Many were greatly surprised yesterday when Microsoft announced it was laying off 5,000 employees across the United States. Microsoft is one of those companies that we have long viewed as invulnerable. It was a company on a relatively upward trajectory from the start, weathering the dot-com bomb of 2000, the resurgence of Apple and the Mac, legal issues both home and in the European Union, and even trivial issues like the public rejection of its latest operating system.
So when layoffs were announced yesterday, it was a big statement. Those who thought the economy had turned the corner and was ready for recovery are now reconsidering their optimism. While the Microsoft downsizing is likely to have a lasting impact on the technology sector, it provides a real opportunity for public education. Among those employees soon to depart the software giant are individuals expert in math, science, technology, and engineering, just the sort of content background and training our public schools — particularly our high schools — are in desperate need of.
For decades now, we have bemoaned the national shortage of qualified science and math teachers, particularly in our urban areas and in our secondary schools. The current emphasis on 21st century skills and STEM education only amplifies the shortage. In recent years, we’ve even added the need for “real life” experience to the discussion, believing that boosting student interest in math and the sciences is assisted by educators who are both teachers and practitioners.
Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (yes, the same Bill Gates who founded Microsoft and turned it into the economic giant it became) announced that human capital and strengthening our teacher pool was a priority. Rightfully so. Real, lasting education improvement begins with talented, effective teachers. Without strong math and science teachers in our classrooms — those who understand the content, the pedagogy, and the real-life context — reforms are half-hearted at best.
So why can’t we bring together the Gates Foundation’s vision (and financial commitment) to strengthening and supporting teachers with a new pipeline of knowledgeable STEM practitioners and find a way to get those displaced workers (as well as those from other tech sector companies) out of the boardroom and into the classroom? Why can’t we use everything we know about pre-service teacher training, necessary pedagogy, and mid-career teacher transitions and build a comprehensive STEM teacher training program that trains tech workers and connects they with communities and school districts in dire need of effective STEM educators?
Such an effort wouldn’t be a first. Back in 2005, IBM announced it was transitioning a portion of its workforce into K-12 education. They established relationships with institutions of higher education in key IBM communities to develop mid-career teacher training programs. They applied the IBM training model to teacher development. They looked to break new ground in mid-career transition.
Now we have an opportunity for the Gates Foundation, the National Math and Science Initiative, or a host of other organizations to come together and build a better mid-career transition mousetrap. Yes, we would need to make sure the right workers are entering the program (not everyone is up to the challenge of teaching, and not everyone – no matter how much content knowledge they possess – can teach it). Yes, we would need to ensure that any training program is research-based and deeply rooted in the pedagogy. We can’t do drive-by teacher training. And yes, we know that this doesn’t solve the larger issue of effective math and science teachers in every classroom, particularly those in our at-risk communities. But it is a start, and a good one.
In STEM programs across the nation, states and school districts are seeking to achieve a number of goals. First is to boost student interest in the STEM subjects. Second is to get more students to take STEM classes and pursue STEM degrees. Third is often how to get those with STEM degrees back into the classroom to teach in those schools where they gained their STEM passions. These goals take time. But getting top engineers and video game designers and mathematicians into the classroom to display their personal passions each and every school day is a good start to building student interest. With the proper trainings and support, they could become effective STEM teachers equipping a generation of students with the skills and knowledgebase they need to navigate our future challenges and opportunities.
Now is the time turn some of those economic lemons and turning them into some STEM instruction lemonade. And the Gates Foundation can do it by first taking care of its own. Talk about win-win.