Zachary Levine, 2012 Social Innovation Fellow

Catalyzing Future Teachers in STEM

Most education experts agree that American schools simply must attract more top talent to become teachers. In the United States, the majority of new teachers come from the bottom third of their graduating classes, in contrast to education-rich countries like Finland, Singapore, and Korea, where 100% of new teachers come from the top.

The need to revitalize the teacher corps is even more urgent given the fact that half of all current teachers will retire in the next 10 years. In light of inevitable preretirement attrition, a huge three-quarters of U.S. teaching personnel will need to be replaced this decade.

The greatest shortage of teacher talent is in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which are critical to the future of the U.S. economy. The lack of qualified candidates forces schools to fill vacancies with teachers who do not possess the needed expertise in these subjects, which leads to poor student achievement in these areas. President Obama recently estimated a shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers across the country by 2015, and warned that the crisis threatens the country’s economic well-being.

Zachary Levine (MBA and MEd ’10) has stepped up to meet this challenge by founding ElevatED, an organization that focuses on recruiting promising STEM college students to the teaching profession. The enterprise leverages market research to understand both why college students are motivated to enter the profession, and what inhibitions they have. It then uses best practices from successful recruitment campaigns to reach undergraduates early, give them positive exposures to teaching, and counter misconceptions that prevent them from going into the profession.

The Problem

America’s K-12 schools are experiencing severe shortages of highly qualified science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, with more than a quarter of all schools finding it extremely difficult to fill their open positions. As a result, student achievement in math and science is suffering considerably. According to the OECD’s comprehensive world education report, the United States ranks a dismal 23rd in science and 31st in math among wealthy nations on international exams. The situation has led to a negative economic spiral, with the lack of good instruction in this regard leading to fewer and fewer college students being motivated to major in science, technology, engineering, and math –– and thus a deficit of professionals needed to fuel our economy.

Recently, President Obama summed up the situation this way: “America’s future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

Traditional teacher preparation programs at universities have historically put little effort into outreach to STEM majors that puts teaching on their radar. Any large-scale recruitment effort would require a concentration of expertise and resources that is generally beyond the means of any one school, Levine notes.

“Many students are open to considering teaching, but not enough move to make it to the commitment stage on their own,” says Levine. “With the stakes so high, we need a major initiative to attract STEM teachers.” Inspired by President Obama’s national goal to produce 100,000 high quality STEM teachers in 10 years, Levine has established ElevatED.

The Novel Idea

ElevatED is a talent pipeline and launch pad for highly qualified science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. The organization provides ways for skilled, motivated, and gifted teachers to connect with STEM undergrads to inspire them to become future teachers.

“Our fundamental premise is that teaching offers a powerful skill set, powerful rewards, and the opportunity to have a powerful impact,” says Levine. ElevatED leverages dynamic K-12 teachers and best practices from recruitment and outreach to counter misperceptions about the teaching profession and convey the richness and value of the career path to potential future teachers.

Specifically, the organization designs and distributes a college course that generates excitement about the intellectual rigor of teaching as well as its career potential. ElevatED puts STEM undergraduates in contact with “ambassador teachers” –– impressive K-12 STEM professionals who have a passion for and mastery of their craft. It connects them with Spotlight Schools that showcase compelling work environments, and sets them up with mini-teaching experiences and summer internships.

ElevatED further harnesses relationships, social networking, and mentoring and advising to help undergraduates make their final decision about teaching. “Our approach is tailored specifically to address the issues that research has shown are the motivations for and impediments to students choosing a career in teaching. We lower the barriers,” explains Levine. For instance, the organization provides counseling to help “potential teachers across the finish line” in areas such as choosing a training program, finding scholarships, finding good job placements, and making teaching financially rewarding and sustainable.

Levine’s is currently the only national-scope organization in the country that specializes in systematic outreach to undergraduates majoring in STEM fields. ElevatED brings a unique combination of communications expertise, a data- and research-driven approach, and a deep understanding of undergraduates’ career and job decision-making process. The organization aims to double the share of STEM majors going into teaching within five years of operating on a campus. 

The Innovator

A recipient of Stanford’s dual Master’s degree in education and business, Zachary Levine has always been interested in cross-disciplinary approaches to solving social problems. He sees ElevatED drawing together many different aspects of his expertise, including his experience as a management consultant and political organizer, and, most important, his tenure in education reform where he developed a clear sense of the need for teacher talent. As director of human capital for Green Dot Public Schools, one of the largest charter school organizations in the United States, he and his team reviewed some 1500 applications a year and interviewed hundreds of candidates. “That experience taught me the difference between an average and an exceptional teacher, and reversed my conceptions of what it meant to be one,” Levine said. “Top teachers knock your socks off and are extraordinary leaders in any organization.”

Despite the fact that Green Dot was considered a desirable employer and attracted “the best of the best,” Levine still found himself struggling to fill the last quarter of the available positions in the subjects of science and math. “I’ve been in classrooms where the teachers are changing the life trajectories of the students, and I’ve been in classrooms that made my stomach turn, because you could tell the teacher had lost the students. And that meant so much wasted potential,” he says. “I knew we needed to change this equation. We need more exceptional teachers available in the pool so we have nothing less than one in every classroom.”

A former political science major at Stanford and a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, Levine found himself reflecting back on his own college experience and the fact that he had not given teaching a second thought. “I have come to realize that in fact teaching is an intellectually stimulating and incredibly rewarding profession, and I knew I wanted to give today’s college students a chance to undo their misconceptions much sooner than I did,” he says. The seed for ElevatED was planted.

“Our best teachers have the capabilities of leaders in any field, and if we can shine a light on that fact, then more talented individuals will aspire to become the next high-impact teachers,” he says. “We can’t afford to let myths and stereotypes stand in the way of improving our teacher talent pipeline, because teacher talent is the central element determining the quality of our school system.”