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High school science teaching as a profession

Posted by Melissa on January 28, 2010

As a physicist, I am keenly interested in secondary science education, which prepares the students I teach, and the ongoing discussions about increasing both the number of high school students interested in pursuing science majors and the number of qualified secondary science teachers. As the daughter of a public high school teacher and a public school district superintendent, I’ve heard many dinnertime discussions about the state of public education in the US, the immense amount of work expected of teachers, the pressures put upon educators, and the reduction of education to nothing more than student performance on high-stakes multiple choice testing. As someone who deals with a seemingly intractable two-body problem, I’ve occasionally thought high school physics teaching might be a possible, though challenging, alternative career that could help address the two-body problem; after all, every major metropolitan area has high schools who hire science teachers.  With all of these perspectives in mind, it was with great interest that I read Sheila Tobias and Anne Baffert’s on-line book from the Research Corporation, “Science Teaching as a Profession: Why It Isn’t, How it Could Be.” The report was developed primarily by talking with current and former science teachers, via on-line forums and in-person discussion groups, providing a look inside the thoughts of secondary science teachers. Additionally, the authors include case studies of successful programs to support science teachers in the US, as well as considering models in other countries, Finland being highlighted in particular.

“Science Teaching as a Profession” isn’t so much about how to attract new people into secondary science teaching as it is about how to retain those folks who have made the choice to be secondary science teachers. The report notes that teacher turnover costs our nation $4.9 – $7 billion per year, primarily in recruiting, hiring, and training replacements. The report also finds that teacher salaries are not the primary cause of people leaving the field, but instead it’s the quality of teacher work life that influences turnover. With this in mind, Tobias and Baffert set out to find what could improve the quality of working conditions for secondary science teachers. I’m not going to provide a summary of their findings (see James Gentile’s column in the Huffington Post if you want an overview), but rather comment on a few of the ideas that I found most interesting.

One clear message of the report is that secondary science teachers want autonomy over, or at least significant input into, curriculum, student assignments, and assessments. With the rise of high stakes testing and a one size fits all approach to these tests, teachers are rapidly losing the ability to exercise creativity and regulate activities in their classrooms. (I would contend such self-regulation and decision making is crucial to a sense of professionalism.) Tobias and Baffert note science is not simply a content subject; it is also a process subject. Unlike math, where there is a single right answer to any given problem, science often involves building models and making approximations, weighing competing viewpoints and evidence, and reflecting on complex problems with no clear answers. None of this lends itself well to multiple choice testing. Additionally, classrooms centered only on science facts do not adequately prepare students for “doing science,” nor do they help increase student interest in the subject.  Particularly challenging is the fact that few school administrators come from the ranks of science teachers so they often don’t understand the challenges of teaching the process of science and including meaningful lab activities. Thus when administrators encourage district-wide instructional approaches, they often don’t accommodate the particular needs of science teachers.

Much of the report addresses issues that are broadly relevant to secondary education, such as the push to use student test scores as a primary measure of teacher performance. Although proponents of standardized testing claim that the best way to objectively analyze the valued added to a student’s education by a teacher is to examine student test scores, Tobias and Baffert highlight several studies showing that teachers can be effectively, and reliably, evaluated in other ways. I was interested in the work by Harold Wenglinsky published by ETS (an entity deeply invested in standarized testing) that found teacher quality can be reliably assessed by direct observation of classroom practice, and this direct observation is particularly important for assessing teaching of higher order thinking skills and hands-on laboratory skills. However, in light of other topics discussed by Tobias and Baffert, it seems those doing the evaluating need to be peers — master teachers who are in a position to be able to evaluate both science content and pedagogical approaches. Based on my experiences in higher education, I know that I am much more comfortable having my teaching evaluated through classroom observations by colleagues than by other means, and I can see why evaluation solely by student test scores would be unappealing for secondary science teachers.

One suggestion that caught my attention is the development of a “teacher-scientist” model for secondary science teachers. The report highlights several programs that place secondary science teachers in local universities, national labs, or industry during the summer as members of an active research group. These teachers primarily spend the summer engaging in research, but may also participate in other activities, such as discussing how to capture the research process in the classroom or developing educational modules about their research topic. In the teacher-scientist model, science teachers assume a role more closely related to that of college science faculty than that of standard secondary school teachers. Such an approach brings high school science teachers squarely into the science enterprise, integrating science educators and research scientists in a collaborative, collective endeavor. Science educators can learn what types of science careers their students might pursue and what skills are needed for those careers, and research scientists can learn first-hand about the challenges facing secondary science classrooms and influence teacher development and, by extension, student development. In at least one of these teacher-scientist programs (Partners Project, sponsored by the Research Corporation), participating teachers produced students who were more likely to participate in science competitions and more likely to consider being science majors than teachers who did not participate. Shirley Malcolm (Director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS) wrote of these programs, “I don’t see this as professional development so much as profession development, reinforcing the view that as a teacher of science one has multiple reference groups–a critical step in recognizing one’s value within in the society.” I would contend such programs don’t just improve the development of the teaching profession but also the development of the science profession as a whole.

Giving secondary science teachers more opportunities for scholarly engagement, either by embedding in a lab or by taking an active role in educational policy (another suggestion of the report), might make science teaching more attractive to talented students. Of course, programs that develop a teacher-scientist model for secondary science educators do not address the challenge of overwork that is often faced by science teachers, nor do they address the increase in external regulation of the classroom due in large part to the emphasis on student testing. Nevertheless, the effort to ensure that secondary science teachers have connections with practicing scientists and are actively included in the community of science is promising and could help make secondary science teaching a well-respected professional career.


7 Responses to “High school science teaching as a profession”

  1. arjendu said

    If you haven’t already, I’ll forward this to Susan Singer.

  2. acdalal said

    Wow, I love the idea of the teacher-scholar! Wonder if this is something that NSF could fund (or is already funding?). This would do *wonders* for computer science—which, if it’s taught at all at the high school, is taught pretty much as programming-to-the-AP exam (or as a glorified “how to use Excel” type course).

  3. Susan said

    Melissa, what a thoughtful piece. There is a great article in Science about a program in NY run by Columbia that provides some good support for bringing teachers into research programs at colleges and universities: Science 326, 440 (2009);
    Samuel C. Silverstein, et al.
    Improves Their Students’ Achievement in Science
    Teachers’ Participation in Research Programs

  4. Julie Henderleiter said

    My colleagues here at Grand Valley State University have created an NSF (and Dreyfus) funded professional development program (M. Ed. is a possible outcome if desired) for high school chemistry teachers. Teachers take coursework in science research, then spend a summer doing research with chemistry faculty. The next year is a chemical education research course, followed by a summer of inquiry lab development and design of an action research project to be completed in the high school teacher’s classroom. The program uses a cohort model to provide support and a learning community atmosphere. Our third cohort has just begun. For more information, please visit:

    • quantummoxie said

      We’re actually looking into doing something similar revolving around our laser research program. We’re working in conjunction with our Education department and have become a PTEC site (see

  5. arjendu said

    The following might be of interest to those who care :

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