Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science and
Social Studies: Utah

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.

Meets a small part

Analysis of Utah's policies

Although Utah requires that its secondary teacher candidates pass a Praxis II content test to teach any core secondary subjects, the state permits a significant loophole to this important policy by allowing both physical science and general social studies licenses, without requiring subject-matter testing for each subject area within these disciplines.

Utah does not offer a general science certification for secondary science teachers. However, the state does offer a physical science endorsement. Candidates are required to pass either the Chemistry or Physics Praxis II content test.

In Utah, general social studies is called composite social studies. Candidates are required 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. Further, although Utah offers subject-specific endorsements in social studies, such as economics, geography and history, the state requires candidates to pass either the subject-specific Praxis II content test or the general assessment mentioned above.


Recommendations for Utah

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 physical science certifications—and only requiring general knowledge exams for each—Utah 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). The state's assessment options for physical science cover either chemistry or physics. Neither test adequately measures subject-matter competence in the area of physical science.

State response to our analysis

Utah recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. The state added that the physical science endorsement referenced in the analysis does qualify a teacher to provide instruction in basic chemistry and physics courses as described in the report. However, teachers with this endorsement may not provide instruction in either the advanced placement or concurrent enrollment versions of either chemistry or physics. The state added that this flexibility is intended to aid scheduling in rural areas as well as help to create smaller class sizes in introductory chemistry and physics courses. 

Utah also noted that its licensure requirements for science teachers are intended to balance high standards for teachers and flexibility for districts, particularly rural districts, in meeting the hiring needs in an area that is consistently one of the most critical teacher-shortage areas in the state.  As in all areas, quality evaluation and employment decisions of the building principal, in addition to state licensure requirements, are vitally important to ensuring that every student has a highly effective teacher.

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.