While American colleges and universities train twice as many teachers overall as there are open positions, a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality says only a small number are qualified to teach math or science.

A shortage of math and science teachers could spell trouble for the economy, considering the projected growth of occupations that require skills in science, technology, engineering and math (commonly called STEM skills), according to research conducted by the Department of Commerce.

President Obama recently proposed alloting $80 million to the STEM Teacher Pathway Program, which aims to produce 10,000 high quality math and science teachers each year for the next ten years.

In addition to qualified students interested in teaching math, policy makers should look to recruit students who plan to obtain other teaching qualifications, and to capable students who plan to pursue non-teaching degrees, according to a June 2013 issue brief prepared by American College Testing (ACT). The ACT test provides one measure of which high school graduates are prepared to succeed in math and science related majors, so its records could be useful in identifying students in each of these categories. Critics argue the ACT report is self-serving and misses the real issues behind the current shortage of math and science teachers.

The shortage of students planning to teach math and science

Each year, 3 million students take college entrance exams; approximately half take the ACT and the other half take the SAT. As part of the test, students are surveyed about their intended college major.

ACT’s June issue brief indicates that of the roughly 1.5 million students who take the ACT, only 6 percent, about 80,000 students, plan to pursue a degree in education. Of those, only about 3,000 want to be math teachers and only 730 want to be science teachers. Assuming the college major preferences for students who take the ACT and SAT are about the same, the authors of the study conclude that the country falls about 2,500 short of Obama’s 10,000 teacher target.

To make matters worse, many of those who plan to teach math are not prepared to succeed in the major of their choice. Of the about 3,000 would-be math teachers roughly 2,200 students, about 70 percent, met the ACT’s math college readiness benchmark. Only 40 percent of aspiring science teachers met the science benchmark.

Other candidates with STEM teaching potential

After identifying the shortage in qualified would-be math and science teachers, the ACT report considers students who expressed an interest in teaching generally and who have the skills to succeed in a math teaching program. Of the nearly 80,000 students who want to be teachers, about 28,000 met or exceeded the ACT math benchmark, and about 16,000 students met or exceeded the science benchmark. If only 5 percent of these students were recruited into math or science teaching, the nation could easily meet the 10,000 new teachers goal.

Another potential pool of candidates to become math and science teachers is the set of students who met the math or science benchmarks, but who are undecided about their college major. In fact, undecided is the second most common choice among students who met the math or science benchmarks. Nearly 150,000 test takers fall into this category, according to ACT. If 3 percent of those were successfully recruited to study math or science education the 10,000 target would also be met.

Problems with the numbers

2 comments on this storyCritics of the report argue that the authors of the ACT issue brief rely too heavily on the reliability of its college readiness benchmarks. For example, ACT suggests that 100 percent of the students who want to become math or science teachers and who meet the benchmarks can meet their goal. It also assumes that none of the test takers who fail to meet their standard will succeed in these majors.

Critics also point out the shortage of math teachers is not primarily a result of a deficit in the number of people coming through the college pipeline. The biggest cause of the shortage is that K-12 schools are unable to keep the qualified math teachers they hire, according to Richard Ingersoll, professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Factors such as student discipline problems and lack of autonomy in the classroom lead many qualified math teachers to leave the profession, often to take jobs in more lucrative career fields, Ingersoll said.

In its analysis of the numbers it provides, ACT does acknowledge the existence of qualified potential math and science teachers is no guarantee that schools will be able to successfully recruit them. A student with STEM interests can earn $67,500 right out of school working as an electrical engineer, according to data from Payscale. However, that same student would only make about $37,500 as a math teacher.