Study: Physics-Teacher Prep System ‘Mostly Incoherent’

By Erik W. Robelen — February 16, 2010 2 min read
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A national task force today unveiled a strongly worded report about what it sees as the sorry state (in general) of teacher education in physics and how to improve the situation.

“Except for a handful of isolated pockets of excellence, the national system of preparing physics teachers is largely inefficient, mostly incoherent, and massively unprepared to deal with the current and future needs of the nation’s students,” the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics says in a report synopsis.

The task force notes that of the 23,000 teachers of high school physics in the United States, only about one-third have a major in physics or physics education.

“In many states, weak standards for certification or endorsement to teach physics hide the fact that many teachers of physics lack the content knowledge and focused pedagogical preparation necessary to provide an excellent physics education for all students,” the task force says.

The report involved a lot of legwork, from examining existing research and publicly available data to surveying “all 758 physics departments in the nation” and conducting site visits to some higher education institutions. The task force was formed by the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics, and received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Among the specific findings from the task force:
• Few physics departments and schools of education are actively engaged in the recruitment and professional preparation of physics teachers;
• Few institutions demonstrate strong collaboration between physics departments and schools of education;
• Programs do little to develop the physics-specific pedagogical expertise of teachers; and
• Few institutions offer a coherent program of professional development for in-service teachers, even though most teachers of physics are not adequately prepared to teach physics.

The task force also has a set of recommendations. Highlights include:
• Physics departments and colleges of education should recognize that they have individual and joint responsibility for the professional preparation of the physics teachers at their institutions and should act accordingly;
• The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education should develop a coherent vision for discipline-specific teacher professional preparation and development; and
• States should remove general-science teacher certification and replace it with endorsements in individual subject areas.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.