Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:
North Carolina

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: North Carolina results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/NC-Secondary-Teacher-Preparation-in-Science-6

Analysis of North Carolina's policies

North Carolina offers a secondary teaching licensure area in general science. Coursework requirements are unclear, as the state seems to rely on the HQT requirement of an undergraduate major, while North Carolina's standards articulate that high school teachers must "have depth in one or more specific content areas or disciplines." Regrettably, North Carolina does not require content tests for initial licensure; such tests are only mandated once candidates apply for the standard professional 2 license, usually after three years. At that point, candidates must pass the Praxis II "General Science" test. Interestingly, however, the state does not require a minimum score. Rather, candidates must earn a certain combined score from the "General Science" test and the "Life Science" or "Physical Science" pedagogy tests. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas.

Middle school science teachers in North Carolina have the option of earning a middle grades science certificate. They, too, do not have to pass a content test until the professional 2 license. Then, candidates must pass the Praxis II "Middle School Science" test.

Citation

Recommendations for North Carolina

Require secondary science teachers to pass tests of content knowledge for each science discipline they intend to teach, as a condition of initial licensure.
States that allow general science certifications—and only require a general knowledge science exam—are not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. North Carolina's required general assessment combines subject areas (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and does not report separate scores for each subject area. Therefore, candidates could answer many—perhaps all—chemistry questions, for example, incorrectly, yet still be licensed to teach chemistry to high school students. In addition, combining content test scores with the pedagogy assessments waters down the state's already weak effort to ensure that candidates demonstrate adequate subject-matter knowledge in science.

Require middle school science teachers to pass a test of content knowledge as a condition of initial licensure.

State response to our analysis

North Carolina contended that in order for a teacher candidate to teach a secondary content-specific area, he or she must have earned a major in that area. There are four licensure areas for secondary science that require a major in that particular area (e.g., earth science and chemistry). However, there are some secondary licensure areas in which a major is not required. 

Last word

While coursework, even a major, may be generally indicative of a background in a particular subject area, only a subject-matter test ensures that teachers know the specific content they will need to teach.

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).