FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - The Blame Game in Teacher Preparation

Fall 2001



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The Blame Game in Teacher Preparation

Fredrick Stein

It was easy for the statewide gathering of Deans to place the blame for the general lack of preparation of their incoming students in science and mathematics. "It must be the fault of their K-12 teachers. Of course, who else has such a pivotal role in the students' learning?" But, it didn't take long for the assembled academic leaders to realize that the majority of the science and mathematics teachers in their state were educated at their institutions.

If it is true that teachers "teach as they were taught," then to improve physics and physical science learning in K-12, universities must model effective teaching/learning approaches in courses for prospective teachers, which include prospective chemistry, biology, mathematics, and elementary teachers (most of whom will teach science).

Currently, 28 percent of our nation's high school students take at least one course in physics. Although this is a significant improvement over the last decade, many of our high school physics courses are still modeled after university and college courses that are not inquiry-based and do not develop good conceptual understanding. The ongoing and overwhelming need for in-service teacher enhancement programs in physics at the most basic level points to the failure of programs in our colleges and universities to prepare students adequately for teaching.

Two recent national reports have made recommendations that are embodied in the PhysTEC project. The Glenn Commission's report, Before It's Too Late (2000) calls for "strategies to identify exemplary programs of teacher preparation around the country, and find ways to encourage others to multiply their successes." The NRC report, Educating Teachers of Science, Mathematics, and Technology: New Practices for the New Millennium (The National Academy of Sciences, 2000), recommends that, "colleges and universities should reexamine and redesign introductory college-level courses in science to better accommodate the needs of future teachers." They further "envision master teachers in partner school districts [having] adjunct faculty appointments in the partner two- and four-year colleges and universities." The master teachers would "take on a much more significant role in the mentoring of future teachers." The PhysTEC proposal identifies the Teacher-in Residence to fulfill this need.

In response, the American Physical Society (APS), in partnership with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP), identified preservice teacher preparation as a key issue for the physics community and in 1999, they approved a joint statement in which they, "urge the physics community, specifically physical science and engineering departments and their faculty members, to take an active role in improving the preservice training of physics/science teachers."

PhysTEC, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, was proposed as the mechanism to greatly increase the role of physics departments, in collaboration with education departments, to radically improve the science preparation of future teachers. On August 23, 2001, a five-year, $5.76 million grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation to APS, in partnership with AAPT and AIP. On September 13, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) in the U.S. Department of Education awarded a three-year, $498,000 grant to enhance the evaluation, induction, and dissemination components of the PhysTEC program.

These two grants will enable the professional societies to create a nationwide Coalition among college and universities. Beginning with six institutions in 2001, PhysTEC will add a seventh PPI site in 2004 and, with the help of the APS 21ST Century Campaign grow from 7 to 17 sites by 2006. After that, we expect to expand to over a hundred sites across the country. To succeed, however, the individual PPIs' vision for the PhysTEC program must coalesce.

PhysTEC's three goals are:

  • to encourage physics departments, in collaboration with departments of education to dramatically improve the preparation of physics, physical science, and elementary teachers who must teach physical science, and to provide the institutions with the support and technical assistance necessary to undertake the task.
  • to disseminate widely the outcomes, scholarship, and exemplary programs of study through the resources, national conferences, workshops, and publications (including electronic) of the APS, AAPT, AIP.
  • to produce more and better-prepared science teachers who are committed to student-centered, inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning, including the objectives and process skills associated with the expectations of the national reform movements such as the National Science Education Standards (NRC) and the Benchmarks of Project 2061 (AAAS).

The program incorporates exemplary components of past NSF-supported projects that have proven to be successful in making long-term positive changes in teacher preparation. Others include:

  • A Teacher-in-Residence program that provides for a local K-12 science teacher to become a full-time participant in assisting faculty with both team-teaching and course revisions
  • A long-term, active collaboration between the physics department, the education department, and the local school community
  • The redesign of content and pedagogy of targeted physics courses based on results from physics education research as well as utilization of appropriate interactive technologies
  • The redesign of content and pedagogy for elementary and secondary science methods courses with an emphasis on inquiry-based, hands-on, approaches to teaching and learning
  • The establishment of a mentoring program for TIRs and other master teachers designed to meet the needs of an induction experience for novice science teachers. This includes the participation of physics faculty in increasing and improving a wide array of school experiences

Richard Ingersoll (University of Pennsylvania) has obtained data that shows that school staffing difficulties are primarily the result of a "revolving door"-- where large numbers of teachers depart teaching for other reasons, such as job dissatisfaction. In other words, retention is more critical in solving the shortage problem than recruitment. After four years, fully one third of all teachers leave the teaching profession. The PhysTEC response is to extend a mentoring program into the schools for the PhysTEC teachers to reinforce the student-centered, inquiry-based, hands-on approaches to teaching and learning from the moment they enter the classroom.

"PhysTEC begins with an initial set of six primary institutions that share a strong commitment to revise their teacher preparation programs," according to PhysTEC principal investigator Fredrick Stein. "This includes improving the preparation of both elementary and secondary science teachers." The six institutions are:

  • Ball State University
  • Oregon State University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Arkansas
  • Western Michigan University
  • Xavier University of Louisiana

Several obstacles still exist to the success of PhysTEC. Two of the most obvious are enticing faculty members at research universities to turn their creativity toward improving teaching, and persuading physics departments and schools of education to communicate and work together. In both of these, the direct involvement of the key physics professional societies can play a major role in producing positive, lasting changes in the way universities interact with undergraduate students and thus, their prospective teachers.

Fredrick Stein is Director of Education and Outreach for American Physical Society. He has been a professor, dean, foundation director and early Peace Corps volunteer (teaching PSSC in Spanish). His background is in chemical physics; now, science education (particularly teacher preparation) and philosophy of science.