Pre-service Physics Teacher Education in Florida: Pushing the Boulder Up the Hill is Getting Old

Over the last several years, I’ve done what I can on my own to encourage students in my Physics Department to consider high school teaching careers.  FSU has a UTeach site, called FSU-Teach, but my own primary tool for recruiting high school teachers has been to support learning assistantships, in which undergraduate physics majors work as paid members of the instructional teams in our studio physics classes.  Three undergraduates who have received bachelors’ degrees in the last three years have ended up in high school classrooms.  As of next fall, only one will still be there.  None of the undergraduates presently in the department will end up in high school teaching careers.  The net gain for five years of effort is one high school teacher.

While most UTeach sites struggle to recruit high school physics teachers, the PhysTEC program set up many years ago by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers has had some success.  Florida has two PhysTEC sites – one is a longstanding site at Florida International University, and the other is a new one at the University of Central Florida.  FIU has had success.  UCF probably will.

But by itself, PhysTEC will not solve the physics teacher shortage.  Smaller efforts like mine would have to succeed if we are going to meet the only reasonable goal – making sure every high school student has the opportunity to take physics from a highly qualified physics teacher.

What’s causing the physics teacher shortage in the first place?  The obvious answer is salary.  As I documented earlier this week, students who are strong in math and the physical sciences pay a significant salary penalty to take high school teaching jobs in most states, including Florida.  In New Jersey, the teaching salary penalty is much narrower – and New Jersey turns a much higher percentage of its bachelor’s degree physicists into high school physics teachers than Florida does.

But there is more.  During the last few years, several of my students have told me that their own high school teachers have told them to stay away from the teaching profession.  After 15 years with our public schools, we pulled our youngest child out of the public high school and put him into a private school for his last two years of high school because of the collapse of teacher morale that has taken place since the state made changes in teacher employment conditions in 2011.

Is there any interest in addressing the math and physics teacher salary penalty among Flroida’s educational policy-makers?  It sure looks like the opposite is the case:  The goal for the public schools seems to be to reduce the instructional payroll, whatever the cost in educational attainment.  Such a goal would explain the state’s emphasis on reading and the neglect of secondary level math.  Teaching reading is cheaper than teaching secondary math, because the young people who have the mathematical ability to teach math effectively at the middle and high school levels have access to high-paying careers in engineering and the physical sciences.  The state’s decision to focus its federally required science effort on biology can be explained the same way:  Bachelor’s degree grads in the life sciences who do not continue on to graduate or professional schools have limited – and poorly paying – employment options.

A colleague suggested to me that the best way to attack the shortage of highly qualified physics teachers in Florida is by retooling biology teachers who are already in the schools.  I know of at least two biology-trained teachers who have become first-rate physics teachers, and I’m sure there are more.  So I will look for ways to apply whatever meager resources I have – mostly my own energy – to help willing biology teachers become strong physics teachers.

But as for preparing undergraduates for physics teaching careers, it’s come to this:  I give up.

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