Summer 2003


Physics and the No Child Left Behind Act

Stan Jones

The new No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in January of 2002, is causing a lot of activity on my campus…and also a good deal of confusion. NCLB, as it is known, requires states to revise their certification and accountability standards, in order to retain Title I funding.  The Alabama State Board of Education, whose normal condition seems to be one of confusion, has come out with at least two conflicting policy statements that I am aware of, and there will be more.  A perusal of several other state education websites indicates that a similar beehive of activity and confusion exists throughout the country.

Among other things, NCLB requires that a teacher be “Highly Qualified” in the subject he/she teaches. Highly Qualified means the teacher has the equivalent of an undergraduate major in that subject. Schools with teachers not Highly Qualified will lose Title I funding. This requirement will take effect June, 2005, for newly hired teachers. Current teachers have other ways of becoming an “HQT” (Highly Qualified Teacher).  Only HQT’s will be certified to teach after 2005.

This policy sounds like a dream come true for supporters of education, and science education in particular. We are all painfully aware that in many high schools, physics is taught by the biology teacher, or perhaps a math teacher, or even the coach. These teachers have had only minimal college physics or perhaps none at all.

Analyzing the situation a little more deeply, however, one can view NCLB as a zero-infinity conundrum for physics educators. It will require physics teachers to have physics degrees, but will any graduates be available to hire after 2005? Are students now majoring in physics education in such numbers that NCLB will just be a minor correction? Or will we find that there is no one at all left to teach physics?

The problem is one of numbers… small numbers. The first small number is the number of physics majors. It has been steadily dropping over the past decade, and the vast majority of these majors go into a physics related job or graduate school, but not secondary education. In my school, we graduate someone in physics education about every 5-10 years. Much more common is the “comprehensive science” education degree, which requires a focus in one science (usually biology) and 3-4 courses in the other core sciences (chemistry and physics). While this is not the ideal preparation for a physics teacher, it is better than nothing, and NCLB appears to eliminate such an approach.

The other small number is the number of students in high school physics. While this number is growing, there are still many schools that only offer one or two physics classes per year. Such a school cannot afford to hire someone to teach only physics, and has, instead, employed teachers certified in more than one field – especially comprehensive science. This may not be allowed under NCLB. The alternative, which is already practiced in some districts, is to have a traveling physics teacher who drives to as many as four schools a day. This partial solution has some obvious drawbacks, including the difficulty of retaining a teacher saddled with this situation. It is clearly logical to hire a teacher certified in physics and another field. But will NCLB allow this?

There are already some positive outcomes from NCLB. It has, for instance, pointed the spotlight on the pitiful state of secondary physics education. We are now exploring at my school how we can develop dual certification programs in related subjects like chemistry/physics or math/physics. These programs would be a big improvement over the current comprehensive science certification. However, the uncertainty in how NCLB will ultimately be applied to such dual certifications makes it very difficult to know how to design such programs.

There is unquestionably a need for more and better-qualified high school physics teachers. Those that graduate today get hired in a flash. There is also a need for more physics majors in general, and we might look at NCLB as a means for increasing the size of our graduating classes. But will NCLB result in more physics graduates? By itself, there is no reason to believe so. NCLB offers no incentives, only directives. Without incentives such as competitive salaries and professional working conditions, there is no reason to believe that the number of qualified high school physics teachers will increase under NCLB.

More information about NCLB can be found at the US Department of Education’s NCLB website,  I have yet to find any discussion of dual certifications on this website, however.  Among the states whose websites I have examined, California ( seems to have developed the most clear-cut set of guidelines.  They have worried about the problem of dual certifications, but I do not see any evidence that they have resolved this issue.  A search for “No Child Left Behind” on the Internet will find websites from most states (I believe these websites may be required under the law).  One thing NCLB has accomplished is more public awareness of certification policies and other state board policies.

Presumably, most physics departments in universities with education programs have to deal with NCLB. This is a serious situation that all physicists should be concerned about. Your opinion on the views expressed here is invited.  If you are involved in your college’s planning for compliance with NCLB, please write the editor to let us know what you are doing, so this may be shared with our colleagues.

Stan Jones is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alabama.  He is co-editor of the FEd Newsletter.