Teacher Certification: What you don't know can hurt you!
November 1996, Washington D.C. While attending a conference sponsored by the American Association of Higher Education I attended a session on Minnesota's new teacher certification standards. What an odd thought: learning about Minnesota rules in Washington D.C. During this 90 minute session I learned that not only had the Minnesota State Legislature mandated that all teacher certification standards be changed, but that the process had been underway for several years. I educate teachers at my school, why hadn't I heard about this?
December 1996, St. Paul Minnesota. After returning to campus I learned that the Education Department did know of the standards reform effort. (When was the last time you asked your Education Department how license rules are changing?) I asked how I could be better informed and started attending meetings of a Minnesota citizens Science/Math advisory group called SciMathMN. This group was helping to define the new standards, and I learned that a committee had been working for several years with some considerable contention. I also found that not only were there NO physicists on this 12 member committee, but there was only one member of higher education on the committee. This seemed to be a pretty poor representation from the people who actually train teachers. I also learned that one of the main causes of contention was that the Minnesota Board of Teaching (our state agency regulating the licenses and professional development of teachers) had asked the committee to write a single competency-based license covering Science education for grades 5-12. A competency-based license is not based on teaching individual courses, but rather on satisfying a set of competencies that must be demonstrated. This meant that once licensed, a teacher could be asked to teach 12th grade Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Biology all the way through 5th grade Earth Science. This required not only an extremely broad content base, but also a huge pedagogical range to know what can be taught at any of the 5th through 12th grades. Call me a skeptic, but this seemed a bit ridiculous.
March 1997, St. Paul, Minnesota. The first draft of the proposed standards was released. My jaw drops several feet as I read how beginning teachers will be evaluated on their Physics content knowledge. Here is an example from this document:
"Explain why the gravitational attractive force between two masses is proportional to the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them."
I'm not sure how I would go about explaining why gravity falls off by R-2, although I know there are observations that support this. In addition, of the 18 "standards" which were primarily directed toward Physics content knowledge, only one addressed kinematics and it was unclear exactly how one would go about assessing this (or many of the other "standards") to show competence.
Calls at this time to the Board of Teaching provided little help. I was asked to send in my comments on the draft with the understanding that the final text must go to an administrative law judge in three months for final comment and approval. (An Administrative Law Judge approves text into law.)
April 1997. Not exactly sure what to do, I composed, with the help of friends, a letter addressing the problems that I saw in the draft. These problems included unrealistic breadth requirements that would either leave future teachers totally unprepared for upper division courses or unrealistic preparation requirements that can only be met by super teachers. In the letter several alternatives were proposed to address these issues. I then undertook to get as many signatures as possible and began distributing the letter to every science department at every private and several public colleges throughout the state. Minnesota has a large number of private colleges that train a large fraction of the science teachers for the state. The response was amazing, most faculty had never heard of the issue, and in almost every school 100% of the science faculty signed the letter (try getting 100% of your faculty from different disciplines to agree on anything!)
May 1997. The letter and signatures pages were sent out to the Board of Teaching as well as to every member of the Minnesota State Legislature's committees on Education (one in the house and one in the state senate), and to the Governor. We received several comments from Legislatures thanking me for my comments with reassurances that Education was a primary concern of theirs. I felt like we were fighting the proverbial City Hall, but this at least seemed to be a constructive way to address the issue.
June and July 1997. Silence.
August 1997. I received a call from the Board of Teaching asking me if I would participate in an allday session to rewrite the standards. Clearly something had changed. This was good news, but only a single day to write standards that will probably last for a few decades? It seemed a bit strange. Nevertheless, I went to the session, and sure enough they wanted the assembled teams to write standards in about 34 hours. Each team had people from the discipline, and the scope of the licenses had changed from allscience to discipline specific. Some change in position, but still a difficult task. I protested that one afternoon was an inappropriate way to generate a license standard but we were told repeatedly that things had to be done this way, so we cranked out a laundry list of Physics ideas that a teacher should know. None of us were very happy with the result, but we figured that it would at least be input to a committee staff member that would help them craft a workable standard.
September 1997. The second draft license standard comes out and surprisingly enough, not only did they take our advice, they used it wordforword. The battle to split the licenses into disciplines had been won, but the format and language was still unworkable. However, it was now September and classes had begun, so I had little time to worry about this until I got my own courses under control.
October 1997. I decided to talk with Pat and Ken Heller at the University of Minnesota about the issue. They have been involved in pedagogical development issues for some time (Ken is in the Physics Dept., and Pat is in the Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction). We discussed some strategies for addressing this and decided to write a small portion of the Physics standard that I would then bring to the Board of Teaching as a suggested alternative text for a Physics license. We also brought in Russ Hobbie (also on the Physics faculty at the University of Minnesota) and began work on a kinematics section. The format was written to focus first on assessment so that we would be able to ask how we would know that teachers understood the concept. Assessment was also a key concern of the Legislature, as they wanted a license that was competency based rather than coursebased. Competency based licenses make sense, but only if the standards are written to ensure understanding.
Within a space of a few weeks we assembled our new content standard for Kinematics. Here is an example of one small portion of the standard we wrote:
Understand linear and rotational motion in contexts including: live or inanimate objects at rest, rolling, sliding, walking, or rotating as they are pushed or pulled by things such as people, ropes, springs, and the gravitational pull of the earth; projectiles such as thrown balls or dropped stones; flying or floating objects such as birds, airplanes, balloons; elastic and inelastic collisions of objects such as balls or cars; objects moving and interacting in outer space such as orbiting satellites and planets; and the flow of gases and liquids. Beginning teachers should be able to:
- perform measurements and calculations to describe the linear and angular position, velocity, and acceleration of a given object, the forces and torques acting on an object, and the energy, momentum, and angular momentum of a system before and after an interaction.
- describe the motion of a given object using words, pictures and diagrams, graphs, vectors, and mathematical relationships.
- describe the forces acting on each object in a given system of interacting objects, using words, free-body vector diagrams and mathematical relationships, and explain the relationships between all the forces using Newton's Second and Third Laws.
I went to a meeting of members of the Board of Teaching including the executive director and member of SciMathMN. To our surprise, everyone was enthused about our work. Comments like 'This is exactly what we need' surfaced and we were asked if we could write the entire Physics standard. I asked when they would need this and the executive director replied one week. I gulped, but thought that it was probably doable. So, back I went to our group and we met daily for the next week and produced a document to take back to the Board of Teaching. They were again delighted and consequently asked us to write the entire standard including Biology, Chemistry and Earth sciences. I agreed although I was beginning to understand the real definition of "volunteer".
Our time frame was extended and over next five months we coordinated educators from across the state to help write, revise, and edit standards for 912 Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences. We also wrote a set of allscience core competencies that every science teacher must know and another set that all K6 science specialists must know. To be sure it was a great deal of work and some of the features we built into the standards were lost due to legalization of the wording. But in the end (October or November of 1998) the text was passed into law pretty much as we had written it.
The lessons we took away from the entire experience include some of the following thoughts. First, we were able to keep the license from being (at least in our minds) disastrously changed. This came about only as a result of a substantial commitment of voluntary effect on the part of a few individuals. Pat Heller, in particular, played a key role as her knowledge of pedagogical style in defining standards allowed us to focus on ways to write the standard in an assessable way rather than in vague terms. She was also familiar with similar efforts in other states such as Michigan whose licensing standards could be built upon. Second, the people working on this issue gained a familiarity for and an appreciation of the challenges faced both by teachers and administrators in the public school system. If education is to advance, it will only be because we learn to build connections between those who are concerned at each of the levels including parents, students, teachers, and administrators.
Is the current license better? My impression is that it is modestly improved. The scope is more appropriate for the grade levels and pre- and inservice teachers with competencies in additional can be more easily licensed in two areas (e.g., students with both biology and chemistry backgrounds -- the previous license forced chemistry and physics together). The process, however, for all of its rhetoric of building a competencybased license is still not a reality. The licenses in Minnesota (at least for the time being) are still primarily coursebased. Individual colleges construct a set of content courses to insure coverage of the material. Competency will only be addressed if assessment is in place. This remains a stated goal of the Board of Teaching in Minnesota, but it is unclear when this will actually occur. No doubt the development of an assessment instrument (most likely a written test) will encounter a strong debate!
Was it important, or would I do it again? The answer has to be yes! As an educator in the post secondary world I feel it is part of my responsibilities to help the development of the next generation of science literate citizens. Although I affect that directly (I hope) in my classroom, I also feel an obligation to do what I can for the students who never make it to the courses I teach. I think it is imperative to help students to not get turned aside from science at an early age, and this effect may help bring more science literate teachers to the classroom.
Another reason to get involved is that you are able to meet many of the people who are enthused about education within your state. These people can be great allies when you want to have an effect on your local situation. As individuals concerned about education we need to stay current with the developments in the education community. Graduation standards can be very contentious (as we have seen in California and elsewhere), but teacher license standards (which are probably more important) tend to be a much less politically sensitive issue. Currently the American Physical Society's Committee on Education is researching where state's priorities lie in this area so that the organization can alert members in appropriate jurisdictions to potential upcoming changes in policy or legislation.
If you are interested in helping with this effort on getting involved, contact a member of the Committee on Education or Suzanne Otwell at the American Physical Society (she is the staff member assisting the committee)
Finally, here are some web-sites that you might find useful:
- The Minnesota Standards: http://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/arule/8710/4750.html, The Physics section is subparagraph 7, near the bottom.
- A page with links to all 50 state's certification requirements: http://www.uky.edu/Education/TEP/usacert.html
- The APS Committee on Education Web Site: http://www.aps.org/educ/coe/
- AAAS Project 2061: http://www.project2061.org/
Ted Hodapp is in the Department of Physics at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN.