Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:
Rhode Island

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

Analysis of Rhode Island's policies

Rhode Island offers secondary certification in general science. Candidates must earn a total of 30 semester hours, with at least six semester hours each in biology, physics and chemistry. However, they are not required to pass a content test. Although the state has indicated that teachers with certification in general science cannot teach biology, chemistry or physics, its certification requirements place no articulated restrictions or limitations on the usage of this certificate. 

Middle school science teachers in Rhode Island must earn a middle school science endorsement. In addition to either an elementary or secondary certificate, candidates must also have either 21 credits in science (to include coursework in at least three of the following: biology, chemistry, physics, earth/space science, environmental sciences and technology science) and pass the Praxis II "Middle School Science" test, or earn a major in the content area.

Further, current state policy allows a teacher with a K-8 license to teach grades 7 and 8, if they are "organized on the elementary school plan." Rhode Island has indicated, however, that there are no longer any such schools, although the policy does remain on the books.

Citation

Recommendations for Rhode Island

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.
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.

State response to our analysis

Rhode Island asserted that it does not issue a K-8 license. The elementary license is for grades 1-6. 

Rhode Island also contended that state law and regulations do not allow for out-of-area teaching and that each certificate is valid only in the area issued. The state noted that its regulations for general science clearly state that secondary certificates are for special content areas: "In the same way an English teacher can't teach math or a Spanish teacher can't teach French because they are different certificates, a general science teacher can't teach biology. The biology certificate is required to teach biology, physics is required for physics, etc."  

Further, Rhode Island pointed out that a district would be notified that a teacher was out of area if a general science certified teacher was assigned to a biology section, asserting: "It is very clear to our districts and is reflected in emergency requests when a physics teacher can't be found." Additionally, secondary teachers must be highly qualified in core content areas, which means that a biology teacher must be HQT in biology, not general science. The state also requires a content major for each science area. 

Last word

NCTQ is unable to find policy that limits teachers with a general science certificate to teaching only general science courses. Rather than rely on assumed common understandings regarding which courses a teacher with a general science certificate may or may not teach, Rhode Island should articulate specific policy ensuring that all science teachers are required to pass a subject-specific content test for each area they plan 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).