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No Child Left Behind: An Update for Physicists

Stan Jones

A short while ago, I wrote an article in this newsletter expressing my concern about the potential impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. My concern ran along two lines: (1) where will high schools find “highly qualified” physics teachers? and (2) how will teachers become “highly qualified teachers (HQT)” in more than one area, in order to work fulltime in schools that only offer one or two physics classes? My innate pessimism seems to have been misplaced. New, more flexible, policy guidelines from the US Department of Education make for a substantially more reasonable approach to filling our high school science classes with truly qualified teachers. But there may be loopholes.

Consider the following quote taken from the NCLB website:

No Child Left Behind requires states to fill the nation's classrooms with teachers who are knowledgeable and experienced in math and science by 2005. The president supports paying math and science teachers more to help attract experience and excellence.

I hate to sound optimistic, but this policy (it is not new, just overlooked) does seem promising. There is unquestionably a shortage of qualified teachers of physics in our high schools. To attract more physics teachers, higher salaries are clearly needed. This market-driven solution has already been applied in colleges and private sector compensation practices. NCLB may be the motivating factor for improving the salaries of high school science teachers on a large scale.

On another issue:

Under this new policy, teachers in eligible, rural districts who are highly qualified in at least one subject will have three years to become highly qualified in the additional subjects they teach. They must also be provided professional development, intense supervision or structured mentoring to become highly qualified in those additional subjects.

The problems of rural schools, whose physics teachers must often also teach math, chemistry, or another academic discipline, seem also to have been addressed by the new, more flexible policies adopted by the federal government. Realistic procedures for attaining highly qualified status in multiple subjects, short of earning a degree in each subject, are now in place. The states must take advantage of this new policy.

But here is a possible loophole:

Now, states may determine--based on their current certification requirements--to allow science teachers to demonstrate that they are highly qualified either in "broad field" science or individual fields of science (such as physics, biology or chemistry).

What does “broad field” mean? My state (Alabama) has a certification for “Comprehensive Science” that requires only 12 hours of physics. If this policy is allowed to continue under NCLB, then we will have made no progress at all. Currently, most science education majors in Alabama earn this certification, and are poorly prepared to teach physics.

For those teachers seeking separate certification as HQT in different subjects, the new policy below is helpful:

Under the new guidelines, states may streamline this evaluation process by developing a method for current, multi-subject teachers to demonstrate through one process [rather than separate procedures for each topic] that they are highly qualified in each of their subjects and maintain the same high standards in subject matter mastery.

Is there room for pessimism? Of course. This is education, after all. The main source of concern is the budget. School districts need to find resources in order to pay the higher salaries demanded by the market. The US government, through NSF and the Department of Education, is providing substantial grant money through its Partnership program; this will help to develop new teaching excellence. It will not, however, provide salaries. The nation’s citizens must recognize the need for science education, and come to the table with more tax dollars.

I have done, via Google, a nonscientific survey of salary policies around the Internet, and have yet to find a school district offering differential salaries depending on subject. I would be very interested to know whether there are schools offering higher salaries in order to recruit physics teachers.

I am aware of school districts that offer “bounties” to science teachers. One-time signing bonuses of $6000 are offered to science teachers by the Mobile, AL school district, as an example. Other districts are doing the same, and placing pressure on those schools that cannot compete.

Interestingly, the new demands on teacher preparation, and the expectation that higher salaries will be needed, may lead to the much-needed professionalization of the K-12 teaching corps. Looking back at articles written by Ken Heller and by myself in the Spring and Summer 2001 issues of the FEd Newsletter, I note that competitive salaries, and a greater command of academic subjects, are two of the criteria set forth for establishing teaching as a true profession. Teachers who are expected to be knowledgeable in their subject, and who are treated accordingly, will enjoy a higher status in our society. If we want to attract our top students into the teaching field, this is the direction we must move.

What do we, as physicists, need to do now that the NCLB policies have been more clearly defined? We cannot expect things to change automatically. It takes a long time for perceptions to change, and most physics students today have a negative perception of the teaching field. We need to recruit students into the teaching profession, and we should provide appropriate undergraduate curricula to prepare them. Many colleges have a separate track for the physics major leading to high school teaching certification. More of these are needed, and we need to advertise them in order to recruit good students.

We also need to lobby our school boards to take advantage of the new policies. Establishing clear and realistic procedures for teachers to attain highly qualified status in multiple disciplines is a responsibility for the state boards of education. We should be involved in the process of developing these procedures. Establishing competitive salaries is typically a local school board responsibility. We need to do what we can to make this happen.

Stan Jones is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alabama.