Education Commentary

‘Startling’ Data Upset Certification Program For Science Teachers

By Robert Rothman — September 24, 1986 5 min read

Reacting to what he called “startling” new survey findings, the head of the country’s largest organization of science educators has indicated he is rethinking the emphasis of his organization’s recently initiated program for certifying secondary-school science teachers.

“We were wrong,” said Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We should be preparing high-school science teachers, not specialists.”

Most high-school science teachers teach several science subjects, rather than a single discipline, according to an N.S.T.A. survey that Mr. Aldridge described as the most extensive look at high-school science classes ever undertaken. The survey also found that, contrary to the association’s previous claims, few science classes are taught by nonscience teachers.

In addition, it found, a large number of schools offer few science classes, and many offer none at all.

The findings indicate that rather than issue certificates that require greater training in specific disciplines, as the N.S.T.A. has advocated, science-education organizations should work toward broadening the training of science teachers, Mr. Aldridge concluded.

‘The market requires teachers with at least three fields of specialization,” he said. ''We must create new types of certification for teachers with multiple assignments.”

''1 think it is possible” to move toward a broader certification that could accommodate several disciplines, he continued. ''We will try to look for patterns that make some sense.”

He rejected the idea that teachers should be certified in all the subjects they expect to teach. “You can’t possibly get an undergraduate degree and have 50 hours in two subjects,” he noted.

The N.S.T.A. this fall began issuing its own certification credentials in response to concern that current state-certification systems have allowed the hiring of unqualified science teachers For high-school teachers, the N.S.T.A. credential requires, in part, 50 hours of undergraduate work in a particular science discipline.

Mr. Aldridge has said that 70 percent of current high-school teachers could not meet that requirement.

But the new finding!; indicate that “there won’t be very many people for whom that [requirement] is appropriate,” he conceded.

However, he added, the fact that relatively few nonscience teachers are teaching science classes suggests that it might be easier than he had expected to raise the qualifications!; of those entering the field.

N.S.F. Funded Analysis

His organization has been collecting data for years, Mr. Aldridge I pointed out, but had not analyzed it until this year, when the group received a $60,000 grant for that purpose from the National Science Foundation.

Some of the data will be published in an N.S.T.A. journal and in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s forum on school science this fall, he said. The organization will make the complete data available early next year.

The survey was based on a random sampling of 2.211 high schools and 8,539 science teachers.

The N.S.T.A. estimates that, in the 1985-86 school year, a total of 24,256 high schools in the country employed 94,480 instructors to teach science classes and offered 424,518 science sections.

A plurality of the teachers surveyed- 30.5 percent-taught biology, while 14.5 percent taught chemistry, 7.6 percent physics, and I 6 percent earth and space sciences, the survey found.

In addition, the data showed, 7.8 percent of science teachers also taught mathematics, and 5.3 percent taught other courses outside science.

A closer look at the data revealed how teachers are assigned. The N.S.T.A. researchers, extrapolating from the figures from the sampling, estimated that of 19,028 physics teachers nationwide, about 12,000 taught only one section of physics, while another 3,600 taught two sections. Since teachers average 4.5 sections a day, the conclusion was that these teachers must have taught other courses as well, Mr. Aldridge noted.

Thus, he said, “it doesn’t make any sense at all to require a baccalaureate in physics for a high-school I physics teacher.”

“Principals are seeing them as science teachers, assigning them to any science that’s available,” he said.

Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, agreed that “this is not an ideal situation,” but added that science class assignments depend on the number of students who elect to take the courses.

“If the number of class sections you have doesn’t match the number of teachers, and they never do exactly, then you look for someone who can fill in,” he said.

Usually, Mr. Thomson added, principals look for someone with an undergraduate minor in the field needing to be covered.

Mr. Aldridge conceded that it was unlikely that principals’ practices in assigning science teachers would change quickly.

“We are not going to convince school systems to eliminate small schools and merge into larger schools in order to have specialists,” he said.

Reforms Seen Lacking

The survey also discovered that despite a strong emphasis by many school reformers on strengthening science requirements for high-school graduation, many high schools offer few science classes.

Extrapolating from the survey, the N.S.T.A. concluded that:

  • More than 7,000 high schools- 29.3 percent-offer no physics classes, while 91.3 percent offer three sections or fewer.

  • More than 4,000-17.1 percent offer no chemistry, and 77.6 percent offer three sections or fewer.
  • Almost 1,900--7.6 percent-offer no biology, and 43.5 percent offer three sections or fewer.
  • Moreover, the survey found, smaller non public schools tended to offer more science classes than public schools of comparable size.

    “In spite of all the reforms, it doesn’t look like a huge number of students” are taking science classes, Mr. Aldridge said.

    He suggested that many schools may apply the new graduation requirements only to college-bound students, and that dropout rates may account for some of the results.

    Other findings of the survey conformed to common expectations. For example, it found, about two thirds of high-school science teachers are male, and a higher percentage of physical-science teachers are male.

    In addition, the survey looked at computer use, and it found that 26.9 percent of science teachers use computers in their classes. The proportions were higher, as expected, in the physical sciences: 41. 7 percent of physics teachers and 34.3 percent of chemistry teachers reported using computers for instruction. Of biology teachers, 22.6 percent used them.

    The survey also found that computer use is more prevalent in public schools than in nonpublic schools

    A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as ‘Startling’ Data Upset Certification Program For Science Teachers