. This is especially important for teachers of color, who are more likely to leave the profession within the first five years than are white teachers (Ingersoll & May, 2011). Current work points to organizational factors (such as the level of collaboration and autonomy, institutional support, and pressure of high stakes testing) as driving minority teachers from the profession (Ingersoll & May, 2011). Similar to the research agenda described above, we suggest an initial qualitative study followed by broad survey research to identify widespread factors that both contribute to K-12 ESS teacher retention, and those that ultimately drive teachers to leave.