The state should ensure that secondary science teachers know all the subject matter they are licensed to teach.
Secondary science teachers in Alaska have the option of an endorsement in general science. The state does not require content tests for initial licensure; such tests are only mandated once candidates apply for the professional license, usually after three years. At that point, the state requires the Praxis II General Science content test. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas.
Praxis Testing Requirements www.ets.org
Require secondary science teachers to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach.
By allowing a general science certification—and only requiring a general knowledge science exam—Alaska is not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. The state's required assessment combines all subject areas (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and does not report separate scores for each area. Therefore, candidates could answer many—perhaps all—chemistry questions, for example, incorrectly yet still be licensed to teach chemistry to high school students. Further, Alaska should require content tests as a condition of initial licensure.
Alaska asserted that while it doesn't require a Praxis II exam in order to gain initial certification, there are provisions within its systems to ensure that teachers have a minimum competency in the subject areas they teach. For example, in order to complete an approved secondary teacher preparation program in Alaska, candidates are required to pass the Praxis II subject-area exam in the area that will appear on their institutional recommendation. The state included a statement from the University of Alaska that reiterated this requirement.
Alaska added that while a teaching candidate could gain an endorsement on their teaching certificate in general science, they would be required to demonstrate specific subject-area content knowledge when employed to teach in an Alaska school district. All districts must ensure that employed teachers are highly qualified, and highly qualified status is tied directly to the subject being taught by the educator. Depending on a secondary school teacher's subject areas, a new teacher would need to gain highly qualified designation through one of the following options:
Districts must track highly qualified status of their teachers and report to the state each October.
Alaska also noted that in the case of science, there are distinct exams for each distinguishable subject area. A teacher who is teaching biology, chemistry, earth science, physical science or physics must be highly qualified using one of the three methods outlined above. The state reiterated that all teachers must be highly qualified in the subject areas in which they provide instruction, and that a highly qualified designation is not included on the teaching certificate as an endorsement.
Alaska takes a significant risk by relying on federal HQT provisions rather than articulating in its own certification requirements that teachers must demonstrate subject-matter knowledge. The state is putting the burden on districts to ensure that their teachers are HQT instead of making this part of licensure. In addition, while a degree in a subject area is certainly indicative of knowledge of that subject, it offers no assurance that an individual has studied the specific content he or she will be required to teach.
Specialized science teachers are not interchangeable.
Based on their high school science licensure requirements, many states seem to presume that it is all the same to teach anatomy, electrical currents and Newtonian physics. Most states allow teachers to obtain general science or combination licenses across multiple science disciplines, and, in most cases, these teachers need only pass a general knowledge science exam that does not ensure subject-specific content knowledge. This means that a teacher with a background in biology could be fully certified to teach advanced chemistry or physics having passed only a general science test—and perhaps answering most of the chemistry or physics questions incorrectly.
There is no doubt that districts appreciate the flexibility that these broad field licenses offer, especially given the very real shortage of teachers of many science disciplines. But the all-purpose science teacher not only masks but perpetuates the STEM crisis—and does so at the expense of students. States need either to make sure that general science teachers are indeed prepared to teach any of the subjects covered under that license or allow only single subject science certifications. In either case states need to consider strategies to improve the pipeline of science teachers, including the use of technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields.
Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Supporting Research
For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Does Teacher Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification Status and Student Achievement", Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Volume 22, No. 2, June 20, 2000, pp. 129-145; D. Monk, "Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement", Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp.125-145; A. Rothman, "Teacher characteristics and student learning". Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume 6, No. 4, December 1969, pp. 340-348.
In addition, research studies have demonstrated the positive impact of teacher content knowledge on student achievement. For example, see D. Goldhaber, "Everyone's Doing It, But What Does Teacher Testing Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness?" Journal of Human Resources,Volume 42, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 765-794. See also D. Harris and T. Sass, "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement". Calder Institute,March 2007, Working Paper 3. Evidence can also be found in B. White, J. Presely, and K. DeAngelis, "Leveling Up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois", Illinois Education Research Council, Policy Research Report: IERC 2008-1, 44 p.; D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Why Don't Schools and Teachers Seem to Matter? Assessing the Impact of Unobservables on Educational Productivity." Journal of Human Resources, Volume 32, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 505-523.