Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science and
Social Studies: Alaska

2015 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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

Does not meet

Analysis of Alaska's policies

Secondary science teachers in Alaska have the option of an endorsement in general science. The state does not require content tests for initial licensure; such tests are only mandated once candidates apply for the professional license, usually after three years. At that point, the state requires the Praxis II General Science content test. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas.

At the time of professional licensure, Alaska requires secondary social studies teachers to pass the Praxis II Social Studies content test. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general social studies but rather can teach any of the topical areas.


Recommendations for Alaska

Require secondary teachers with umbrella certifications to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach.
By allowing general social studies and general science certifications—and only requiring general knowledge exams for each—Alaska is not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. The state's required general social studies assessment combines all subject areas (e.g., history, geography, economics), and its required general science assessment combines subject areas that include biology, chemistry and physics. Neither assessment reports separate scores for each area. Therefore, candidates could answer many—perhaps all—chemistry questions, for example, incorrectly, yet still be licensed to teach chemistry to high school students.

State response to our analysis

Alaska recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.

How we graded

Research rationale

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.  States need either to make sure that general science teachers are indeed prepared to teach any of the subjects covered under that license or allow only single subject science certifications.  In either case states need to consider strategies to improve the pipeline of science teachers, including the use of technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields. 

Is a social studies teacher prepared to teach history?
Most states offer a general social studies license at the secondary level. For this certification, teachers can have a background in a wide variety of fields, ranging from history and political science to anthropology or psychology and are usually only required to pass a general social studies test. Under such a license a teacher who majored in psychology could be licensed to teach secondary history having passed only a general knowledge test and answering most—and perhaps all—history questions incorrectly.

Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Supporting Research

For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Does Teacher Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification Status and Student Achievement", Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Volume 22, No. 2, June 20, 2000, pp. 129-145; D. Monk, "Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement", Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp.125-145; A. Rothman, "Teacher characteristics and student learning". Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume 6, No. 4, December 1969, pp. 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,Volume 42, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 765-794.  See also D. Harris and T. Sass, "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement". Calder Institute,March 2007, Working Paper 3. Evidence can also be found in B. White, J. Presely, and K. DeAngelis, "Leveling up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois", Illinois Education Research Council, Policy Research Report: IERC 2008-1, 44 p.; 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, Volume 32, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 505-523.