Since 2001, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) has been working to address the dramatic shortage of qualified teachers of physics and physical science in the United States. It has done this by experimenting with and refining models of teacher education programs, by disseminating information about innovative programs to the physics community, and by working directly with physics departments to engage them in a full spectrum of activities necessary to educate and encourage these teachers. After eight years, the project can report significant findings and results.
PhysTEC institutions committed to increasing the number of graduating physics teachers1 have been successful in meeting that goal. In several cases, the increase was about a factor of 10. While the absolute numbers may seem small, they indicate the potential impact PhysTEC reforms could have if implemented broadly. Each year, U.S. schools hire about 1200 new physics teachers, and only about 400 of these have a physics degree.2 If a significant fraction of the nearly 800 institutions that grant a physics bachelor's degree make similar increases to those made at PhysTEC institutions, this will greatly increase the number of qualified physics teachers in the nation’s classrooms.
Most graduates of PhysTEC programs go into K-12 classrooms, where they have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of many students each year. As a result of effective tracking of graduates, the project can report early career outcomes on nearly 80% of PhysTEC graduates from years one through six of the project. As shown in the graph, 81% of these graduates are currently teaching in K-12 schools or seeking teaching employment, and another 3% are teaching at the college level. Most are teaching physics and/or physical science. Other commonly taught subjects include math and chemistry.
At PhysTEC institutions, introductory physics courses use “interactive-engagement” methods shown to improve student learning3. These courses also serve to model effective teaching practices and often engage more advanced students as Learning Assistants, giving them an early exposure to teaching. PhysTEC institutions use research-validated instruments including the Force Concept Inventory (FCI)4 and Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM)5 to track student learning and ensure that course reforms are effective. The graph below shows normalized learning gains for courses at PhysTEC sites, both before (“Traditional”) and after (“Transformed”) reforms were implemented. Normalized learning gains are determined by dividing the difference in pre-test and post-test scores by the maximum possible increase, so that a “0” indicates the same pre-test and post-test score, and a “1” indicates a perfect score on the post-test. Learning gains approximately doubled at many sites as a result of PhysTEC-supported course reforms. Learning gains on the FCI were nearly identical to published data for “interactive-engagement” instruction3, indicating a high degree of fidelity in implementing course reforms.
Recent studies suggest that a significant fraction of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Because the craft of teaching takes many years to master, it is critical not only to prepare teachers well, but also to support them so that they remain in the classroom. To address that need, PhysTEC institutions have provided mentoring to around two-thirds of their teacher graduates, most of it by highly respected and experienced high school master teachers, or Teachers In Residence (TIRs). Eighty-six per cent of PhysTEC graduates who went into teaching completed three years in the classroom; nationwide, according to a US Department of Education survey, this number was 78% for all teachers.
The PhysTEC project website has more information on key components of PhysTEC programs as well as descriptions of efforts at each PhysTEC institution. The project includes the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC), a network of more than 175 institutions dedicated to improving physics teacher education. The PTEC website has information on becoming a member, upcoming conferences and workshops, and a digital library of resources on physics teacher education.