Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:
California

2011 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Goal

The state should ensure that science teachers know all the subject matter they are licensed to teach.

Does not meet
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: California results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/CA-Secondary-Teacher-Preparation-in-Science-6

Analysis of California's policies

Secondary teachers in California are generally licensed under the Single Subject Teaching Credential, which is valid in grades K-12. Although it appears that California does not offer a general science license, except for foundational-level subject areas, the state allows candidates to verify subject matter competence in one of two ways: either by passing a content test or by completing a commission-approved subject matter program. 

Middle school science teachers also primarily rely on the Single Subject Teaching Credential; however, those who hold a Multiple Subject Teacher Credential may teach in self-contained classrooms. They may also teach in any 5-8 classroom provided they teach two or more subjects for two or more periods per day to the same group of students. 

Citation

Recommendations for California

Require secondary science teachers to pass tests of content knowledge for each science discipline they intend to teach.
Although coursework plays a key role in teachers' acquisition of content knowledge, program completion should not replace the requirement of an assessment, which is the only way to ensure that teachers possess adequate knowledge of the subject area. While a major is generally indicative of a background in a particular subject area, only a subject-matter test ensures that candidates know the specific content they will need to teach.

Require middle school science teachers to also pass a test of content knowledge that ensures sufficient knowledge of science.

State response to our analysis

California disagreed with NCTQ's recommendation that although coursework plays a key role in teachers' acquisition of content knowledge, program completion should not replace the requirement of an assessment, stating: "Obviously a degree (or 32 semester units) in the subject is a much better indicator of content knowledge than simply taking a test, even one as rigorous as California's CSET exams."

The state further asserted that the scope of content knowledge assessed by the CSET examination for purposes of establishing subject-matter competency for its
 foundational-level science certificate includes all of the science areas (biology, chemistry, geosciences and physics) at the general science level and would be appropriate for middle school science classes. 

Last word

The science-specific CSET assessment is appropriate for middle school teachers; however, candidates pursuing the Single Subject Teaching Credential are not required to pass it. 

How we graded

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.  There are strategies that districts and states can pursue to improve the pipeline of science teachers—strategies such as UTEACH that use technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields.  

Middle school science teachers must know middle grade-level science.  

Many states require that middle school teachers pass a multiple-subject general knowledge test.  Teacher candidates need only achieve an overall passing score, meaning that  it could be possible to answer most—perhaps all, given the low cut scores in some states—science questions incorrectly and still pass.  Such tests are problematic at the elementary level, as they may mask serious weaknesses in teachers' content knowledge.  But at the middle school level the tests are even more flawed, since teachers may not even be generalists.  Science may be the only subject a middle school teacher teaches, and yet her license offers no assurance that she knows the material she is teaching.  

Research rationale

For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see Goldhaber, D., & Brewer, D. (2000). Does teacher certification matter? High school certification status and student achievement, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 22, 129-145; Monk, D. (1994). Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement, Economics of Education Review, 12(2):125-145; Rothman, A., (1969). Teacher characteristics and student learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 6(4), 340-348.  

See also, NCTQ "The All-Purpose Science Teacher: An Analysis of Loopholes in State Requirements for High School Science Teachers."(2010). 

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, vol. XLII no.4 (2007).  See also Harris, D., and Sass, T., "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality and Student Achievement". Teacher Quality Research (2007). Evidence can also be found in White, Presely, DeAngelis "Leveling up: Narrowing the teacher academic capital gap in Illinois," Illinois Education Research Council (2008); 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 (1998).