It is quite common for biology teachers to be asked to transition to teaching chemistry or physics, and more will be asked to do so with the implementation of Florida’s new “chemistry or physics” high school graduation requirement. While the transition to chemistry is difficult for a biology teacher, the transition to physics can be much more problematic, both for the teacher and her or his students. For example, new biology teachers graduating from FSU-Teach (FSU’s UTeach “replication site”) have only one semester of physics and consequently do not learn anything about the electromagnetic force that holds biological molecules like DNA together. This is not just a Florida problem, of course. According to the 2009 High School Physics Survey performed by the American Institute of Physics, only 35% of teachers who are teaching physics classes have bachelors’ degrees in physics or physics education.
A recent draft of an SB 6 sequel bill being developed by the Foundation for Florida’s Future and its executive director Patricia Levesque includes a clause stating that teachers can only receive a salary bump for “Degrees received in the content area in which the teacher is certified and teaching.” It is minimal language that reflects minimal thought about an important issue. During the meeting of the Senate PreK-12 Committee last Thursday, Levesque said that she had consulted with many groups about the draft. If so, then the language in the draft on this particular issue indicates that nobody has given it much thought.
The language in the draft bill reflects research that master’s degrees earned by teachers generally have no impact on student achievement, “with the possible exception of high school teachers who receive advanced training in their field of specialty,” according to Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor. If language in the teacher quality bill on salary bumps and graduate degrees is written properly, it could encourage biology teachers to enter master’s degree programs that would help them learn both the physics content and the physics-specific pedagogical content knowledge necessary to become a highly effective physics teacher. Of course, the same language could also encourage teachers in other areas to build their content and discipline-specific pedagogical content knowledge. But such language would have to include much more detail than does the version posted by School Zone.
In fact, making masters’ degree programs for teachers effective in promoting student achievement would likely require strong partnerships between colleges of education and content departments. While it is an undergraduate program, the UTeach program for the recruitment and preparation of math and science teachers at the University of Texas-Austin – where the founder is Physics Professor Michael Marder – provides an example of the partnership required. Both FSU and UF have UTeach “replication” sites.
But even UTeach replication sites are regulated along with all undergraduate teacher preparation programs, in Florida’s case by the Florida Department of Education. And that may be the real lesson here: It may be that an FDOE regulatory apparatus – complete with standards – must be established to ensure that teachers’ graduate programs are effective. But what’s certain is that the draft language on teachers’ graduate degrees in the Foundation for Florida’s Future bill is insufficient for significantly improving science teaching in our state.