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Initiative examines high turnover rate for science teachers

January 06, 2010

An ASU research initiative supported by an $895,000 National Science Foundation grant is examining the role of teacher-induction programs in increasing the longevity and success of secondary school science teachers.

Persistent, Enthusiastic, Relentless: Study of Induction Science Teachers (PERSIST), a three-year project led by Julie Luft, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, is innovative and urgent. Current data on teacher attrition in the United States continues to indicate that qualified secondary science teachers leave the profession by the fifth year at alarming rates for reasons other than retirement.

What are the factors that contribute to a science teacher’s decision to stay in the profession? And what are the ingredients of induction programs that are successful in offering the support, guidance and orientation science teachers need early in their careers?

These are the questions being explored by Luft, Marilyn Thompson, associate professor and co-principal investigator, and a team of graduate student researchers all with the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education.

Luft, who is a national leader in innovative science education initiatives supporting teachers, said there is compelling evidence that the teacher preparation process doesn’t end with pre-service coursework leading to initial certification. Well-configured induction programs ensure that new teachers sustain and strengthen their skills and knowledge in order to impact student learning and remain in the profession.

“The first five years in the classroom appear to be a pivotal time in which teachers decide to leave or stay,” said Luft, whose passion is research that finds ways to keep talented and highly qualified science teachers in the classroom.

According to the Teacher Follow-Up Survey, which was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and is the largest and most comprehensive data source on teacher turnover, math and science teachers are significantly more likely to move from or leave their teaching jobs because of job dissatisfaction than are other teachers – 40 percent of math/science teachers compared to 29 percent of all teachers. These statistics reveal the revolving door that lies at the heart of the troubles school districts face in staffing classrooms with qualified science teachers, making Luft’s research of profound nationwide significance. Several of her research programs and initiatives have been funded continuously by NSF since she joined ASU in 2005.

Her PERSIST project builds on an earlier study titled “Exploring the Development of Beginning Secondary Science Teachers in Various Induction Programs” that received a $1.4 million NSF grant and followed 120 beginning secondary science teachers in their first, second and third years of their careers.

The PERSIST study follows the same teachers through their critical fifth year of teaching with another look at the range of induction programs available to science teachers early in their careers. 

“It is rare and exciting to have the opportunity to model science teachers’ perspectives and teaching practices using data collected during their first five years of teaching,” said Thompson, who also taught high school science for five years. “By studying the early-career trajectories of teachers who persist through the fifth year and those who do not, we can better understand the role of induction programs and other experiences in developing and retaining skilled science teachers.”

The study will examine the effects and outcomes of the following four different types of induction programs on fifth-year secondary science teachers. Two of the programs emphasize science teacher content knowledge, while the other two programs focus on general secondary instruction. The teachers in this study participated in these programs during the 2005 through 2007 school years. 

General induction programs offered by school districts or regional centers are the most typical, Luft said.

"These programs are often about managing classrooms, filling out paperwork and things you need to do to survive your first year,” she said.  “They’re usually developed to address all teachers in a school, and only provide content expertise through a mentor.”

Science-specific e-mentoring programs offered online by higher education or science organizations represent an emerging approach to teacher induction for secondary science teachers. These online programs pair a beginning science teacher with an experienced one, and focus consistently on teaching science.

“Each beginning teacher and their mentor over the course of a year engage in a developed curriculum that help the beginning teacher learn how to teach science, to reinforce skills they had when they came out of pre-service education,” Luft said. “For instance, they explore together, how to set up labs. How to cultivate students’ learning of natural phenomena. How to create effective learning environments that are engaging for students around the phenomena. These are not typical discussions."

Science-specific programs offered by higher-education institutions, including ASU, used a face-to-face approach. Through an NSF-funded project led by Luft, she and a team of graduate student researchers communicated electronically with teachers, observed science teachers in the classroom, met with the teachers monthly to contemplate their instruction, and provided feedback or actually taught with the teachers each month.

“We talked to the teachers about their teaching and what their students were learning,” Luft said. “It was really focused on teaching science.”

Lastly, they looked at intern programs that allow alternatively certified teachers to earn their teaching credentials while completing their first year in the classroom. Many of these teachers were employed by charter schools.

Lori Baker
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education