Solve For X

So there is a state in this country with north of 400 high schools, and south of 100 teachers certified to teach physics.  This situation is not anomalous, by the way.   But a big goal today is getting many more kids to take physics in high school.    So how do we get there?  Recruitment?  Alternative certification?  Technology?  Dual enrollment?  Or is this the wrong goal?

Let’s hear your ideas:

15 Replies to “Solve For X”

  1. It is not one thing, it is everything. We know from personal experience that we can get Physics teachers through the ABCTE alternative teacher certification – but will they be in every geographical region that needs a physics teacher? Doubtful. So to fully leverage this great talent, we need online physics classes to be delivered to every student that needs them. We need to dump AP and move to dual enrollment so that students get credit for college and they will not have to depend on passing a test to get credit. Finally, we need hybrid learning models that have physics teachers as coaches as students move through outstanding physics content leading up to their dual enrollment physics class to gain college credit.

  2. The “getting getting many more kids to take physics” isn’t the end game. The end game is actually, getting many more kids to successfully learn physics.” The latter does not necessarily follow from the former and achieving the former in no way guarantees the latter.

    In order to successfully learn physics, students need to first acquire all the needed pre-skills for physics: arithmetic, manipulation of fractions, geometry, trigonometry, and algebra. It’s a fool’s errand to worry about physics and the number of teachers until all these pre-skill deficiencies are solved. We’d be lucky if we solve those problems in, say, two decades.

    Increasing the number of physics teachers fourfold in two decades seems doable using any one of the suggestions in the original post.

    In the short term, the pre-skills problem is a far greater concern.

  3. Paying more for scarce resources often resolves shortages. It would certainly make sense in combination with the other solutions offered.

  4. Another way to deal with shortages is substitution.

    Maybe we should cut physics from high schools, and substitute home ec. We could probably get a lot of those teachers.

    If the rest of the nations all learn physics, and our kids learn how to make Duncan Hines cupcakes and sew/stuff football-shaped pillows, we’ll have a competitive advantage in the 21st century economy.

  5. I think the fact that Physics is usually an optional science class for upperclassmen is a big reason you see fewer students taking it. Those who do choose to take it often end up being stronger, more motivated students, which yes, does allow you to do more with those kids. Unfortunately it also often cuts out a large part of the population. So why not make Physics the first science class the students take?

    At our school, this Physics the required science class for all 9th grade students. I will be the first to admit that we are not able to do some things that are usually included in a traditional Physics class, especially heavy math-based work. But my take is this: instead of just memorizing formulas (which is pretty much all I did in Physics in high school) the kids really learn the concepts behind what is going on, more students are learning the material (which I think is always a good thing), and for those kids who get it and like it, they will have a strong conceptual understanding to build upon when they take Physics in college.

    I think that at the end of the day we need to think long and hard about what we want our kids to get out of a high school Physics class. If its the ability to solve lots of math based problems, then I think we are going to continue to have the same issues we currently do. But if we can be willing to try something a little different, we could see some changes for the positive in Physics education. And the fact of the matter is that I know that if the students I now have went to a high school with a traditional science course sequence, the vast majority of them would probably not end up taking Physics. That is just not good.

  6. I agree with most of what’s already been said (except for the Duncan Hines cupcakes) but want to add: My sense is that there are really two different needs – one for teachers of physics at the advanced, possibly AP, level; and another need for teachers of the conceptual or “lower” level physics that is being promoted for more high school students (ie, the “Physics First” movement). Those two needs don’t have to have the same solution. The first seems well-suited to a distance learning or tele-teaching model to get the most out of the scarce resource of teachers with a deep physics background. The second need seems tailor-made for an approach recruiting engineering students, second career STEM professionals, or other physics-competent people (but who are not necessarily physics majors), and helping them become excellent teachers.

  7. I think physics scares a lot of high school students. Physics scares a lot of underclassmen in college as well. If we are looking to increase the number of teachers who will teach physics, there needs to be some incentives. Honestly, a lot of graduates who have a physics degree more than likely will end up at a higher paying job rather than teaching high school students. Any ideas for incentives? As for students, why is physics not required? Rather, its an elective for most students…

  8. I would have the schools without physics teachers offer online classes via K12 ( As a big believer in the role of high-quality teachers in school reform, I was at first skeptical of K12 and other distance programs. But after I went to hear K12’s founder speak here at Princeton, I was completely converted. K12 does an enormous amount of research aggregating best practices and developing the clearest, most engaging curriculum for every subject. Curriculum development can take from 3-4 months to a year. K12 offers Honors Physics and AP Physics B.

    Check out the results of K12’s Virtual Charter School in Chicago: The online school is over 65% minority (black and hispanic) and 40.6% low income (2007 data…2008 data seems to be skewed/incorrect). This school is currently only K-9, so physics might not yet be offered, but if they teach physics as well as they teach other subjects (an aside: they use the Core Knowledge curriculum for K-8), it could be very promising for the schools in this state to offer virtual physics classes. Students would continue to come to school for physics, and each would spend class time at a computer. You could probably even find a math teacher or chem or bio teacher to facilitate some labs, study groups, etc.

  9. There is Conceptual Physics program now being offered in many high schools as a the freshman science course. It is not heavy in math and with the right teacher can be down right challenging. (My son, a senior is high school is taking it as his fifth high school science course.) The thinking is physics is the basis for all other sciences. The hope is the Conceptual Physics program will interest more students in taking the fourth year of high school level math (fifth if they had Physical Science in 8th grade). If students want they can take AP physics their junior or senior year once they have had the necessary math.

    I wish I had had this type of course in high school.

  10. I think that a possible short term solution (while a long term solution is formulated) is to create a program where professionals, who apply physics at their jobs, enter the classroom. I have not quite worked out all of the details as to how this could happen best, but there is a great opportunity for students to see how to actually apply physics. They can see what avenues this creates as a profession and can see its practicality. Physics can be tough to learn, and without a motivational factor, students give up easily. This program can recruit professionals interested in demonstrating the importance of physics, and motivate students to follow in this path of teaching it.

  11. Mr. Saba is right in theory. Here’s what’s right in my practice.
    I am principal at a charter high school in Colorado Springs. We are conveniently located near the U.S. Air Force Academy, so there are many uncertified but eminently qualified professors and professionals who can teach HS or college level physics.

    Since Colorado allows charter schools to hire uncertified individuals as teachers (so long as they meet NCLB HQ status) we are free to pursue those individuals and hire them if we can. To make the hiring side of the equation work, our school offers a 14% premium to teachers who can teach AP Physics. We also offer online and/or concurrent enrollment to match Mr. Saba’s proposal, but without the ability to hire uncertified teachers by adjusting compensation strategically, our students would be artificially constrained by union and regulatory inertia.

    Ultimately, the parents who choose our school are the best judges of the quality of our teachers. The students’ performance on tests and in college helps our parents make an informed decision, but those are typically lagging indicators. The parents have to trust the school (or not) to find the best teacher possible, and freedom from unreasonable restraints gives us more good options.

    Our solution is not completely portable, because we have a favorable market pool. But the freedom from constraints that lets us maximize our favorable situation is completely portable and should be universal.

  12. I remember well my high school physics class of 10 years ago. No one wanted to be there and no one, not even the teacher was familiar with what we were doing. I have an engineering degree now and might could get certified to teach high school through an alternative certification, but I wouldn’t do it no matter how much money was offered. The kind of person skilled in math and science is on average not going to be of a temperament to deal with high school kids who don’t have a clue how to do basic math and are probably being forced to take a class they don’t want.

    I think the online classes are the best solutions presented so far, especially for those in rural school districts.

  13. Not many kids are interested in Physics but their interests change as they encounter new things. One way to find out is to take a survey. Surveying students online–with Zoomerang surveys, Results are updated in real-time as respondents take your survey.
    Check it out:

  14. The simple solution is to offer an online course. There are solid offerings in most states (but it does depend on state policies; there are a dozen offerings in some states and none in others). These courses are a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning with teachers carrying a load similar to or slightly heavier than a classroom teacher.

    There are also new long form video course offering including thousands of iTunes U courses. Academic Earth provides free Ivy League lecture series online aimed at AP students. It’s most likely that these video resources would supplement onsite instruction.

    There are some interesting developments in adaptive content libraries. Guarenteach has 20,000 math videos that can be strung together by level and learning modality. eduFire provides video turoring (and recently switched from long form to short form).

    Several $99/month colleges offer a teacher free approach. Motivated students slog through first gen content on their own but have online access to tutors when they get stuck. A couple of these companies will soon offer high school courses.

    By the fall of 2011 we’ll see some second generation physics courses that incorporate adaptive content libraries with smart recommendation engines, online tutoring, and social learning platforms. And it gets really interesting when schools combine these resources with engaging interdisciplinary project-based learning.

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