Creating new and productive ways to support science teachers depends on understanding not only current instructional practice but also the current science teaching workforce—specifically, its capacity to meet new curricular and instructional demands in science education. Just as Chapter 3 describes both the current state of science instruction and the gap between that state and the new vision embodied in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework) and the Next Generation Science Standards (hereafter referred to as NGSS), this chapter reviews the composition and qualifications of the current science teacher workforce. Chapter 5 then describes what learning needs that workforce will have given the new vision. Because this study focuses on teachers’ learning over a continuum, this chapter looks at preparation pathways; patterns of retention, attrition, and career advancement; professional development opportunities; and the changing student population.
It is surprisingly difficult to obtain basic information about who teaches science to the nation’s children. Although states regularly collect information on teacher certification and employment, infrastructure and tools for readily synthesizing or comparing this information across states are lacking (Feuer et al., 2013; National Research Council, 2010). Some
general information is available about science teachers’ demographic characteristics, education, certification, and experience, especially for grades 7-12. The discussion below draws on three complementary analyses commissioned by the committee to examine existing databases and describe science teachers, their preparation to teach, and their retention in their initial teaching placements. One of these analyses examined the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007-2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), a census of teachers in that school year (Bird, 2013); the other two examined administrative databases in Florida (Sass, 2013) and New York (Miller, 2013). The discussion here also draws on the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME) (Banilower et al., 2013), which includes a nationally representative sample of mathematics and science teachers.1
There are about 211,000 middle and high school science teachers in the United States (National Science Foundation, 2013). Although most middle school science teachers are women (70 percent), the teaching population at the high school level is more evenly split between women and men (54 and 46 percent, respectively). At both levels, most science teachers are white (90 percent or more) and over 40 years old; about half have more than 10 years of teaching experience. At the middle school level, 41 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science or engineering field or in science education, a proportion that doubles to 82 percent at the high school level (see Box 4-1).
Relative to their peers who teach other subjects, middle and high school science teachers are more likely to have entered teaching through an alternative to traditional university-based teacher preparation.2 In New York, for example, 35 percent of first-year science teachers were alternatively certified in 2009, an increase from 5 percent in 2002 (Miller, 2013). This trend is not surprising, as many alternative routes were created to fill shortages in certain fields, including science and mathematics.
1The advantage of the NSSME is its in-depth focus on science teachers and the recency of the data collection. The advantage of the 2007-2008 SASS is that it enables comparison of science teachers with other middle and high school teachers. The administrative databases provide a level of geographic and trend detail not found in the other sources. The SASS and the NSSME provide some overlapping statistics that differ only in small ways for the results presented here.
2Some alternative pathways for certification target midcareer individuals; others target applicants who are not interested in traditional preparation. Many such programs are structured to allow participants to move into classrooms quickly. Instead of requiring participants to follow the traditional teacher preparation pattern of academic coursework and supervised student teaching before taking charge of a classroom, many alternative programs move candidates into their own classrooms after a short period of training. Candidates continue their studies at night and on weekends and often receive structured mentoring and support while they teach.
The Science Teaching Workforce at a Glance
|Number, grades 7-12||211,000|
|Gender||96% female (elementary school)
70% female (middle school)
54% female (high school)
|Race/ethnicity||90% or more white|
|More than 10 years of teaching science||45% (elementary school)
42% (middle school)
49% (high school)
|Bachelor’s degree in science, engineering, or science education||5% (elementary school)
41% (middle school)
82% (high school)
|Certification (grades 7-12)||35% more likely to have alternative certification than the average teacher|
SOURCE: Created by the committee based on Banilower et al. (2013), Bird (2013), and Miller (2013).
For example, one national survey (Birman et al., 2007) found that the majority of school districts (65 percent) experienced difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers in science, mathematics, and special education, and the problem was exacerbated in high-poverty, high-minority, and urban districts. These districts are more likely than more affluent districts to offer financial incentives and alternative certification as a way to recruit qualified candidates—strategies that appear to have paid off in some contexts, but not in others (e.g., Liu et al., 2004).
The 1,726,000 elementary school teachers who work in U.S. public schools often are responsible for teaching all academic subjects, including science, although some schools and districts have a dedicated science teacher, especially for grades 3-5 (Jones and Edmunds, 2006). Accordingly, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has recommended that elementary science teachers be prepared to teach life, earth, and physical sciences. Unfortunately, most elementary teachers are not prepared in
these subjects: 36 percent of elementary science teachers reported having completed courses in all three of those areas, 38 percent had completed courses in two of the three areas, and 20 percent had completed courses in one area. At the other end of the spectrum, 6 percent of elementary science teachers indicated that they had taken no college science courses (Banilower et al., 2013).
Even when teachers have completed one course in a topic, they are underprepared for teaching to the new standards reflected in the Framework and NGSS, and these data do not reveal whether science teachers have deep knowledge of or experience with the core concepts of a science field and its scientific practices. Although most high school science teachers have completed a science major, fewer than half of middle school science teachers and only 5 percent of elementary science teachers have done so. Elementary and middle school teachers without science majors likely have had limited opportunities to engage in scientific investigations and may thus be unprepared to engage their students in science practices in ways that build conceptual understanding. However, even high school teachers who have majored in science are unlikely to have experienced authentic investigations that were closely integrated with core science ideas and crosscutting concepts as envisioned in the NGSS (see Chapter 2) (National Research Council, 2006, 2012).
Science Teachers’ Preparation to Teach Science
Although there have always been multiple paths into the teaching profession, the range of pathways has recently grown (Grossman and Loeb, 2008; National Research Council, 2010; Wilson, 2009). These pathways and programs are typically grouped into the shorthand categories “traditional,” which refers to those that are housed in colleges and universities and lead to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and “alternative,” a catch-all phrase that encompasses other pathways (Grossman and Loeb, 2008, 2010; National Research Council, 2010). Within each category, state requirements for teacher certification vary widely. Detail about teacher preparation programs is beyond the scope of the current study; these programs are discussed in depth in a recent National Research Council (2010) report Preparing Teachers (see Box 4-2 for a summary of the report’s major findings).
An emerging body of research suggests that teacher certification in school subjects positively affects student learning. For example, Goldhaber and Brewer (2000) found that mathematics teachers who had standard state certification had a statistically significant positive impact on student test scores relative to teachers who either held private school certification or were uncertified in their subject area. Darling-Hammond and
Preparation Programs for Science Teachers
The report Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy (National Research Council, 2010) discusses teacher preparation in reading, mathematics and science. According to the report, teacher preparation programs are extremely diverse along almost any dimension of interest: the selectivity of programs, the quantity and content of what they require, and the duration and timing of coursework and fieldwork. However, there is very little systematic research regarding the specific ways teachers of reading, mathematics, and science are currently being prepared. The limited information the committee found did not support conclusions about the current nature and content of teacher preparation programs.
It is clear from the available data that aspiring teachers in the United States are prepared in many different kinds of programs. Between 70 and 80 percent are enrolled in “traditional” programs housed in postsecondary institutions; the rest enter the profession through one of the approximately 130 “alternative” routes. However, the distinctions among pathways and programs are not clear-cut and there is more variation within the “traditional” and “alternative” categories than there is between these categories. The committee that authored the report found no evidence that any one pathway into teaching is the best way to attract and prepare desirable candidates and guide them into the teaching force. The committee cautioned that this finding does not mean that the characteristics of pathways do not matter; rather, it reflects the lack of research in this area.
The report points out that it is difficult to determine whether a particular teacher preparation program is more or less effective in part because it is difficult to measure teacher effectiveness in valid and reliable ways. The most readily available assessments of student learning in K-12 are quantitative and do not adequately measure all aspects of the curriculum in a given subject area. Also, establishing clear causal links between aspects of teacher preparation and outcomes for students is extremely difficult. The effects of teacher preparation are hard to disentangle from other factors, such as school, curriculum, community, and family influences.
In general, the evidence base supports conclusions about the characteristics it is valuable for teachers to have, but not conclusions about how teacher preparation programs can most effectively develop those characteristics. In science, these characteristics include: a grounding in college-level study of the science disciplines suitable to the age groups and subjects the teacher intends to teach; understanding of the objectives for students’ science learning; understanding of the way students develop science proficiency; and command of an array of instructional approaches designed to develop students’ learning of the content, intellectual conventions, and other attributes essential to science proficiency. Much of the available research on science teacher preparation focuses on teachers of grades K-8. Overall, there are numerous questions about the preparation of science teachers that remain unanswered.
colleagues (2005) examined 4th- and 5th-grade student achievement gains as measured by six different reading and mathematics tests over a 6-year period, finding that certified teachers (including those recruited through Teach for America) consistently produced stronger student achievement gains relative to uncertified teachers. More recently, Nield and colleagues (2009) found that students of middle school teachers certified in science at the secondary level (inclusive of grades 6-12) showed larger increases in learning than students of uncertified teachers or teachers with elementary certification.
Information about state certification requirements, as well as teacher preparation programs, is limited (National Research Council, 2010). According to available data, 33 of 50 states and the District of Columbia require that to be certified, high school teachers must have majored in the subject they plan to teach, but only 3 states have that requirement for middle school teachers (Editorial Projects in Education, 2006, 2008, cited in National Research Council, 2010). In 42 states, prospective teachers must pass some kind of written test for certification.
Certification of middle school teachers varies considerably across states. Most states offer middle-grades certification as an option (Association for Middle Level Education, 2013). Many offer teachers the option of pursuing certification for elementary education (K-6), secondary education (7-12), or some variation on these grade-level breakdowns (Nield et al., 2009). Compared with elementary and high school teachers, middle-grade teachers also are more likely to enter the field through alternative licensing programs (such as receiving a bachelor’s degree in a field other than education and pursuing certification through a program outside of the university setting) (Feistritzer, 2011).
A recent analysis of representative national data from the 2011-2012 SASS compares science teachers’ fields of certification with the fields they are assigned to teach (Hill and Stearns, 2015). This analysis, together with analyses of state-level data (Bird, 2013; Miller, 2013; Sass, 2013), show that some teachers are teaching outside their fields (see Table 4-1). At the high school level, about one-fifth to one-quarter of teachers assigned to teach biology are not certified in this subject. The fraction of high school teachers not certified in their subjects rises to 30-40 percent in chemistry and from 40 to more than 50 percent in physics. The lack of preparation is worse at the middle school level, where certification in particular subjects is less common (Baldi et al., 2015). Overall, fewer than half of departmentalized middle-grades science teachers hold both a major and certification in science. One-half to two-thirds of biology teachers, two-thirds of chemistry teachers, and more than 90 percent of physics teachers are not certified to teach those subjects.
These certification data provide general information about trends in
TABLE 4-1 Percentage of Teachers Certified to Teach Science
|Grades 6-8||Grades 9-12|
|Any Science Certification||56.8-60.0||85.7-85.9|
|In Science Subject They Teach:|
SOURCES: Created by the committee based on Baldi et al. (2015), Bird (2013), Hill and Stearns (2015), Miller (2013), and Sass (2013).
science teachers’ preparation and certification. However, the committee was unable to locate research on the depth, breadth, or extent of such initial preparation because the field lacks a cumulative, systematic research base on core programmatic issues in science teacher preparation. For example, information is lacking on the extent of prospective teachers’ field experiences (in terms of length, timing, content, or structure), how well graduates of science teacher preparation programs integrate their content knowledge with their instructional practice, and whether and how they were prepared to teach diverse learners (including but not limited to English language learners; children with special needs; and children from cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds different from their own).
Although the science preparation of teachers across all grades is inadequate to help them realize the vision of the Framework and NGSS, the problem affects particular schools and students disproportionately. Teachers with strong science backgrounds are not evenly distributed across schools. Schools in the highest quartile of student poverty are 30 percent more likely than schools in the lowest poverty quartile to have a teacher without a science degree (Banilower et al., 2013). Similarly, teachers who identify their students as mostly low achievers are less likely have a substantial background in the science subject they teach (57 percent) relative to teachers who identify their students as mostly high achievers (69 percent) (Banilower et al., 2013). These trends in science echo more general disparities in the distribution of well-prepared teachers. In a national survey, Birman and colleagues (2009) found that the percentage of teachers who were not “highly qualified” as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act was higher in high-poverty and high-minority schools than in other schools. Among teachers who were considered highly qualified, those in
high-poverty schools had less experience and were less likely to have a degree in the subject they taught than teachers in more affluent schools.
The Birman et al. (2007) study builds on earlier research showing that schools with large proportions of nonwhite and/or low-income students tend to have teachers with far weaker qualifications relative to teachers in schools serving large portions of white and/or more affluent students (Betts et al., 2000; Clotfelter et al., 2006, 2007; Lankford et al., 2002). Most recently, an analysis of data from Washington State found that in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, the quality of teachers—as measured by experience, licensure exam scores, and value added—was distributed inequitably across every indicator of student disadvantage, including free/reduced-price lunch status, underrepresented minority, and low prior academic performance (Goldhaber et al., 2015). This uneven distribution of qualified teachers has implications for the learning needs of science teachers in higher-poverty schools and for the availability of expertise with which to continue building the collective capacity in those schools.
Teachers’ Perceptions of Their Science Preparation
These patterns of uneven science preparation accord with teachers’ own perceptions. According to the NSSME, middle and high school teachers’ sense of feeling prepared varied by the types of students they taught. Compared with teachers of classes of “mostly low achievers,” teachers of classes with “mostly high achievers” were more likely to feel well prepared to teach science content, encourage students’ interest in science, teach students from diverse backgrounds, and implement instruction in a particular unit. In addition, teachers of classes with a higher proportion of minority students and in higher-poverty schools indicated they felt less well prepared compared with teachers of classes with a lower proportion of minority students and in more affluent schools (Banilower et al., 2013).
Only 39 percent of elementary teachers felt very well prepared to teach science, while 43 percent felt fairly well prepared. By comparison, 77 percent and 81 percent of elementary teachers, respectively, felt very well prepared to teach mathematics and reading. These perceptions may reflect the reality that while elementary teachers are prepared as generalists, the greatest emphasis is placed on their literacy and mathematics preparation, and they receive minimal preparation in science content and methods courses and have few opportunities to learn through practice in their field placements. Elementary teachers responding to the NSSME felt more prepared to teach life or earth science than physical science (Banilower et al., 2013).
When middle and high school teachers were asked how prepared
they felt to teach specific topics in the courses for which they were responsible, high school chemistry teachers were more likely than teachers of any other science subject or grade range to report a high level of preparedness. Physics teachers’ responses varied widely depending on the topic; only 19 percent of high school physics teachers reported feeling very well prepared to teach modern physics (e.g., relativity), compared with 43-71 percent for the other topics (force and motion, waves, energy, electricity, and magnetism). High school biology, chemistry, and physics teachers were more likely than their counterparts in the middle grades to report feeling very well prepared to teach topics within those disciplines, with no differences seen in earth, space, and environmental sciences (Banilower et al., 2013).
Patterns of Retention and Attrition
The development of science teachers’ expertise over time is influenced by their teaching experiences, initial preparation, and ongoing opportunities to learn. Research shows that second-year teachers generally are more effective than first-year teachers, and third-year teachers, are more successful than second-year teachers (Wilson, 2009). On average, teachers improve steadily for up to 5 (or more) years, after which their rate of improvement typically levels off (Boyd et al., 2006; Kane et al., 2008; Rice, 2003; Wilson, 2009). At the same time, recent data show that many teachers’ careers do not last long enough for them to fully develop this expertise. This observation led the committee to investigate patterns of retention and attrition among science teachers.
As shown in Box 4-1, nearly half of all high school science teachers and 42 percent of middle school science teachers have more than 10 years of science teaching experience (Banilower et al., 2013). As is the case with teachers generally, however, schools with greater proportions of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are less likely than schools with fewer poor students to have an experienced science teacher. In schools in the highest poverty quartile, 45 percent of science teachers have 5 or fewer years of science teaching experience, compared with just 25 percent of those in the lowest poverty quartile (Banilower et al., 2013).
It is interesting to note that when Murnane and colleagues (1989) analyzed attrition data for a sample of new teachers in North Carolina, they found that among those who left within the first 5 years, 30 percent returned to teaching.3 They found similar patterns in a study of new
3At the high school level, 17 percent of teachers left after the first year, another 9 percent left after 2 years, and fewer than half (46 percent) remained in the profession after 8 years. Elementary teachers were far less likely to leave: 8 percent left after the first year, 6 percent
teachers in Michigan (Murnane et al., 1988), observing that these trends were consistent with national data showing that 84 percent of new hires in schools came from a “reserve” pool of certified teachers who had not been teaching the previous year. Historically, the phenomenon of teachers returning to the profession was due in part to women leaving teaching to have and raise children; other reasons include poor preparation, misaligned expectations of the nature of the work, the ebb and flow of the marketplace for teachers, and the desire to try other professions before committing to a lifetime of teaching.
In both studies by these authors, chemistry and physics teachers were particularly likely to leave teaching after only 1 or 2 years in the classroom. In Michigan, chemistry and physics teachers were less likely than teachers of other subjects to return to teaching. It is unknown whether this bimodal distribution of teachers still exists, nor are comprehensive data available on how science teachers compare with other reentering teachers.
Although the committee could not locate national data on retention and attrition among first-time science teachers, we offer illustrative data from New York and Florida (see Table 4-2). These data indicate that a considerable portion of new entrants continue to leave within their first 5 years of teaching. In Florida, for example, only 38 percent of new science teachers are still teaching in that state by the end of their fourth year of teaching. In New York, slightly fewer than half of science teachers are still teaching by the end of their fifth year. National trends for all teachers reported by Ingersoll (2003) are similar. He found that after 5 years, 40-50 percent of teachers had left the profession. In addition, he found that teacher turnover—when a teacher leaves his or her current position—was highest in science and mathematics (Ingersoll, 2003).
In both Florida and New York, retention of science teachers varies substantially across the preparation pathways through which teachers entered teaching. In New York, teachers who entered through a traditional pathway are more likely to be teaching in the state after 5 years than those who entered through an alternative pathway, while this trend is reversed in Florida. Differences in the retention of teachers who entered the profession through alternative certification pathways may be explained in part by how these pathways are designed and implemented. In some alternative certification programs, teachers begin their teaching career before completing all phases of preparation. Some programs recruit young people who may not intend to teach for a lifetime—for example, by providing appropriate assignments for newly certified teachers and preparing them with mentors and other supports. Some provide intensive
more left after each of the following 4 years, and 60 percent remained in the profession after 8 years.
TABLE 4-2 Retention of New Science Teachers by Preparation Pathway, New York and Florida (percentage of teachers remaining in a science teaching position at any school in the state)
|Years of Teaching||All Paths||Traditional Preparation||Alternative Certification||Interstate Reciprocity|
|New York (entering teachers 2003-2008) (Miller, 2013)|
|Florida (entering teachers 1999-2005) (Sass, 2013)|
NOTE: Two pathways to teaching, individual evaluation and unknown, are not shown as separate columns but are included in the percentage for all paths. Teachers whose pathway into science teaching was unknown tended to have low-retention rates, which lowers the overall retention rates for all paths.
SOURCES: Created by the committee based on Miller (2013) and Sass (2013).
ongoing support, encouraging teachers to stay in the profession, while others do not. Some are well aligned with school policies on teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment, and teacher evaluation.
The data and research on teacher attrition suggest that the level of experience in science is the lowest in schools that most need teachers with deep expertise in teaching science to diverse students in challenging circumstances. The data also suggest that many science teachers are not staying in the profession long enough to develop expertise in science teaching, a situation that requires rethinking how to support early-career teachers so that they develop as much expertise as possible, as quickly as possible. Not only will this benefit students, but if some teachers leave the profession because they feel unprepared, increasing their ability may also stem some of the observed attrition.
All professionals need opportunities to keep pace with advances in their field, and this is true for science teachers. Just as doctors must constantly refresh their knowledge of new treatments, technologies, and research, science teachers need to refresh their understanding of science;
new scientific methods and discoveries; new research on student learning; and new research on how best to support student engagement, motivation, scientific literacy, and scientific understanding.
Across the United States, schools and districts invest considerable human and material resources in professional learning opportunities. In one recent study, The New Teacher Project (2015) reports that one district offered more than 1,000 professional learning courses during the 2013-2014 school year. Teachers in three large urban districts reported spending approximately 150 hours a year on professional learning, one-third to one- half of which was mandated.
Science teachers have many opportunities for learning. In their early years, “induction” (early-career support) programs are offered. Overlapping with and extending those experiences are countless structured professional development opportunities offered by schools, cultural institutions, and universities; advanced degree programs at institutions of higher education; teacher-led teams and study groups; and meetings, seminars, and workshops offered by professional organizations. Learning also occurs through online courses and webinars, research and development projects, and intermediate school district workshops. In the best of circumstances, teachers’ schools are carefully sustained learning organizations in which teachers and leaders collaborate regularly on improving instruction.
Of course, every learning opportunity is not equally useful, relevant, or high quality. Historically, teachers have largely been left on their own to negotiate and use this panoply of opportunities. Some teachers, eager to keep honing their skills, jump at new chances to learn science or how to teach science. Others do little, utilizing only those opportunities that are mandatory. Despite growing awareness that school districts would benefit from a more coherent approach to managing district-based learning opportunities (e.g., Elmore and Burney, 1997; Miles, 2003) and that schools themselves benefit from leadership that creates a learning culture (Bryk et al., 2010), most teachers in the United States are left on their own to decide how much professional development to pursue. The available evidence suggests that most science teachers spend limited time in formally organized, science-focused professional development activities—on average, less than 35 hours over a 3-year period (Banilower et al., 2013, p. 50).
Staying up to date is particularly challenging for teachers at the elementary level, as they typically teach multiple subjects. Results from the NSSME (Banilower et al., 2013) indicate that 41 percent of responding elementary teachers had participated in no science-focused professional development in the prior 3 years, and only 12 percent had participated for 16 or more hours (the equivalent of approximately 1 day per year) over the same period. In comparison, just 18 percent of middle school teachers
had participated in no science-focused professional development, and 47 percent had participated for at least 16 hours. Similarly, only 15 percent of high school teachers had participated in no science-focused professional development in the prior 3 years, and 57 percent had participated for more than 16 hours.
Teachers responding to the NSSME who had participated in professional development in the last 3 years were asked a series of additional questions about the nature of those experiences. As can be seen in Table 4-3, 84-91 percent of these teachers had attended a workshop, the most common form of professional development. Roughly three-fourths of middle and high school teachers and more than half of their elementary school colleagues reported participating in professional learning communities or teacher study groups focused on science or science teaching. Middle and high school teachers also attended science teacher association meetings at a higher rate than elementary teachers, reflecting the fact that elementary teachers are responsible for teaching multiple subjects and are less likely than those teaching at higher levels to belong to science teacher associations. Roughly one-third of secondary science and mathematics teachers reported attending a professional association meeting; a similar percentage reported taking a formal course for college credit in science or science teaching in the last 3 years. Finally, not only are elementary science teachers less likely to have participated recently
TABLE 4-3 Types of Activities among Science Teachers Who Participated in Professional Development in the Past 3 Years
|Activity||Percentage of Teachers|
|Attended a workshop on science or science teaching||84||91||90|
|Participated in a professional learning community/lesson study or teacher study group focused on science or science teaching||55||75||73|
|Received feedback on science teaching from a mentor/coach||24||47||54|
|Attended a national, state, or regional science teacher association meeting||8||35||44|
NOTE: Does not include teachers who reported that they had participated in no science-related professional development over the past 3 years.
SOURCE: Banilower et al. (2013, p. 35, Table 3.5).
in professional development in science, but they also are far less likely to have received feedback on their teaching from a mentor/coach relative to any other group.
Although these data describe the duration of—and venues for—teacher learning opportunities, they reveal little about the content and quality of those experiences. Did these science teachers have opportunities to work with teacher colleagues who face similar challenges, reflect on student work, test new teaching approaches in their classrooms, or engage in their own scientific investigations? Accordingly, teachers were asked about these characteristics of their professional development experiences in science. The characteristics included in the NSSME reflect current consensus on what constitutes effective professional development (see Chapter 6 for further discussion of characteristics of effective professional development). As shown in Table 4-4, at the elementary school level, only about a third of elementary teachers who had participated in professional development in science, compared with more than half of middle and high school teachers, had substantial opportunities to work with other science teachers and to apply and then talk about what they had learned. Such opportunities were provided in teacher study groups, which tended to focus on analyzing student assessment results or instructional materials and/or on jointly planning lessons, with less emphasis on analyzing stu-
TABLE 4-4 Teachers Whose Professional Development in Science Had Each of a Number of Characteristics
|Characteristic||Percentage of Teachers|
|Worked closely with other science teachers from your school||34||61||62|
|Worked closely with other science teachers, whether or not they were from your school||37||54||58|
|Had opportunities to try out what was learned in the classroom and then talk about it||34||51||47|
|Had opportunities to engage in science investigations||48||52||45|
|Had opportunities to examine student work||31||40||33|
|The professional development was a waste of time||8||5||8|
NOTE: Percentages shown include teachers indicating 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a great extent).
SOURCE: Banilower et al. (2013, p. 35, Table 3.5).
dent work. Across all levels, about half of teachers’ professional development experiences in science included substantial opportunities to engage in science investigations.
Another series of items on the NSSME asked teachers about the focus of their recent professional development or formal higher education coursework. For teachers across all levels, these learning opportunities largely emphasized planning instruction to meet the needs of students at different achievement levels, monitoring student understanding during instruction, and assessing student understanding at the end of instruction. Deepening science content knowledge was emphasized less for elementary than for secondary teachers.
The NSSME also asked school science program representatives about locally offered professional development opportunities. Their responses indicate that in-service workshops were the most prevalent form of professional development offered, and that these workshops often focused on state science standards, science content, and/or use of instructional materials. In addition, about 20 percent of schools at all levels offered one-on-one coaching to teachers, focused on improving their science instruction. The survey does not shed light on how that coaching was structured and whether coaches were trained in that role.
Responses on the NSSME reveal some differences in the learning opportunities for teachers by type of school and community. Teachers in smaller schools reported lower-quality professional development experiences relative to teachers in larger schools. There were no significant differences in the reported quality of professional development by school type or proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Schools with different proportions of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were about equally likely to provide assistance for science teachers who needed it. In contrast, the largest schools were significantly more likely than the smallest schools to offer science-focused teacher-study groups. One-on-one coaching was more likely to be offered in schools in the highest quartile of proportion of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch than in schools in the lowest quartile. Also, the largest were more likely than the smallest schools and urban more likely than rural schools to offer coaching.
In summary, no centralized system for collecting data on teachers’ professional learning opportunities exists, and thus the committee relied heavily for such data on teachers’ responses to the NSSME. On average, no more than half of the teachers responding reported participating in opportunities to collaborate with other science educators (these opportunities are more common among high school teachers), to try out and reflect on new instructional approaches or curricula, or to have a colleague or school leader observe and discuss their performance. No substantial, large-scale
evidence is available to shed light on the quality of those experiences. Thus there is no way to know the extent to which teachers are encouraged to engage in rigorous study of the sciences and scientific practices, and when they do, whether their content knowledge or pedagogical content knowledge is enhanced, whether their instruction improves, and whether students benefit. Given that surveys collect information at a high level of abstraction, the quality of the limited experiences teachers reported is likely quite varied, with some teachers experiencing rich opportunities for learning and others encountering offerings of limited depth and utility. A similar observation results from analyses of professional development for mathematics teachers. Hill (2007), for example, presents evidence that while most mathematics teachers report participating in professional development, those experiences are typically “one-shot” workshops. She concludes that “by all accounts, professional development in the United States consists of a hodgepodge of providers, formats, philosophies, and content” (p. 114). Many authors have drawn similar conclusions (e.g., Ball and Cohen, 1999; The New Teacher Project, 2015; Wilson, 2009).
Chapters 6 and 7 present available evidence from studies of particular programs that reach targeted populations. Nonetheless, there remains a gap in understanding of how the science teacher workforce in general is supported in its ongoing learning. The evidence that is available is sobering.
As emphasized throughout this report, teachers have many opportunities for learning outside of formal professional development activities, and the committee sought any data that would help in portraying these opportunities. Some of these opportunities relate to the potential for teachers to move into new roles. Historically, teachers had few opportunities for career advancement unless they were willing to become school principals. However, school reform efforts and the implementation of more rigorous national standards have led to the creation of new roles for accomplished teachers, shifting traditional career paths and offering new opportunities for states and districts to retain and develop skilled teachers. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has supported teacher leaders with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the Master Teacher Fellowship of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, and the Math and Science Partnership Program, recently announced a new effort—the STEM Teacher Leader Initiative—whose goal is to explore effective programs for the development and support of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teacher leaders. In the same vein, NSTA sponsors a Leader-
ship Institute designed to keep experienced teachers current in developments in science, science education practice and policy, and research on teaching and learning.
The committee was interested in the expansion of teacher roles for several reasons. First, it reflects changes in how schools organize instruction and teacher learning opportunities. For example, the introduction of instructional coaches in the process of comprehensive school reform gave some teachers opportunities to interact with an accomplished colleague who observed their instruction and provided concrete, focused feedback. This activity veers sharply away from the historically isolated teacher who might be observed by her principal once a year for 15 minutes.
Second, these new roles themselves offer new learning opportunities for those teachers who become leaders. The various new roles of teacher leaders—lead teacher, curriculum specialist, mentor, collaborating teacher, instructional coach, professional development leader—often emphasize helping fellow teachers learn. For example, the NSSME asked teachers whether they had served in such roles as leading a teacher study group or serving as a formally assigned mentor or coach (see Table 4-5). At the elementary school level, about 40 percent of science teachers indicated that they had supervised a student teacher, but only 5 percent or fewer had served as a mentor/coach for other science teachers, led a teacher study group for science teachers, or taught in-service workshops focused on science. At the secondary level, teachers had served more frequently in these leadership roles. In addition, the survey found that 56 percent of science teacher study groups offered by the local school or district had designated leaders, and 87 percent of these leaders came from within the school (Banilower et al., 2013).
A summary of research on teacher leaders’ instructional support practices across grade levels and subject areas (Schiavo et al., 2010) found that
TABLE 4-5 Science Teachers’ Participation in Leadership Roles
|Role||Percentage of Teachers|
|Led a teacher study group focused on science teaching||4||19||26|
|Served as a formally assigned mentor/coach for science teaching||5||17||24|
|Supervised a student teacher||38||24||23|
|Taught in-service workshops on science or science teaching||3||15||17|
teacher leaders frequently support teacher learning and instruction, but they also carry out administrative tasks (e.g., selecting instructional materials, working directly with the principal), communicate information (e.g., sharing information with teachers or acting as a liaison for an initiative), and manage materials or resources. When supporting their colleagues’ instruction and learning, teacher leaders observe classroom teaching and give feedback, lead workshops, model lessons, engage in lesson planning, lead teacher study groups in analysis of student work, or co-teach. They carry out these activities both outside and within the classroom, and there is no one prevailing model for providing instructional support. The authors note that because most of the studies they reviewed focused on teacher leaders within systems undergoing significant change, their findings illuminate emerging practices by relatively new teacher leaders.
Depending on how teacher leader positions are defined, they can be either full- or part-time, with teachers spending portions of their day working with students. For example, when the NSSME asked school science representatives about individuals providing coaching to science teachers, 24 percent indicated that these individuals had no classroom teaching responsibilities (i.e., they were full-time teacher leaders), 17 percent that they had part-time classroom teaching responsibilities, and 34 percent that they had full-time classroom teaching responsibilities. In most cases, applicants are required to undergo a formal hiring process to ensure that they are qualified and receive subsequent specialized training. The NSSME, however, provides little insight into the learning opportunities for the leaders themselves. Leading teachers is different from leading children, and the pedagogies of professional development can be significantly different from those of K-12 science instruction.
In their summary of research on teacher leaders, Schiavo and colleagues (2010) note that professional development programs for teacher leaders often were extensive, lasting more than 100 hours over a 1- to 2-year period. Programs typically used summer institutes and/or regular meetings during the academic year to emphasize content knowledge, along with specialized knowledge of a specific curriculum or other skills (e.g., facilitation skills to lead teacher study groups or to analyze data). (One study [Oehrtman et al., 2009] found that teacher leaders with weak backgrounds in science were less able than those with stronger knowledge of science subject matter to facilitate effective discussions of classroom instruction in teacher workgroups.)
Related work focused on the selection, preparation, and use of coaches in mathematics (Coburn and Russell, 2008) found that the districts’ own approach to selection, training, and role definition mattered, and that school leaders’ decisions about how to allocate coaching resources influ-
enced the connections, intensity, and quality of teachers’ interactions with professional networks.
Within the current science teacher workforce, preparation in science, whether through a disciplinary major or coursework, is especially weak among elementary teachers and not strong among middle school teachers. At the high school level, more teachers have completed science majors, but there is some mismatch between teachers’ preparation and the subjects they teach. The problems of insufficient content knowledge and misaligned certification are exacerbated in schools and classrooms serving low-income and low-achieving students. Across all grade levels, the emphasis on scientific practices in the vision laid out in the Framework and NGSS will challenge many teachers who themselves have had limited experience participating in investigations.
At the same time, on average, the science teaching workforce has fewer years of classroom experience than in previous decades, giving teachers less opportunity to develop an understanding of science and science teaching. Efforts to support science teachers’ learning will need to take into account the issue of how to design successful learning opportunities for teachers when the cohort in a school may include few highly experienced teachers.
Conclusion 2: The available evidence suggests that many science teachers have not had sufficiently rich experiences with the content relevant to the science courses they currently teach, let alone a substantially redesigned science curriculum. Very few teachers have experience with the science and engineering practices described in the NGSS. This situation is especially pronounced both for elementary school teachers and in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, where teachers are often newer and less qualified.
Following their initial preparation, science teachers currently participate in limited and sporadic professional development. Although most teachers participate in some form of professional development in science over a 3-year period, these learning opportunities are quite brief and seldom linked to one another. The NSSME reveals that this lack of sustained learning is especially problematic for elementary teachers, close to 90 percent of whom received only 15 hours or less of professional development in science over this period. Even at the secondary level, 54 percent of middle school and 43 percent of high school science teachers received only 15 hours or less of professional development in science over this
period (Banilower et al., 2013). Professional development typically is provided in the form of brief workshops; however, about a third of elementary teachers responding to the NSSME and more than half of middle and high school teachers had opportunities to work with other science teachers, and to try out what they learned and then talk about it through teacher study groups. In addition, 20 to 25 percent of secondary teachers (but only 8 percent of elementary teachers) had taken a college-level course in science or science teaching over a 3-year period. On a positive note, the focus of these various professional development opportunities included planning instruction to enable students at different levels of achievement to enhance their understanding of the targeted science ideas, monitoring student understanding during instruction, eliciting students’ ideas and prior knowledge prior to instruction on a topic, assessing students’ understanding at the end of instruction on a topic, and deepening students’ science content knowledge.
Conclusion 3: Typically, the selection of and participation in professional learning opportunities is up to individual teachers. There is often little attention to developing collective capacity for science teaching at the building and district levels or to offering teachers learning opportunities tailored to their specific needs and offered in ways that support cumulative learning over time.
In summary, many science teachers have weak grounding in the subjects they teach and few opportunities to deepen their professional knowledge or extend their teaching practice. This situation is not the fault of the individual teachers who constitute the workforce. Rather, it is a result of the educational system, as embodied in both policies and practices that fail to support the initial and ongoing preparation of teachers in ways that lead to deep science knowledge for teaching or enhanced practice. Achieving the aspirations for a very different vision of science instruction in U.S. schools will require a systematic strategy that entails making changes in preparation and professional development programs, supporting changes in the culture of U.S. schools, and creating a policy system that is aligned in terms of curricular vision and educator expectations. It will depend heavily on leveraging partnerships with organizations that have established programs such as NSF, NSTA, and other institutions that have been exploring how to create and support cadres of knowledgeable and skillful science teachers and leaders. This is an ambitious agenda, but anything less will leave teachers where they long have been: trying their best to meet the needs of their students and the instructional mandates of their schools with little support in acquiring the knowledge and skills
they need to do so or to transform their schools into cultures of learning for both students and themselves.
Any such changes will have to be grounded in a clear understanding of teacher learning needs that flows from the vision of science instruction set forth in the Framework and NGSS. The next chapter delineates these needs, set against the backdrop of the depiction of the current state of the workforce provided in this chapter.
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