I have never met a high school physics teacher who thought that the courses taken during existing alternative certification programs made her or him a better teacher. And you can get lots of complaints from physics teachers who went through traditional programs as well.
But that is not to say that those with bachelors’ degrees in physics are necessarily equipped to be strong physics teachers without further preparation. In fact, most aren’t. Most holders of physics degrees (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate) were in the top few percent of their cohorts in high school and managed to learn physics despite being taught the subject via the lecture method that left so many of their classmates behind.
We now know (OK, we’ve known for decades) that many more students – perhaps most students (and some say all) – can learn physics with understanding at a college introductory level. But achieving that requires the adoption of interactive engagement teaching strategies, and precious few physicists at any level are prepared to implement such strategies.
I started thinking about all this again when I read Travis Pillow’s piece on the plans that Representatives Manny Diaz and Michael Bileca are developing to “blow up” Florida’s teacher certification program. The legislators argue that tearing down the existing system might make it easier to hire career changers into teaching positions in subjects like physics and computer science.
First of all, getting rid of the existing alternative certification programs – which are already some of the most permissive in the nation – might or might not draw in more physicists or computer scientists. It’s possible that the existing obstacles are already so low that getting rid of them wouldn’t matter. Or it might.
Second, being a physicist doesn’t automatically make you a great physics teacher. The problem is that most principals know little or nothing about teaching and learning in science (and probably math as well) and they don’t know how to assess whether students are learning with understanding. The new AP algebra-based physics sequence is revolutionary (in a good way) in its approach to teaching and assessment. And a glance at this year’s grade distribution (with only 40% of students earning a score of 3 or better on the AP Physics 1 exam) shows just how far the nation’s high school physics teaching corps has to go to become uniformly strong.
The legislators in Travis’ article argue that “If someone has an interest in teaching and an advanced degree in, say, electrical engineering…that person shouldn’t have to take a series of classes on topics like pedagogical theory before going into the classroom.” Maybe they shouldn’t have to. But it’s likely that the engineer’s students would learn more deeply if the engineer took the time to digest the research on how students best learn physics and engineering. And oh yes – that engineer probably needs to relearn some physics if that’s what she or he is going to be teaching. Just saying.
Finally, there is money. Travis made it clear that the legislators really didn’t want to talk about money, but it’s an issue. The gap between salaries that professional engineers, computer scientists and physicists make (even at the bachelor’s level) and what teachers make is pretty darn large (see below).
Fortunately, there is a solution to the money issue at hand. The 2016 Legislature allocated $49 million to a scheme to reward teachers in part for the SAT or ACT scores they earned while they were in high school. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program. That $49 million could do a world of good if it were pointed in directions that made sense. One of those directions is to reduce the salary penalty that professionals in science, engineering and computing pay to become teachers. (Another is to recruit teachers to high needs schools, which desperately need more strong teachers in all subjects)
So it’s terrific that Representatives Diaz and Bileca are thinking about how to recruit more strong teachers of computer science and physics for Florida’s high schools. Blowing up the existing system may be necessary, and it would be easy for legislators like them who have lots of clout. What will be hard – and what Diaz and Bileca have an obligation to take on – is to come up with a way of fixing the teacher shortage in math, science and computing. Blowing up the existing system is only the easy first step.