Do we know anything about the impact of subject knowledge on retention of early-career science teachers?

There is evidence that early-career science teachers are particularly vulnerable in terms of retention (Allen & Sims 2017).

Evidence suggests that a number of factors affect teacher retention across all subjects but it is less clear why early-career science teachers are more at risk than teachers of most other subjects. It may simply be that STEM graduates have lucrative and attractive career options available outside teaching, particularly physics and engineering graduates. However, there is now a reasonable body of evidence that suggests that individual working conditions, and a sense of success with students, are the most important factors driving retention (Loeb, Darling-Hammond & Luczak 2005, Simon & Johnson 2015). Why might early-career science teachers experience poorer working conditions and a lower sense of success than other subjects? Might it be that the subject knowledge demand of teaching across three subjects might be relevant? This is a suggestion put forward by Allen and Sims in response to their findings (TES 2017)

Johnson and Birkeland (2003) as part of The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers completed a qualitative interview-based study of 50 new teachers in Massachusetts, USA. One strand they identified within working conditions was the extent to which teachers received ‘assignments’ (a timetable) matched to their subject expertise.

Patterson, Roehrig and Luff (2003) followed a small cohort of new science teachers in Arizona through a specific induction programme and followed up over three years. They found that all but one of the science teachers who had moved school, did so to narrow their timetable to focus on the science they had studied at degree level.

Donaldson and Johnson (2010) applied logistic regression models to a sample of 2029 Teach for America participants, the majority of the TFA cohort over three years. This quantitative work was very much building on the recent findings from qualitative work, that the school-level working conditions were of great importance. Perhaps surprisingly, factors such as student demographics appear to be much less important for early-career teacher retention than was previously thought (Allen & Sims 2018 concur). This new analysis suggested that multiple-subject secondary teachers were more likely to leave teaching than those teaching single subjects. In looking more closely at this situation they found that maths and humanities teachers without a degree-level qualification in the subject they were teaching, were more likely to leave. However, for science teachers, the retention of teachers with a degree-level qualification in one of the sciences, was not better than other TFA participants teaching science with other degrees. The authors speculate that this may reflect the better opportunities available to science majors compared to the other science teachers who are likely to have humanities, maths, or MFL degrees. However, an alternative interpretation is that the science teachers are all teaching across multiple subjects – the different sciences – so that the benefit of specialisation in a subject studied to degree level, is lost.

Henry, Fortner and Bastian (2012) provide evidence that, in the USA at least, the effectiveness of early-career science teachers follows a steeper growth profile than non-science and maths teachers. The authors do not discuss causal effects but, again, a possible interpretation is that science teachers start with weaker subject-specific knowledge for some parts of the curriculum than other subjects.

There does not yet seem to be any work focused on the specific challenge faced by science teachers in England, teaching across all three sciences. Early-career science teachers usually have at least one, and not infrequently two, sciences that have not been studied beyond GCSE level prior to the PGCE. This does present a particular challenge.

We are a long way from being able to state confidently that improving early-career science teachers’ subject knowledge will have a positive impact on retention but there are indications that this might well be worth trying.

Allen R. and Sims S. (2017) Improving Science Teacher Retention: do National STEM Learning Network professional development courses keep science teachers in the classroom? London: Wellcome Trust

Donaldson, M. L., & Johnson, S. M. (2010). The price of misassignment: the role of teaching assignments in Teach For America teachers’ exit from low-income schools and the teaching profession. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32(2), 25

Henry, G. T., Fortner, C. K., & Bastian, K. C. (2012). The Effects of Experience and Attrition for Novice High-School Science and Mathematics Teachers. Science, 335(6072), 1118–1121.

Johnson, S. and Birkeland, S. (2003a), ‘Pursuing a “sense of success”: new teachers explain their career decisions’, American Educational Research Journal, 40, pp. 581–617.

Loeb, S., Darling-Hammond, L., & Luczak, J. (2005). How teaching conditions predict teacher turnover in California schools. Peabody Journal of Education.

Patterson, N., Roehrig, G. & Luff, J. (2003). Running the treadmill: Explorations of beginning high school science teacher turnover in Arizona. High School Journal, 86(4), 14-23

Simon, N. S., & Johnson, S. M. (2015). Teacher turnover in high-poverty schools: What we know and can do. Teachers College Record, 117(3), 1-36.

TES (2017) Science teachers are more likely to quit, research shows. TES 11 September 2017

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