The death spiral of Australian STEM education

Whether you call it a ‘death spiral’ or a ‘decay curve’ STEM education in Australia is in deep trouble.

I know it’s ugly to run around saying ‘I told you so’, but I can’t help myself when the Parliamentary committee looking at innovation and creativity makes exactly the point I’ve been banging on about for years now: we are in a death spiral where there are fewer and fewer qualified teachers of STEM subjects, which leads to fewer students, which leads to fewer teachers, which…

Less emotively, the Committee describes a ‘decay curve’:

This report confirms that the quantity and quality of our university STEM graduates is dependent on the quality of our STEM education in schools. Unfortunately, in some schools, STEM subjects, particularly maths, are not taught by teachers who have a specific proficiency in those subjects. One of the main concerns the Committee has is that participation in STEM education at the secondary school level has declined significantly over the past two decades, particularly for female students and the Committee is equally concerned that Australian students’ mathematical literacy skills have been in general decline.

The Committee views this falling proportion of STEM-capable students along their education journey as a decay curve.

The Committee runs through the evidence to back the assertion that far too many students are being taught by teachers unqualified in the STEM subject they are teaching. We’ve all seen this before and it shouldn’t present a controversy for anyone.

The interesting part of the report is the Committee’s suggestions on what to do about the problem. At its core they are saying the problem only gets fixed by boosting the capacity and number of qualified STEM teachers. They make 38 recommendations aimed at addressing the problem including:

The government should, among other things, develop a STEM reference panel reporting to relevant federal portfolio ministers through the chief scientist to “drive strategies for strengthening STEM at all levels of education”.

Teachers who are currently teaching STEM subjects but aren’t trained in the discipline need to be phased out within five years, and there should be online credentialing and incentives for teachers to skill themselves in STEM.

Every school should have a STEM specialist charged with championing the subjects, while universities should include a STEM course in non-STEM degrees, and incorporate business or enterpreneurship units into STEM courses.

Metrics on STEM teaching in schools need to be identified and outcomes tracked by the Department of Education.

That language around STEM needs to be changed to encourage young girls into the discipline; framing it not as “engineering” but rather “making, doing, design thinking and being creative (basically explicitly recognising STEAM).

That mathematics be re-established as a prerequisite for obtaining an ATAR.

While there’s a great deal that’s good and sensible in the report the core issue doesn’t really get addressed. There’s a motherhood statement that we need to raise the prestige and preparedness of teachers by attracting high achievers in STEM to teaching. But there’s nothing to indicate how you induce someone with highly in-demand skills in maths or coding to forgo excellent working conditions and remuneration in order to enter teaching. There’s a recognition that the problem needs to be solved, but no concrete way of solving it.

The report also lavishes much attention on adding in arts to make STEAM, seemingly driven by a deep range of submissions from, well, the arts. It’s hard not to read the submissions from a succession of theater companies and the like without thinking “well they would say that wouldn’t they”. I’ll reiterate my view that adding in the arts just confuses and gives an easy-out in dealing with the core problem. If we had a flourishing STEM base I’d be happily advocating for adding in arts. But when the STEM base is in a death spiral, that’s not the time to be either muddying the waters or pretending that arts and drama are the solutions just because they’re easier to teach, learn, and market.

The only way to seriously address the problem we face in STEM teaching, and by extension in STEM learning, is to look at the prestige, working conditions, and remuneration of teachers in the context of a plan that lasts for more than a politician’s sound-bite. We need a plan. And in the shorter term maybe, for example, we need to look at importing qualified teachers until we can produce more home-grown graduates.

Basically we need to quickly change the way we’re dong things. The one thing that’s certain about death-spirals is that you don’t pull out of them by continuing to do the thing that got you into the mess in the first place.

Anyway, the Innovation and Creativity report makes unusually interesting reading for a government report and is really worth skimming through.

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