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Science Teachers' Group Readies Plan To Offer Own Certification

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To stem what it terms the "blatant" use of unqualified science teachers, the country's largest organization of science educators is planning to issue its own certification credential.

Possibly as soon as 1986, teachers would be able to apply for the new professional certification from the National Science Teachers Association in addition to their state teaching certificate.

According to Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the nsta, the standards that would be required for the professional certificates could not be met by up to 70 percent of today's high-school science teachers and 90 percent of current elementary-school teachers.

The unprecedented step is necessary to combat the current "exceedingly low" standards for science teachers in many states, Mr. Aldridge said. It could also reverse the

trend toward assigning underprepared teachers to science classes as student enrollments drop and graduation standards for high-school science courses increase, he added.

The nsta is asking the country's other major science-education groups--including the National Association of Geology Teachers, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Chemical Society--to join it in the proposed certification plan. Those organizations have their own suggested standards or guidelines for the preparation of teachers. The nsta's standards for teacher training, which will form the basis for the certification requirements, were adopted by the organization's board of directors in 1983 and 1984.

NCATE's Standards

The standards required for the proposed professional certificates already carrystrong endorsement. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, whose influence shapes the requirements of teacher-training institutions, has decided to use those same standards to approve teacher-education programs beginning in 1986, according to Richard C. Kunkel, executive director of ncate. ncate adopted the science organization's standards for teacher training at its October meeting.

From now on, institutions of higher education seeking national accreditation from the ncate will have to document how they meet the nsta's standards, Mr. Kunkel said. That documentation will be sent to representatives of the nsta to critique. Their evaluation will be "as legitimate a plus or minus as any other" in determining whether the institution is accredited, he added.

However, he cautioned that the nsta's proposal to provide professional certificates to science teachers should not be confused with the state's responsibility to certify them. The ncate approaches certification as a state right, he said. But he added: "That doesn't mean that a profession itself can't stand aside from that and say this is our blessing or our distinction in the field."

Union Endorsement

The presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers also commended the nsta's proposal in interviews last week. However, Albert Shanker, president of the aft, termed the professional certificates a short-term measure and said that a national teacher examination that includes a subject-matter test in the teacher's field is still needed. Mr. Shanker proposed such a test late last month.

Types of Certificates

The nsta's proposed standards for certification set high requirements for teacher preparation. They include a minimum number of hours in science courses during college; a minimum of one separate course in methods of teaching science, appropriate to the grade level the teacher plans to teach; a minimum amount of direct teaching experience while in college, in addition to at least three years as a classroom teacher; and proof of the teacher's successful performance in the classroom. (See accompanying story.)

The organization hopes to offer separate teaching certificates in the following categories: elementary-school science; middle-school/junior-high-school science; high-school biology; high-school chemistry; high-school earth and space science; high-school general science; high-school physical science; and high-school physics.

The nsta would like the standards in the specific disciplines to be issued jointly with the appropriate national organization, so that a6high-school physics teacher, for example, would be certified by both the American Association of Physics Teachers and the nsta

For a high-school science teacher, the nsta's standards amount to specialization in a branch of science roughly equivalent to that required for a bachelor's degree.

A Needed Recognition

The professional certificates would help provide recognition for qualified teachers who are sometimes pushed out of science classes to make room for less qualified individuals with more seniority, according to Mr. Aldridge.

He added that the nsta does not plan to issue a substitute for state certification, but is providing employers with "evidence of professional competence in the face of what many states are doing, which is clearly condoning unqualified people teaching classes by the standards which they set."

"We know that about 30 percent of science classes are being taught by people who are either severely underqualified or totally unqualified for the job," said Mr. Aldridge.

According to a recent report by the American Chemical Society's chemistry-education task force, only 25 percent of elementary-school teachers are confident of their ability to teach science. The report found that a somewhat smaller proportion of secondary-school science teachers said they feel inadequately qualified to teach one or more of their courses.

Over the past 12 years, the supply of qualified science teachers has shrunk dramatically, owing largely to a 67-percent reduction in the number of new candidates graduating from colleges and universities. In part, Mr. Aldridge said, this is because physical-science and mathematics teachers earn about half of what they could earn in a related technical or scientific occupation outside of teaching.

In addition, the average age of science teachers is 44, according to Mr. Aldridge, and many of those teaching today will have retired by the time the high-school population begins to swell again in 1993.

New high-school graduation requirements in science will only make things worse, he added. "Declining student enrollment produces a decrease in the need for teachers in general," he explained. "That decrease produces a surplus of certain types of teachers at the same time that increasing requirements for science classes are producing a shortage of science teachers.

"As a consequence, we're seeing a massive movement of unqualified people, who would otherwise be 'surplus,' into science classes. And that in turn is affecting, has affected, and will affect the quality of science education."

Provide Leverage

Mr. Aldridge said he hopes to use the proposed certificates to provide leverage to improve science education and to persuade the U.S. Congress and the states to provide more money for preservice and inservice training for science teachers.

The certification program will enable the nsta to identify schools, school districts, cities, and states with the largest proportion of nsta-certified science teachers, and to gather information on the success of students in those localities, he said.

The Application Process

The nsta is in the process of working with other national science organizations to determine what the precise standards for the certificates will be, how to translate those into measurable terms, and how the application and approval process3would work. A meeting supported by the Exxon Education Foundation was held last month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the nsta's proposal with other science groups.

At present, the nsta is proposing that teachers voluntarily apply as candidates for the certification program, at a cost of $15 to $20. They would then be informed of the certification requirements and what they would have to do to meet them. New teachers would have to teach for three years before they were actually eligible for a certificate. Teachers with prior experience could proceed from candidacy to certification at a faster rate.

Final applications for certification would be reviewed by 100 to 150 local certification committees, at a cost to the candidate of $50 to $100.

Teachers who fail to receive a professional certificate the first time that they apply would be told how to correct their weaknesses and could apply again.

National Response

Thus far, national science organizations have declined to comment on the merits of the nsta's plan. In general, representatives of the organizations said it is too early to tell whether the plan will work. However, a number of groups are continuing to meet with the association on the proposal.

Garfield W. Wilson, director of teacher education, certification, and staff development for the Florida Department of Education, said that "if there's a way for a national organization to provide recognition of teachers, I think it's a good thing to do." But he also expressed the view that the professional certificates could not substitute for state standards.

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