STEM STARS: Producing an Effective Science and Mathematics Teacher Workforce for High-Needs Schools

William McHenry, Professor of Chemistry, Jackson State University; Barbara McHenry (retired teacher)

Teacher quality is critically important to student academic achievement.  Students in high-needs schools do not have adequate access to certified science and mathematics teachers (García and Weiss 2019).  The shortage is exacerbated by the number of new science and mathematics teachers who leave the profession due, in part, to job dissatisfaction and a lack of support and by the number of teachers who teach out-of-field or without proper certification.  As many as 40% of secondary teachers certified in a given year leave the classroom within five years, and this percentage exponentially increases in high-needs school districts (Haynes, 2014; Ingersoll, 2000; Smith & Ingersoll, 2004).  Consequently, the least qualified teachers routinely end up teaching the lowest-performing students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2010), 57.2% of middle school students and 27.3% of high school students in the United States (U.S.) public schools are taught science by teachers lacking a major or a certification in the content area. The lack of appropriate major or certification is considerably more acute when parsed by individual content area domain. For example, more than 93% of middle school physical science teachers and 66% of secondary physics teachers lack a content area major or certification (NCES, 2010). Thus, there is a resulting critical need to "cultivate, recruit, and reward science and mathematics teachers that prepare and inspire students" (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010).

To maintain competitiveness in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM), America must utilize its progressively more diverse population since the U. S. is projected to become a “minority white” country in 2045 (Frey 2018).  Currently, Blacks represent 14.8% of the United States population but were awarded only 9% of science and 3.9 % of engineering bachelor’s degrees (  Blacks are underrepresented in STEM.  Research has shown that when teachers and their students share a common culture, their students tend to score higher on achievement tests and are more likely to persist in STEM (  Unfortunately, Black teachers are also underrepresented in science and mathematics classrooms, with Black teachers representing only 7% of the teacher workforce.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi (three of the poorest states in America) are among the states with a shortage of science and mathematics teachers.  This shortage hampers economic development and widens the socioeconomic achievement gap between science and mathematics literate and illiterate individuals.  The socioeconomic achievement gap is further worsened because the shortage of science and mathematics teachers is more severe in high-needs school districts (Garcia and Weiss, 2019).  

One strategy for the nation to prepare a more diverse science and mathematics teacher workforce is to support the refinement, replication, and scale-up of teacher preparation and professional development initiatives with the greatest potential to improve students’ science and mathematics achievement.  Of the 4,298 universities in the U.S., 107 are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, HBCUs have educated one-third of Black teaching candidates. HBCUs produce empathetic teachers who are working to close the educational achievement gap between Black and White students.  These gifted teachers encourage all students to focus on achieving educational goals in an environment that is relatively uninhibited by explicit and implicit racism.

The STEM STARS partnership is uniquely positioned to increase the number of Black teachers in high-needs schools by utilizing HBCUs' expertise.  The STEM STARS project is a partnership among three HBCUs - Jackson State University (JSU), Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB); 15 high-needs school districts; and the Mississippi e-Center Foundation.  JSU ranks second among all U.S. colleges and universities in the production of Black teachers.  XULA ranks first in Black students earning undergraduate degrees in the biological/life and physical sciences. UAPB has a well-regarded STEM Academy that serves 221 undergraduate and 26 graduate students.

The STEM STARS project is a teacher residency program that incorporates a three-phase science and mathematics teacher preparation model designed to address the science and mathematics teacher shortages in high-needs school districts.  In Phase 1, Residency Year, students are enrolled in Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) graduate programs, which provide required foundations of teaching and pedagogical support courses necessary to become certified science or mathematics teachers. In Phase 2, Clinical Year, students serve as teachers of record for their classes while being mentored by veteran teachers. In Phase 3, Community of Practice Years, teachers strengthen peer-to-peer and mentor-to-mentee relationships to facilitate the sharing of promising practices. These teachers and their mentors are provided iPads to assist them in networking (visit

A quasi-experimental design has been developed to evaluate the STEM STARS teacher residency approach to developing a strong science and mathematics teacher workforce for high-needs school districts. The STEM STARS project tests the following hypotheses: training science and mathematics teachers using the STEM STARS model has a positive effect on the quality of teacher instruction, efficacy, satisfaction, and retention. 

With support from the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research PreK-12 program, the STEM STARS project has 120 science and mathematics teachers who have completed Phase 1 and are working to complete a MAT degree program. These science and mathematics teachers have been paired with both a mentor and a high-needs school partner.  Most of these teachers have participated in one or more STEM STARS leadership summits that focused on current topics in science and mathematics education and community of scholars networking activities.  Most of these scholars are featured on the website.  Many of the scholars have recorded video testimonials located on the website.  These videos highlight their commitment to teaching in high-needs school districts in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Prospective teachers, principals, and mentors complete two surveys each year.  One survey is an evaluation survey used to determine how well STEM STARS is being implemented.  The second is a research survey used to determine the program's impact and possible transferable program components.  In a recent survey, the students were asked what factors contributed most to the project’s success. They listed “mentors,” “site coordinators,” and “support and feedback.” When asked what factors were most important to their success, they listed “networking,” “mentors,” and “course content.” The students' most significant challenges were all related to having limited time to complete projects.  On their survey, school administrators noted a qualitative improvement in the preparedness of teachers in mathematics and science.

STEM STARS students expressed a belief that earning a MAT from an HBCU provided them with a better understanding of how to reach students in high-needs school districts.  A complete analysis of the surveys is underway.

The STEM STARS model provides examples of recruiting and preparing prospective science and mathematics teachers and placing them in high-needs school districts where they are likely to be successful.  Our STEM STARS science and mathematics teachers will impact approximately 360,000 students in high-needs schools during their teaching careers. 

The top three accomplishments of the STEM STARS project are

  • an increase in the number of high-quality science and mathematics teachers for high-needs school
  • a stronger and more supportive STEM teacher network
  • a more diverse science and mathematics teacher workforce

Using a teacher residency model, STEM STARS has successfully recruited and placed 120 science and mathematics teachers in high-needs partner schools in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  While the model is useful in producing science and mathematics teachers, more time is needed to determine if it contributes to improving teacher retention and increasing student academic growth.



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