A PROBLEM OF K-12 STEM:
a dearth of well-qualified teachers in physical sciences
by David Hestenes, with colleagues (spring 2010)
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 2010 it has delivered professional development in physics, chemistry and physical science in three-week summer workshops to 3600 high school teachers across the nation. impacting a million students.
Modeling Instruction is a national resource to help schools raise the quality of STEM teaching through professional development and teacher networking.
(You can download a longer version with references, in MS-Word.)
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