Recruitment & Retention

N.J. Program Fast-Tracks New Physics Teachers

By Liana Loewus — July 27, 2016 7 min read
Teacher Jessica Howell prepares to launch a rocket during the "Stomp Rocket Discovery Lab" training earlier this month at Gateway Regional High School in Woodbury, N.J.
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With a growing number of students showing interest in the subject, physics is having a moment—and yet many public high schools still don’t even offer the course, often because they lack teachers to lead it.

A New Jersey program, created by a former state teacher of the year in partnership with the local teachers’ union, is working to curb the teacher shortage by training educators of other subjects—including language arts and English-as-a-second-language—to teach physics. The professional development program run by the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning is now producing more physics teachers annually than any preservice program in the country.

And with many female, black, and Hispanic teachers enrolling to make the switch to physics, the program is also bringing diversity to a field that’s generally been dominated by white or Asian men.

“It’s no secret it’s difficult to find math and science teachers in high-need districts,” said Janel Williams, the senior lead educator for math and science for the Camden City school district, which has a dozen teachers in the center’s trainings this summer. “We’ll now have our positions filled. ... This is the answer to the urban problem to fill those high-need subjects.”

However, the idea that someone can start teaching high school physics with just a summer’s worth of training is controversial. Some experts say physics teachers need an undergraduate major or minor in the subject, at the very least.

There are “a lot of naysayers out there,” said Kristin Kearns Jordan, the executive director of the Tortora-Sillcox Family Foundation, which is helping pay for Camden teachers to attend the CTL training. “But the tradeoff is scale,” she said. Without this program, in many physics classrooms, “you wouldn’t have teachers.”

Nearby Trenton public schools, for instance, had just one high school physics teacher before getting involved with the center two years ago. Now, it has 21.

High Demand for Teachers

“The demand is very, very high for physics teachers at the high school level,” said Rebecca Vieyra, the K-12 program manager for the American Association of Physics Teachers.

About 40 percent of all public schools teaching 9th through 12th graders—and 31 percent of those in New Jersey—did not have a physics class in 2013-14, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

The CTL certification program was created seven years ago by Robert Goodman, a former physics teacher and the 2006 New Jersey teacher of the year. Through the program, which is funded by the New Jersey Education Association, participating districts, and some small outside grants, teachers essentially spend four weeks over the summer taking the physics class they will be teaching. They’re given a full curriculum, complete with Smartboard slides for every lesson, and ongoing professional development and coaching throughout the school year.

Teachers Jessica Howell (left), Courtney Gray, and Alex Henderson (right) work on physics problems during training at Gateway Regional High School.

Since the program’s inception, about 200 teachers have received their certification. The center trains chemistry teachers as well, though only about 40 educators have gone through that program so far.

Across the country, higher-education institutions graduate a total of only about 270 students from physics teacher education programs per year, according to a 2012 report from the American Physical Society.

At the same time, there’s good evidence the demand for physics classes is growing: Between 2014 and 2015, for example, the number of students taking the Advanced Placement physics exam doubled, according to the College Board, which administers the test.

Quick-Moving Training

In early July, a half-dozen teachers sat in a classroom at Gateway Regional High School here, learning about uniform circular motion, or the motion of an object traveling at constant speed in a circular path.

Alex Henderson, a biology teacher in the Black Horse Pike Regional school district in south New Jersey, whose school has asked him to teach physics this fall, kicked off a lesson for his classmates by swinging a bucket of water above his head in a windmill motion, like a softball pitcher. The water, of course, stayed in the bucket.

The lesson quickly moved from direct instruction, using the Smartboard slides provided by CTL, into problem-solving, which the teachers did in groups. Eventually the teachers conducted a lab on centripetal force, in which they swung various stoppers on strings and worked to determine their masses.

The 6½ hour CTL training days are packed—the teachers go through a unit every two days. In their own classrooms, a unit will take about a month to teach.

The pace of the training is clearly challenging for some teachers, especially those whose expertise lies outside the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, subjects. Rosa Sarita, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Camden, said she hadn’t done similar science since she was in college a decade ago. “The math and science teachers ... they’re a step ahead of me,” she said. “I’m working more than the others.”

Courtney Gray, a 6th grade teacher who will be teaching physics in Camden next year, agreed that the summer sessions go through the content quickly. “It’s a lot to take in, especially not having a background in it, but the [CTL] instructor is patient with us,” she said. “Having stronger math people in the room—we help each other. The program provides everything for us.”

The physics the CTL teachers are learning differs in one major way from the physics being taught in most U.S. classrooms: It doesn’t require any math higher than algebra.

The program promotes a physics-first method of teaching—meaning that students learn physics as 9th graders, then move on to chemistry and then biology. Most high schools use the biology-chemistry-physics sequence, meaning physics is paired with more difficult math, and fewer students end up taking it.

Tough Questions

Not everyone agrees that a crash course in physics is enough to get teachers ready for the kinds of tough questions students will ask during class.

To reach an “acceptable” minimum level of preparation, a new physics teacher needs an undergraduate major or minor in the subject, according to a policy statement from the AAPT, the physics teachers’ association.

Calculations done by one of the teachers training on physics problems.

“A deep part of me wants to say that physics teachers should have some sense of what academic research looks like, what physics in industry looks like,” said Vieyra of the AAPT. “If we’re preparing students for college, teachers should understand what college-level physics looks like.”

In addition, teachers need to be able to draw links between physics and the other science subjects, she said. That’s particularly true for teachers in states like New Jersey that are using the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize “crosscutting concepts” that hold true across the disciplines.

“Physics is not linear, it’s not something you learn and teach chapter by chapter,” said Vieyra. “And the NGSS are very interconnected, so you have to have not only a holistic understanding in physics but in science broadly.”

However, there’s some evidence that the CTL training may be adequately preparing teachers. A recent study, conducted for CTL by the outside research firm Hanover Research, found that CTL teachers are as likely to pass the Praxis certification exam for physics as non-CTL teachers (though they’re somewhat less likely to pass it on the first try).

And some experts argue that having pedagogical skill, including the ability to motivate and engage students, is more important than having a background in the content. “When you’re working with people who really know the content, as an administrator, it’s a lot more work to get them to improve pedagogically,” said Michael Tofte, the district supervisor for K-12 STEM for the Trenton school system. “But when you take people who have pedagogical skills, you can give them content in any area, and they’ll take students to succeed in any subject.”

‘Teachers Who Can Relate’

Along with changing when and how physics is taught, CTL is also working to change the demographics of who is teaching it.

About half of the teachers who’ve been trained in physics through CTL are women and a third are black or Hispanic. Nationally, about 37 percent of high school physics teachers are women, according to a 2012-13 survey by the American Institute of Physics. And less than 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the subject went to black, Hispanic, and Native American students in 2013, the American Physical Society reports.

There are still huge racial and gender disparities among the students taking the Advanced Placement physics exam in high school as well, the College Board data also show.

Gray, who’ll take over a physics classroom next year in Camden, where the majority of students are black and Hispanic, said improving racial and gender diversity in the field was certainly a consideration when she decided to take the CTL training.

“Working where we work, it’s always good to have teachers who can relate to students,” said Gray, who is African American. “It’s better if they can say, ‘My teacher is not a white male from the suburbs, but my teacher is an African-American woman.’ It lets them know they have options.”

An alternative version of this story appeared as “N.J. Program Fast-Tracks New Physics Teachers” in the August 3, 2016 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 2016 edition of Education Week as N.J. Program Fast-Tracks New Physics Teachers

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