May 13, 2005

Issues and Trends in Science Education: the Shortage of Qualified Science Teachers

SCIENCE TEACHERS are leaving their profession. They feel overwhelmed by the expectations and scope of the job and isolated and unsupported in their classrooms. They also feel that expectations are unclear. The statistics on turnover among new teachers are startling. School administrators, science teacher leaders, and teacher education programs can do much more to promote better preparation of science teachers and to recruit new teachers into science teaching. In particular, the author focuses on relevant research and on recommendations for educational researchers and policymakers interested in improving and retaining qualified science teachers in classrooms.

A huge turnover is taking place in the teaching profession. While student enrollments are rising rapidly, more than a million teachers are nearing retirement. Many school systems are lowering standards to fill teaching openings, a practice that inevitably results in large numbers of underqualified teachers and poorer school performance (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1997). Researchers and policy analysts have also stressed that the teacher shortage will affect some teaching fields more than others. Science is usually targeted as one of the fields with high turnover and as among those most likely to suffer teacher shortages (Weiss & Boyd, 1990). Easing the science teacher shortage is not strictly a numbers game. There is a huge need to bring more young teachers into the science teaching profession. On the other hand, little attention has been given to the effort to retain the quality science teachers already hired-first-year teachers as well as more experienced and seasoned ones.

Concerns exist that teachers in grades K-12 are leaving the teaching field much earlier in their careers. The National Center for Education Statistics (1997) has reported that 9.3% of school teachers leave before they complete their first year in the classroom, and that about one fifth of school teachers leave within their first 3 years of teaching. Moreover, nearly 3096 of teachers leave within 5 years of entry; attrition rates are even higher in disadvantaged schools (Darling-Hammond, 1999). Weiss (1999) states:

Too many new teachers become initiated into a profession that too often sets them up to fail. The system seems to neglect the fact that new teachers are exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of unsupportive workplace conditions, precisely because, never having taught before, they lack the resources and tools to deal with the frustrations of the workplace. . . . Because the system does not capitalize on new teachers' zeal and in many cases fails even to recognize their special situation, many are leaving or becoming demoralized, (p. 869)

Job satisfaction is often equated with work conditions, which appear to play a key role in keeping teachers in the field. Yee (1990) interviewed 59 experienced teachers in grades K-12 and found that teachers highly involved in their work attributed their decision to stay in teaching more to supportive work conditions than to pay. Teachers who left reported unsupportive workplace conditions as the main reason. As stated by Yee, findings on teachers in general show that administrative support and teacher autonomy play a large part in shaping teachers' attitudes toward teaching; and that teachers who control the terms of their work are more likely to feel committed to the teaching field. These findings support the conclusions of previous research, in which it was found that administrative support has a major role in shaping teachers' attitudes toward teaching, and that teachers who control the terms of their work are more likely to feel more committed to their particular teaching field (Firestone & Rosenblum, 1988; Little, 1982).

In brief, researchers have linked several aspects of job satisfaction to teacher retention. Examples include administrative leadership and support (Billingsley, 1993); salary (Kim & Loadman, 1994); interaction with and emotional support from colleagues (Kim & Loadman, 1994); and relationships with parents and families, as well as with students (Shane, 1998). Researchers have also indicated that professional challenge and autonomy (Shane, 1998), as well as opportunities for advancement (Kim & Loadman, 1994), are related to teachers' job satisfaction.

Ingersoll (2001), studied issues concerned with teacher supply, demand, and quality, using the Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS). Developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the TFS is the largest and most comprehensive data source on teacher turnover in the United States. Data were collected from the 1994-1995 and 2000- 2001 school years and represented everyone teaching in grades K-12, in all types of schools, both public and private, in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. A random sample of about 52,000 teachers participated in the study. Ingersoll found that school characteristics and organizational conditions, including lack of administrative support, salary, student discipline and motivation, class size, inadequate planning time, and lack of opportunity for advancement, have significant effects on teacher turnover. The turnover rate because of job dissatisfaction among math/science teachers was higher than that among teachers in several other fields (40% of math/science teachers vs. 29% of all teachers). Of those who departed because of job dissatisfaction, the most commonly cited reasons were low salaries, lack of support from the administration, student discipline problems, lack of student motivation, and lack of influence over school decision making. The overall data indicated that retirement accounts for only a small number of total departures, and that a moderate number of departures are due to school staffing actions. A large proportion of respondents indicated that they departed for personal reasons; a large proportion also reported that they departed in order to seek better career opportunities.

In 2000, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issued a study of the qualifications, assignments, and job satisfaction of middle school and high school science teachers in the United States. A random sample of 5,000 middle school and high school science teachers had been asked to participate in the study, which was conducted during the 1999-2000 school year. A total of 1,370 teachers (27%) responded. Fifty-five percent of the 1,370 respondents were high school teachers, 3890 taught at the middle school level, and 7% were teaching at both levels. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents had master's degrees. Among state science certification categories, the three in which respondents were most commonly certified were general science, biology, and chemistry.

The NSTA study found that teachers with more than 20 years of classroom teaching were more likely to consider leaving the profession (44%). Retirement was at the top of the list of reasons, followed by job dissatisfaction. The study also revealed that a large proportion of young teachers were thinking about abandoning their science teaching career: 32% of science teachers with 1-3 years' experience, 37% of those with 4-6 years' experience, 33% of those with 7-9 years' experience, and 37% of those with 10-15 years' experience. The respondents' top reason for considering leaving their profession was job dissatisfaction. When they were asked to clarify the causes of their dissatisfaction, the top two reasons given by those with 9 or fewer years of experience were poor administrative support and low salary.

The survey also asked whether the teachers had been assigned by their principals to teach a subject in which they were not certified or had not achieved at least a college minor. According to the survey responses, over the preceding 3 years, 31% percent of the middle school science teachers had been assigned out of field in relation to their college studies, compared with 24% of the high school science teachers. Twenty percent of both groups were assigned out of field in relation to their state certification status. The study also found that middle school science teachers were assigned out of field more often than their high school colleagues, in relation to both their college studies and their state certification status. The most commonly cited reason for principals making assignments out of field was to fill a vacant position for a short time (88%). Other common justifications were the school's inability to find a qualified science teacher (81%) or to afford to hire someone new (77%).


Ingersoll (2001), Weiss (1999), and Kim and Loadman (1994) have documented that the turnover of teachers resulting from two demographic trends-increasing enrollments and increasing teacher retirements-will lead to problems staffing schools with qualified teachers and, in turn, to lower levels of educational performance. These researchers suggest, however, that the turnover of science teachers is not solely due to either increases in enrollment or increases in teacher retirement. In actuality, the overall amount of turnover accounted for by retirement and increasing enrollments is relatively mi\nor when compared to the amount of turnover resulting from other causes, such as job dissatisfaction and the pursuit of better jobs or other careers.

What can be done? Data from the 2000 NSTA study suggests that the way to improve science teacher retention is to improve the working environment for science teachers, especially new teachers. Instead of increasing the supply of teachers, school administrators must decrease the demand for new teachers by decreasing turnover. Ingersoll (2001) has also shown that reducing job dissatisfaction would contribute to lower turnover rates and, consequently improve school performance.


What can be done to improve the existing situation, especially in light of challenges that lie ahead such as an increased student population, an increased teacher retirement rate, and a shortage of science teachers? More important, what can science teachers, school administrators, and teacher education programs do to promote excellence in science education?

In 1990 I received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching for the District of Columbia, presented by the National Science Foundation. I have 25 years of science teaching experience at the elementary, middle school, high school, and university levels. The recommendations listed in Table 1, which are intended to help meet the crisis in science education, are based on these professional experiences in science teaching.


There is no significant difference between the shortage of science teachers in deaf education and the shortage in regular education. It is my impression that the overall figure for teachers teaching science in deaf education without the appropriate science certification appears to be higher. It is unacceptable for teachers to be assigned out of field. Such assignments are a disservice to students and teachers alike.

The activities listed in Table 1 are only temporary solutions to a very large problem. The long-term solution is to get more and better students in the profession of science teaching. By working as a team, the school administration, the science teachers, and the teacher education programs, in particular, can organize seminars and workshops to study and propose viable solutions to the critical problem of the shortage of qualified science teachers in the middle schools and high schools. It is time that the school administration, the science teachers, and the teacher education programs do more than just "talk" about the problems described in the present article and elsewhere. These key players in the science reform process must not take the attitude that they will just sit back, relax, and see who shows up in the science teacher education programs in the colleges. Science teacher recruitment needs to involve a variety of approaches. The process of building collegiate athletic programs provides a good analogy. Recruitment in athletics begins in elementary school and sometimes much earlier. To be effective, key players in science reform must use a similar approach. It would be a grave mistake to wait until someone sets foot on the college campus and only then try to talk that person into becoming a science teacher. Schools must use caution when hiring teachers who are not fully certified in teaching science, or who are alternatively certified, because the quality of these teachers may be an issue. School must develop policies and practices that require these teachers to engage in stringent professional development activities and in-service training in order to fully develop their skills as competent teachers.

The shortage of science teachers is critical. No simple answer exists. The school administrators, the science teachers, and the teacher education programs have an important role to play in this educational dilemma: These key players have a responsibility to inform, encourage, and even recruit future teachers. If not them, then who?

Table 1

Recommendations for Practice and Policy in Science Teaching


Billingsley, B. S. (1993). Teacher retention and attrition in special and general education: A critical review of the literature. Journal of Special Education, 27(2), 137-74.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1999). Solving the demands of teacher supply, demand, and standards: How we can ensure a competent, caring, and qualified teacher for every child. New York: National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Firestone, W A., & Rosenblum, S. (1988). Building commitment in urban high schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10, 285-99.

Ingersoll, R. (2001). Teacher turnover, teacher shortages, and the organization of schools. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Kim, I., & Loadman, W. (1994). Predicting teacher job satisfaction. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED383707)

Little, J. W (1982). Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions of school stress. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 325-40.

National Center for Education Statistics (1997). Characteristics of stayers, movers, and leavers. Washington, DC: Author.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (1997). Doing what matters most: Investing in quality teaching. New York: Author.

National Science Teachers Association. (2000, April 7). NSTA releases nationwide survey of science teacher credentials, assignments, and job satisfaction: High turnover of science teachers requires schools to change. Retrieved December 8, 2004, from http://

Shane, M. (1998). Professional commitment and satisfaction among teachers in urban middle schools. Journal of Educational Research, 92(2), 67.

Weiss, E. M. (1999.). Perceived workplace conditions and first- year teachers' morale, career choice commitment, and planned retention: A secondary analysis. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15, 861-80.

Weiss, I. R., & Boyd, S. E. (1990). Where are they now? A follow- up study of the 1985-86 science and mathematics teaching force. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research.

Yee, S. M. (1990). Careers in the classroom: When teaching is more than a job. New York: Teachers College Press.



Copyright American Annals of the Deaf Spring 2005