The shortage of K-12 physics teachers is complex, daunting, frustrating and incredibly important

Below are some excerpts from a commentary by members of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics.  The commentary was published on the Back Page of the August/September issue of the APS News, the “newspaper” of the American Physical Society.

I should add that I have been pounded from several different directions on the issue of physics teacher education recently.  One of the pounders was someone in a very visible leadership position in the state’s educational establishment.  Another was a colleague in my own department who believes that any criticism of the state’s K-12 system is empty until we solve the puzzle of recruiting and educating more teachers in physics and the other science subject in which there is a similar severe shortage of highly qualified teachers – chemistry.

Just to make this clear – there is no switch we can flip to solve this problem, if only we weren’t so lazy.  This is a really difficult challenge, and nobody has solved it yet.  There is enough responsibility to go around:  from the K-12 system’s failure to implement differential pay and/or other incentives that might make chemistry and physics teaching more attractive to strong students; to colleagues in our Colleges of Education who remain dogmatically committed to unrealistically ponderous teacher education programs whose effectiveness is not yet proven and whose relevance to the particular challenges of chemistry and physics teaching is questionable at best; to faculty in Chemistry and Physics departments who tell their students that only weak students would consider teaching careers; and perhaps to those of us who tire too quickly of the conflicts and refuse to roll up our sleeves and do what we can by ourselves, if necessary (because, after all, the only resources we really control are our own hands and feet).

You might be starting to get a glimmer of this – my failure to make substantial progress in the recruiting and education of physics teachers at my home institution is the single greatest frustration of my 27 years here.  What makes the recent criticism most painful is that I actually agree with it, but I have little power to address it.  In anticipation of the departure of several large responsibilities from my plate a year or so from now, I am sketching out a plan for improving physics teacher education at my home institution that requires only my own hands and feet and no help or resources from anyone else – because that’s all I’m going to have.  If you’re interested in what I’m planning, get in touch.

Now (finally) to the Back Page commentary:

The US physics community has become habituated–perhaps unconsciously–to a pre-college science education system that is relatively weak by international standards. Several studies have confirmed that, when comparing equivalent student populations, US science students rank no better than middle-of-the-pack among developed nations, and indications are that physics students rank even lower. There is no great mystery regarding the cause: pre-college students in other countries study science–including physics–for more years than they do in the US, and other nations tend to put substantially more resources into preparing highly qualified science teachers for those students. Five years of study by T-TEP [the Task Force in Teacher Education in Physics] have shown that, despite the presence of many devoted and highly qualified high school physics teachers, the overall situation for US high-school physics students is not good….

Efforts to improve the US science-education system must include dramatic changes in physics teacher education; such changes may not be sufficient, but they are certainly necessary. T-TEP has found that the present system of U.S. physics teacher education is inadequate. To start with the most obvious problem, most physics teachers don’t have adequate physics content backgrounds; about two-thirds of them did not major in physics or physics education. Of the minority who do have adequate content knowledge, only a small portion actually had specialized preparation in physics teaching, not merely in “general science” teaching. Not coincidentally, physics teacher preparation is scattered among hundreds of institutions, only a few of which can and do devote the resources necessary to do a good job….

We believe that physicists and physics departments are capable of addressing the problem of high-quality physics teacher education quite effectively. Indeed, there are physics departments that graduate relatively large numbers of teachers from excellent programs; some of these are indicated by the outliers in the histogram distribution (see figure). The T-TEP recommendations for physics departments center on (i) developing strong content-knowledge background, (ii) cultivating early physics teaching experiences under expert mentorship, and (iii) developing special courses focused specifically on physics pedagogy. The US has never come close to meeting these recommendations for the great majority of its physics teachers.   

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