Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:
Nebraska

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

Analysis of Nebraska's policies

Nebraska offers a secondary endorsement in natural science, which is the equivalent of general science found in other states. Candidates must complete 48 semester hours of lab-based coursework in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, earth science and physics), with half focused on one area and the other half distributed among the remaining three. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas. A content test is not required.

Nebraska also offers a secondary endorsement in physical science, requiring candidates to earn 40 semester hours of lab-based courses in the sciences—36 in chemistry, earth science and physics, and four in biology.  Candidates are not required to pass a content test.

Middle school science teachers in Nebraska must complete a content area of specialization in natural sciences, which requires a minimum of 18 semester hours. A content test is not required. Also, although Nebraska's elementary license is typically valid for grades 1-6, teacher candidates may teach grades 7 and 8 if they are in self-contained classrooms.

Citation

Recommendations for Nebraska

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, it should be accompanied by the requirement of an assessment, which is the only way to ensure that teachers possess adequate knowledge of the subject area.

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

State response to our analysis

Nebraska recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. The state added that it does not agree with NCTQ's assertion that Nebraska does not ensure that secondary teachers are sufficiently prepared to teach appropriate grade-level content. NCTQ indicators are focused on testing and the fact that Nebraska does not require tests for licensure. Because the NCTQ standard is to require content tests, rather than focus on whether the preparation program ensures that secondary teachers are sufficiently prepared to teach the content, NCTQ's rating is correct by its standard.  

Last word

As noted in Goal 1-F, Nebraska is putting unjustified faith in the relevance and rigor of coursework. But even if there were a way to ensure that relevance and rigor, Nebraska's composite science endorsements would be problematic. Under the natural sciences endorsement, a teacher completes 24 semester hours in one area, and another 24 hours distributed among the other three areas. A teacher could therefore teach physics, for example, having taken as few as one or two courses.  

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).