What should it take to be certified to teach high school physics? And…who should decide?

When I think about all the strong high school physics teachers I know and try to figure out what they have in common, this is what I end up with:  They have strong math and science skills and a deep interest in understanding how their students learn. They love interacting with people – especially young people, and they have an ample supply of stamina.  They are great teammates and collaborators.  And they have passion – lots and lots of passion.

How did they get there?  They have bachelors’ degrees in physics, astronomy, engineering, math education, biology, chemistry and even elementary education.  Some have graduate degrees in engineering or science.  (I don’t recall meeting one that has a graduate degree in education, actually).  They started teaching right after completing a traditional teacher ed program in college, or right after finishing a plain old “content” degree (like physics, engineering or astronomy), or after a decade or two in a career as a practicing engineer or scientist.

Here’s something to keep in mind:  None of them knew they wanted to teach physics when they started college.  They wanted to be physics or astronomy researchers, pharmacists, engineers, or other assorted ambitions.  Not one wanted to be a physics teacher on the first day of college.

All passed Florida’s physics certification exam.  Some number of years ago, I reviewed the standards used to formulate this exam, and I can share that passing the exam is a pretty low bar.  Nevertheless, only about 60% of first-time takers of the physics certification exam pass it.

All had to run Florida’s teacher certification gauntlet, with its enormous checklist of competencies (much of which is nearly irrelevant to knowing your content area or the research on how students learn in your content area) and required courses with titles like “Educational Psychology of Development of Learners” and “Content Area Reading for Secondary School Teachers”.

So if we were going to blow the whole thing up (as Representatives Diaz and Bileca suggest), how would we start over again?  Would we still insist on licensing physics teachers?  If so, how would we judge who should be awarded a license?

Here’s what I’d do:  I’d ask the four outstanding high school physics teachers in the picture below to tell us how we should license physics teachers in Florida.  (Ignore the old guy in the middle.  He is worthless.)  They are, from left:  Rachel Morris, math and physics teacher at Bay County’s Rutherford High School and winner of a Shine Award from Governor Scott; Luther Davis, physics and astronomy teacher at Seminole County’s Lake Mary High School and a 2005 winner of the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching (complete with trip to the White House); Adam LaMee, former physics teacher in Leon County’s Lincoln and Rickards High Schools and now both Physics Teacher-in-Residence at UCF and President of the Florida Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers; and Zondra Clayton, physics teacher at Leon’s Godby High School and the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2015-16.  (And just to elaborate on a point made above, the bachelor’s degrees represented in the picture are math education, astronomy, physics and chemistry)


Throw out all the rules presently governing the certification of physics teachers and let Rachel, Luther, Adam and Zondra sit down and tell us what we should do.  Or if you don’t like my group, come up with your own group of strong high school physics teachers.  Keep all professors – in physics, education or whatever – out of it.  Keep the bureaucrats (even the good bureaucrats like Brian Dassler) and administrators out of it, except to facilitate the process.  Trust your good teachers to make good decisions.  And then do what they say.

And while you’re at it, do the same for the other subject areas as well.  It will result in a big improvement over the present system.


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