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Science Licensure: The Quest for Excellence

January 07, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota education faces a supply and demand problem: As the state's demand for science teachers grows, the supply of new science teachers can't keep up. The Minnesota Board of Teaching (BOT) has eased licensing rules for science teachers, and the Minnesota Science Teachers Association is not happy about it.

The science teacher shortage - called "significant and persistent" by the BOT - is the result of a booming high-tech business climate and increased focus on science education in the schools. At the same time, this high-tech climate is drawing science students into private business, depressing the number of new science teachers.

The state issues four science license categories for grades 9-12: chemistry, physics, life science and earth and space science. A license in one does not translate to the others; therefore a high school must have four teachers to offer a full load of science classes. This situation is onerous for small schools that have difficulty hiring one science teacher, much less four.

The BOT addressed the problem earlier this year. It changed the rules to allow any teacher with a license in one science discipline to get a license in another science discipline if they have three or more years of teaching and can pass the Praxis II content knowledge test. The change allows biology teachers to become chemistry teachers - a huge boon to small schools that will allow them to increase the number of classes offered.

The Minnesota Science Teachers Association thinks the change drops the quality of science education. They say the Praxis II test doesn't require a deep enough knowledge of the subject and doesn't address pedagogy. They say large school districts will hire teachers with a chemistry degree while others have a chemistry teacher who simply passed an exam. They say the BOT should concentrate on recruitment, retention, alternative licensure and license reciprocity with adjacent states.

Though the MnSTA lobbied against it, the BOT approved the license change and it went into effect Oct. 15. No teacher has yet applied for the program.

Minnesota 2020 asked Karen Balmer, executive director for the BOT, and Charles Handlon, chair of the MnSTA legislative policy committee and a science teacher in Rochester, to offer their views on the issue.

Karen Balmer:
As set forth in Minnesota Statutes, the Minnesota Board of Teaching is charged with the oversight of matters relating to teacher licensure. The BOT is deeply committed to establishing and maintaining high licensure standards, and also to providing appropriate flexibility in the licensing process to recognize the varying needs of our Minnesota students and schools. In response to a significant and persistent shortage of science teachers in Minnesota, the BOT recently adopted a rule that would allow a Minnesota teacher licensed in Chemistry, Physics, Life Science, or Earth and Space Science for grades 9-12 and who has taught science for at least three years to take the content knowledge test in another area of science licensure. Successful passage of such an exam would allow the teacher to become licensed in that area.

In all licensure areas, the BOT expects teachers to be equipped with content knowledge in the subject matter taught and with the pedagogical underpinnings needed to be a successful classroom teacher. The BOT believes the new science licensure rule addresses both of these critical issues. Content knowledge must be demonstrated by passing a content-specific exam. Granted, one test cannot measure an entire body of knowledge, but it can capture a representative sampling. An individual must have a strong background in the entire content area to succeed on the test.

But it's not sufficient for a teacher to only understand the content area. A successful teacher must be proficient in the art of teaching, which includes assessment, lesson planning, addressing student exceptionalities, classroom management, communication, differentiated instruction, and more. The new rule requires that a teacher must have at least three years of experience in teaching science. This ensures that teachers have had time to refine their pedagogical skills. The BOT believes that these skills are not subject-specific, but rather are transferable across courses and subject areas.

Finally, this option makes science licensure more closely parallel Minnesota's other secondary licensure areas. In several other areas, such as communication arts, social studies, and mathematics, Minnesota licenses are valid for grades 5-12 and allow a teacher to teach multiple subjects under one license. For example, a teacher with a 5-12 math license can teach algebra, geometry, calculus, and more; a teacher with a 5-12 social studies license can teach seven disciplines, ranging from history and economics to sociology and anthropology.

For these reasons, the BOT believes that the new science licensure rule is both necessary and reasonable, and that it will provide an additional opportunity for Minnesota students to be taught science by teachers with the critical components of strong pedagogy and content knowledge.

Charles Handlon:
In the 2006 Omnibus Education bill the Minnesota Legislature included a mandate that all high school students must take one year of either chemistry or physics before graduating by 2014. This is a lofty standard and one which will increase the approximate 54 percent statewide enrollment in chemistry.  However, how will this requirement be implemented when there is a current shortage of chemistry and physics teachers? The recruitment and retention of highly qualified science teachers is a critical component to the state's efforts in improving Science Technology Engineering and Math education.

The BOT has chosen to address the shortage of science teachers by a science licensure rule change that would allow any licensed science teacher with three years experience to obtain licensure in additional science disciplines by only passing a written Praxis II content test in that discipline. Many organizations such as the Minnesota Science Teachers Association feel this change lowers the qualifications and standards for science teaching licensure and this will negatively impact science education in Minnesota.

The MnSTA position paper posted on its website outlines critical objections.  These include concerns that the Praxis II test isn't rigorous enough. A SciMath Minnesota study determined that the Praxis II test covers only 40 percent of the BOT standards for science teaching licensure.  The Praxis II test has been developed by Educational Testing Service which has made the caveat that the test itself should not be the sole determinant for licensure.  The Praxis II test also doesn't assess a science teachers skills and strategies at delivering the science content (pedagogy).  It doesn't assess the science teachers understanding of laboratory safety and field work unique to each science discipline.  Testing provides a "shortcut" which encourages candidates to bypass teacher preparation programs designed by higher education to assist teachers in adding science licensure.

A Praxis II licensure method will produce "inequity" in the state's system of providing science education.  Larger school districts will be able to afford hiring a chemistry teacher who has a chemistry degree and licensure.  Other districts will be forced to "settle" for a science teacher who has only passed a chemistry exam.  The Praxis II testing doesn't address the problem of recruiting and retaining more science teachers, it only "stretches" current teachers by adding more licenses and class preparations.  This might actually discourage new candidates from obtaining science licensure if multiple licensures and multiple class preparations become the "expectation".

Finally, the BOT claim that the Praxis II licensure method will at least provide a teacher where none other might be available does a disservice to students across the state.  This attitude makes a statement that discounts the importance of the science education which must be delivered as our world becomes increasingly more complex technologically.  Instead the BOT should promote current methods of alternative licensure pathways such as the portfolio process.  It should also work to develop methods for improving reciprocity of science licensure with other states to increase out of state recruitment. The BOT needs to consult with the legislature and higher education to introduce systemic changes that will increase the recruitment and retention of science teachers.  This would better serve the students of Minnesota than the e BOT "shortcuts" of Praxis II licensure and granting hundreds of variances which allow teachers who aren't licensed in disciplines like chemistry to teach the classes.

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