Why are Florida’s traditional teacher ed programs doing so poorly in chemistry and physics? Here’s a reason you might not have thought about.

Why are Florida’s traditional teacher education programs doing so poorly in recruiting and graduating teachers in chemistry and physics? As I mentioned previously, a recent FLDOE report estimated that there were 237 vacancies in Florida’s public high schools in chemistry and physics in 2014-15, but only 17 individuals graduated from the state’s teacher education programs in those subjects during the 2013-14 academic year. There is no reason to think the situation has improved since then.

If you immediately answered the question by saying “It’s the low salaries teachers are paid,” you are probably partly right – but only partly. Consider this: No physics teacher has graduated from FSU’s “traditional” math and science teacher education program, called FSU-Teach, since 2012. Yet three 2015 FSU graduates are teaching physics around the state, and more undergraduate physics majors are actively considering the high school teaching career choice.

So what is going on? Why aren’t FSU students choosing the FSU-Teach route to the physics teaching profession?

At least one of the issues keeping FSU’s undergraduate physics majors out of the FSU-Teach physics track is their own ambition – and I think this is a positive thing. To make room for the education courses required for a student to complete the FSU-Teach program, the Physics Department in 2008 devised a new major with a physics course load that was significantly reduced from that of a regular physics major. While the regular physics major includes fourteen upper division physics courses, the “Physical Science/FSU-Teach” major included only seven. The reduction in the number of physics courses allowed space in a student’s schedule for FSU-Teach’s seven education courses and the student teaching “internship”, which takes place in the last semester before graduation.

Here is where our students’ ambition comes in: Those physics majors who are strong enough students that you would want them teaching in high school have all wanted to complete the full regular physics major program with its fourteen required upper division courses. Physics majors still have the option of completing the education courses in the FSU-Teach program while also completing the full physics major. However, doing so would postpone graduation far beyond the standard 120 credit hours.

The coursework situation is likely similar in chemistry and physics teacher education programs around the state, and there are probably students at other institutions who are making the same sorts of choices to avoid the traditional teacher prep routes that FSU’s physics majors are making.

Of course, those who complete the FSU-Teach education courses and internship are awarded a “professional” teaching certificate by the state, while those who do not (like the recent FSU grads teaching physics) must start with a “temporary” certificate. The temporary certification is good for three years but cannot be renewed. For a temporarily certified teacher to earn a “professional” certificate requires taking several education courses from a variety of possible providers (which generally includes school districts, state colleges, state universities and private colleges). One 2015 FSU Physics grad is participating in the Jacksonville Teacher Residency Program to earn his professional certification.

Despite the availability of these “alternative certification” routes into teaching, school districts are still having a difficult time finding individuals who are strong in chemistry and physics to teach those subjects in high schools. It should be clear that Florida must open its doors wide to individuals who are strong in chemistry and physics and who are willing to give high school teaching a try. And then the school districts should do everything possible to help these individuals become highly skilled educators.

Narrowing the path to teaching careers for individuals skilled in chemistry or physics, or denying these individuals the incentives available to graduates of traditional teacher education programs (like the Florida Senate’s proposal on Best and Brightest signing bonuses aims to do) in an attempt to reassert the primacy of those programs makes no sense.

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