Plunge in teacher morale might impact high school physics instruction the most

According to the 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, morale in the teaching profession has plunged during the last two years (you can see the NY Times article on the report here).

And when morale plunges, the first folks out the door are the ones who can most easily find somewhere else to go.

In the high schools, that’s the physics teachers.

I was reminded of that this week.  I have data on this only in so far as the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”  But in the few schools I personally follow, the exodus of physics teachers that began last year is continuing.

As far as I can tell from my conversations, the change in employment conditions for teachers in Florida – brought on by the passage into law of SB 736 last year – has had a significant effect.  Of course it has – those who are presently teaching in our schools bought into a particular set of working conditions, and now they feel as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath them.

But according to the few teachers I talk with, there is more:  In at least one case, a principal who valued strong science instruction left and was replaced by a new principal who didn’t seem to care about science at all.  A principal in another school has never seemed to care much about math and science, and the perceived increase in the hostility of state-level policy makers was enough to push some teachers there over the edge.  Florida’s program for dealing with schools in which students perform poorly on reading tests – primarily those with many students from disadvantaged backgrounds – all but decommissions the teaching of physics and turns some or all of the class time in physics classes into reading lessons.  Teachers in these schools are given advice by consultants or bureaucrats who know nothing about the teaching of physics – who in fact may not even think that teaching physics is a wise use of resources.

And how do we evaluate the effectiveness of physics teachers in low SES schools?  As far as I can tell, nobody has really given this any thought.  Biology is the Official Science of the State of Florida – you can tell that because it’s the only science that is tested at the high school level.  In fact, I can say this with some confidence:  Florida will not implement an end-of-course exam in physics in my lifetime.

The 2012 edition of the Florida Legislature did little or nothing to improve science and math education in Florida’s K-12 schools, despite the rhetoric.  The most telling bit of prose came from a staff report on SB 1368, which in its initial version proposed that high schools receive bonus points toward their school grades if their students took more math and science than the minimums required for graduation.  The staff report passed along a comment from a Florida Department of Education analysis of the bill:  “According to the DOE, this may result in students enrolling in additional courses that are not required for students to graduate to inflate the points they receive for the non-FCAT components of high school grades.”  Horror of horrors!

If the 2013 Florida Legislature wants to do better, the members should start here:  Rebuild the state’s physics teaching corps in the new world of SB 736, where there is no tenure and raises are based on teacher effectiveness instead of years of experience.  Perhaps that rebuilding effort should begin with the piece of SB 736 that school districts and legislators seem to take great pains to ignore – “salary supplements” for teachers in critical needs fields like physics and math.  Maybe there are other ways to convince teachers that they are valued as well.  If so, we need to find out what they are and implement them swiftly.

But as long as we live in a place where the state’s most influential education lobbyist says that the answer to the shortage of physics teachers is virtual school physics, where the state’s leading developmental research high school doesn’t offer physics (and refers students who stubbornly insist on taking physics to the above-mentioned virtual physics course), and where a leading education official says that the state can’t push improving physics instruction too hard because the rural counties will not be able to keep up…well, as long as we live in such a place, we are not going to be able to educate our young people to provide the skills necessary to bring Florida’s economy into the 21st century.

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