Alternative Pathways to High School Physics Teaching

Jean P. Krisch

Each year about 200,000 US teachers are certified for K-12 instruction [1]. Most of the teachers come through traditional, institution based teacher training program but approximately 40,000-60,000 teachers are certified though alternate routes [1,2].  Pathways outside of the traditional bachelors programs offer viable teaching opportunities for highly qualified, mid-career professionals with no teacher training. With the growing concern about the very low number of qualified physics teachers in US high schools, the teachers prepared in alternative certification programs in the US are a potential pool of high quality talent. APS and AAPT are working to address the physics teacher shortage through PhysTEC and PTec [3,4], programs that work within the traditional teacher training structure. While this will increase the number of well trained physics teachers coming through institutional programs, it will probably not meet the national need for quality physics instruction. Alternative certification is another route to physics teaching which should not be overlooked. This article provides a very brief overview of alternative certification as a pathway into secondary classrooms and a discussion of some of the questions about alternative certification as a source of teachers.

Alternative certification programs began in the 1980's as a way to meet teacher shortages [5] and have evolved into a significant source of teachers. The National Center for Alternative Certification lists ten different alternative certification routes. Several of the categories are programs directed at individuals with a bachelor's degree, the pool of interest for potential physics instructors. They provide a search engine where someone interested in becoming a physics teacher can search for training opportunities. For example, selecting D. C. and asking for programs requiring a bachelor's degree brought up the DC Teaching Fellows, a highly selective program aimed at professionals with no teaching background. Going though the web site list, state by state, one finds that many of the listed programs require institutional course work with the state-by -state variation reflecting the primary state control of the teacher certification process. Teacher certification is state regulated and there is a large variation in certification rules.  There are national accreditation organizations that are used by some states, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) but there are no national accreditation standards.

The last listing on the Alternative Certification classification includes programs like Teach for America and Troops for Teachers, both possible sources for physics teachers. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education is also a source of information for program shoppers with the time and financial support to return to school. On-line programs may be of particular interest to prospective teachers who must remain employed while re-training. A web search brings up programs like that at Western Governors University. This is an NCATE accredited on-line program to prepare physics teachers. It is advertised as a program that "prepares you to teach how the world moves."  There are many other on-line programs available. *

Alternative Certification implies that licensure is necessary to teach but an alternative pathway into the classroom is to teach at a private school where certification is not necessarily required. The National Association of Independent Schools has an on-line career center for private school job searches and the AAPT Career Center has a physics specific job center.

Alternative routes to the physics classroom are important for individuals who cannot access traditional programs. They are of interest to groups, like APS and AAPT, working to increase the number of US physics teachers because they are a diverse pool of high quality talent.  Statistics gathered by the National Center for Educational Information indicate that individuals being certified though participation in alternative programs are often found teaching in high demand areas like math and science [5,6 ]. The average alternative program participant is more likely to be older, male and more ethnically diverse than a typical teacher certified through a traditional program [5,6] Both the National Education Association [5] and the American Federation of Teachers [7] have endorsed alternative programs, recognizing them as a way of increasing the diversity of the nation's teachers. 

One concern about alternative training is the quality of teachers produced by non-traditional routes into the classroom.  A recent National Research Council report [2] finds that current research indicates no correlation between the route into teaching and classroom teaching effectiveness. This is not necessarily an equivalence statement. The report points out that current research comparisons may not "capture important differences in teacher preparation" [2], and calls for more comparative studies using factors like content preparation, field experiences, classroom management training, timing of various training components and training links with other university departments. The last factor is of strong interest to physics departments, especially those operating alternative programs like that at SUNY-Buffalo State College [8].

In the past year, two reports about teacher preparation have emphasized problems with US teacher training. The report from the National Research Council, Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy [2], points out the lack of data on the outcomes of different teacher training programs. Closer to home, the Task Force on Teacher Education [9] reports that the preparation of US physics teachers is "largely inefficient, mostly incoherent, and massively unprepared to deal with the current and future needs of the nation's students", the incoherence echoing the NRC report on program variations. Individual physicists, with APS help, can work to improve local physics teacher training within the institutional molds [3]. APS might also influence alternative training by informative outreach at national meetings [10]. While the main interest of physicists is the training of high school physics teachers, in a 2006 policy statement APS has emphasized that "high-quality education is essential for the progress of science and for the public understanding of its importance." Continual advocacy for improved science education, both locally and globally, is crucial [11]. Keeping in contact with the broader developments in general teacher preparation, both traditional and alternative, is also important. Training good teachers of physics and informing teacher training groups about the importance of physics are both necessary to improve physics education in the US.


* Programs are cited as examples of available programs. The author does not endorse or recommend any specific teacher training program.
  1. NRC Press Release summarizing the NRC report on teacher preparation.
  2.  Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy, Committee on the Study of Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States, National Academies Press (Washington D. C.) 2010.  
  3. Theodore Hodapp, Jack Hehn and Warren Hein, Physics Today 62, Issue 2, 40 (2009). Preparing high-school physics teachers.
  5. Research Spotlight on Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification, National Education Association.
  6. C. Emily Feistritzer, Edge 5, 5(2009). "Teaching While Learning: Alternative Routes Fill the Gap."
  7. American Federation of Teachers, AFT Resolutions on Alternate Routes to Teacher Certification.
  8. Dan MacIsaac, Joe Zawicki, Kathleen Falconer, David Henry and Dewayne Beery, Newsletter: Forum on Education, Spring 2006. A New Model Alternative Certification Program for HS Physics Teachers.
  9. A synopsis of the task force report is available at
  10. Presentations at the 2010 D.C. meeting of the National Center for Alternative Certification.
  11. Judy Franz, APS News, 19 (No. 7), 2010. Improving K-12 science education.

Jean P. Krisch is Professor of Physics and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.