a dearth of well-qualified teachers in physical sciences

by David Hestenes, with colleagues (2010; updated in 2013)


Grave deficiencies in American K-12 math-science education have been documented in many prominent reports, e.g., A Nation at Risk (1983), Shaping the Future (1996), TIMSS (1998), Glenn Commission (2000), PISA (2006), The Nation’s Report Card (NAEP, 2006). Despite these high profile warnings and recommendations, the problems of math-science education have continued to deepen toward a crisis, as expressed by another blue-ribbon committee with the warning: “If America is to sustain its international competitiveness, its national security, and quality of life for its citizens, then it must move quickly to achieve significant improvements of all students in mathematics and science.” (Business-Higher Education Forum, 2005).

The problems of STEM education reform are many and difficult, but a major contributing factor is a dearth of well-qualified K-12 science teachers, specifically in physics, chemistry, and physical science.

The nation has approximately 27,000 high school physics teachers, but only a third of them have a degree in physics or physics education, and the production rate of new teachers barely matches the replacement rate for this group. The remaining two thirds are out-of-field (crossover) teachers from other majors, mostly with no more preparation than two or three semesters of general physics (Neuschatz et al. 2008). Regardless of degree, many physics teachers are under-qualified because they lack the pedagogical content knowledge needed for effective teaching (Wells et al. 1995). Furthermore, rural schools seldom have more than one teacher for all STEM subjects, if indeed physics and chemistry are even offered.

The dearth of qualified teachers is even worse for 9th grade physical science. Most high school physical science teachers do not have a major or a minor in any physical science (Ingersoll 2002). Thus the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators (NSB 2008) found that almost half of public secondary schools reported teaching vacancies (i.e., teaching positions needing to be filled) in physical sciences. About one-third of these schools reported great difficulty in finding teachers to fill the openings.


One impactful strategy for improving STEM teaching is professional development using research-validated strategies that are shown to improve teaching and learning outcomes. Yet, schools and school districts are ill-equipped to conduct the necessary professional development on their own because they lack the necessary expertise in science and technology as well as the resources to keep up-to-date with advances in science curriculum materials and pedagogy. The problem is most severe in rural schools and urban schools with high-need students.

To address the need for high-quality professional development on a massive scale, the Modeling Instruction program was developed with 15 years of NSF funding. As of fall 2013 it had delivered professional development in physics, chemistry and physical science in three-week summer workshops to 5200 high school teachers across the nation, including 10% of the nation’s physics teachers, and impacting 1.5 million students.

Modeling Instruction is a national resource to help schools raise the quality of STEM teaching through professional development and teacher networking.

the Modeling Instruction Program

The Modeling Instruction program is an evolving, research-based program for high school science education reform with progressively broader implications for STEM education nationally. Specifically, Modeling Instruction, under development since 1980, refers to making and using conceptual models of physical systems and processes (both natural and artificial) as central to learning and doing science and engineering. Though adoption of “models and modeling” as a unifying theme for science and mathematics education has been promoted by the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) as well as AAAS Project 2061 (AAAS 2009), no other program has implemented that theme so thoroughly as Modeling Instruction in physics. It has been extended to chemistry, and it can be a unified pedagogical framework for the entire STEM curriculum.

Modeling Instruction develops in students the ability to analyze data, reach a conclusion and defend it; and it emphasizes experiment design. Other 21st century skills developed include scientific use of computers and probeware, teamwork, and verbal and written communication skills. Students become self-directed, independent learners (Wells et al. 1995). Modeling discourse prepares students to engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern (Desbien 2002, Megowan 2007).

            Modeling Instruction integrates a research-based, student-centered teaching methodology with a model-centered curriculum. It applies structured inquiry techniques to teach basic skills in mathematical modeling, proportional reasoning, quantitative estimation, and data analysis. This contributes to development of critical thinking and communication skills, including the ability to formulate well-defined opinions and evaluate or defend them with rational argument and evidence.

Modeling pedagogy has three essential components: the models, the Modeling cycle, and classroom discourse management (Hestenes 1997). A working understanding of these components is the pedagogical content knowledge (PCK, Shulman 1986) needed for successful classroom implementation. Modeling Summer Institutes are designed to cultivate such understanding. Experience has shown that intensive institutes of at least three weeks duration are needed to prepare teachers for immediate teaching with models in their classrooms.

Modeling Instruction is unique in its focus on models, as units of coherently structured scientific knowledge, and modeling, as the core of scientific method. Full implementation requires a thorough analysis of the curriculum to identify the models at its content core and encapsulate them in a student friendly instructional design.

In summary, Modeling Instruction: (1) is grounded in science, research-based and thoroughly classroom-tested, (2) has a proven delivery system for upgrading teacher competence and networking teachers for mutual support at a national scale, and (3) has engaged science faculty at many college and universities as a strategy for upgrading the quality of K-12 teacher skill, and consequently student learning and college readiness.


Principals In Modeling and Reform. For individual teachers, a common impediment to classroom implementation of Modeling Instruction (or any other STEM education reform, for that matter) is lack of appreciation or support from the principal. The impediment has many forms, such as inappropriate teaching or classroom assignments, inadequate equipment, or banning of teaching by inquiry in favor of lecturing. We attribute this mainly to the principal’s lack of knowledge of the aims and methods of reform.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (2009). Project 2061 Benchmarks Online,

Business-Higher Education Forum (Feb. 2005). A Commitment to America’s Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education.

Desbien, Dwain (2002). Modeling discourse management compared to other classroom management styles in university physics. D.Ed. dissertation, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

George, Melvin D. (1996). Shaping the Future, National Science Foundation Report # 96-139.

Glenn Commission (2001). Before It’s Too Late; A Report to the Nation from The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century.

Hestenes, D. (1997). Modeling Methodology for Physics Teachers. In E. Redish & J. Rigden (Eds.) The changing role of the physics department in modern universities. American Institute of Physics, Part II, 935-957.

Ingersoll, R. (2002). The Organization of Schools as an Overlooked Source of Underqualified Teaching, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, Table I, p. 4.

Megowan, Mary Colleen (2007). Framing Discourse for Optimal Learning in Science and Mathematics. Ph.D. dissertation, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe.

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National Science Board: Digest of Key Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. National Science Foundation. p. 19.

The Nation's Report Card: Science 2005 (May 2006). National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Neuschatz, M., McFarling, M., and White, S. (2008). “Reaching the Critical Mass: Findings from the 2005 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers,” American Institute of Physics,

PISA- The Programme for International Student Assessment (2006). Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher 15 (2), 4-14.

Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (1998). Report issued by the US Department of Education and the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Wells, M., Hestenes, D., and Swackhamer, G. (1995). A Modeling Method for High School Physics Instruction, Am. J. Phys. 63, 606-619