Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:
Tennessee

2011 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Goal

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

Meets in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Tennessee results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/TN-Secondary-Teacher-Preparation-in-Science-6

Analysis of Tennessee's policies

Tennessee does not offer certification in general science for secondary teachers. Teachers must be certified in a specific discipline within the subject area of science.  

Middle school science teachers in Tennessee must earn a middle grades certification. The state articulates a major requirement, which includes an interdisciplinary major that includes study in English, mathematics, science and social studies; an interdisciplinary major in two disciplines from the arts and sciences; or a major in a single discipline from the arts and sciences with an area of emphasis in at least one additional discipline outside the major. Candidates are only required to pass the Praxis II "Middle School" content test, which combines all four subject areas.

Citation

Recommendations for Tennessee

Require middle school science teachers to pass a test of content knowledge that ensures sufficient knowledge of science.
A general subject-matter test that combines literature/language arts, mathematics, history/social studies and science—without reporting separate scores for each subject area—does not ensure that middle school science teachers possess adequate knowledge of science, as it may be possible to answer many—perhaps all—science questions incorrectly and still pass the test.

State response to our analysis

Tennessee asserted that subject-specific licensure for secondary science teachers is offered in biology (7-12), chemistry (7-12), physics (7-12), and earth science (7-12). Preparation programs include a set of Science Core Standards, which focuses primarily on middle grades content. The state added that for licensure, the subject-specific Praxis II test must be passed. Additionally, teacher candidates must also pass their respective secondary Praxis II specialty test as well. 

Last word

This analysis acknowledges Tennessee's policy regarding secondary science teachers, and the state has received credit for the fact that secondary science teachers are required to pass a content test in each subject area they plan to teach. Middle school teachers also may teach under these 7-12 licenses.

However, it is Tennessee's policy pertaining to middle grades (4-8) science teachers that is problematic. 
These teachers are only required to pass the Praxis II "Middle School" content test, which does not report an individual subscore for science. Therefore, the state cannot guarantee that these teachers possess adequate subject-matter knowledge for the classroom. 

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).