Status of High School Physics Teaching

            The 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education was designed to give a clear picture of the quality of teachers, methods of instruction, professional development and available resources in US science and math classrooms.  The focus of this report in particular was high school Physics and its status in these four areas.

            The survey began with general demographics of high school science teachers.  The most startling fact is that 94% of these teachers are white.  60% are male and the majority possesses master’s degrees.  In looking at their knowledge and ability, it is concerning that only 61% were familiar with the National Research Council standards.  However, the vast majority is confident in teaching each of the major components of Physics and as a whole, their composite score was 82.

            The biggest self-identified weakness of the physics teachers who were surveyed was their ability to recognize and respond to cultural diversity.  This can be alarming when coupled with the lack of diversity in the field of physics teachers.  Another identified weakness is the need for these teachers to learn how to use technology in the teaching of Physics.

            Physics teachers seem to be limited in the amount of professional development that they participate in.  36% of high school Physics teachers nationwide had attended 15 hours or less of Physics professional development over last three years combined and only 40% with had attended more than 35 hours.  These teachers also identified that they needed training in meeting the needs of students with disabilities; yet, only 12% of the professional development that they attended dealt with this subject.

            As for Physics classes, the average class size nationwide was 16 students and  12% of US high schools do not offer a 1st year physics class.  The most problematic statistic was that 10% of time is spent on non-instructional activities.  As the report points out, “Over a year, this amounts to a loss of 3–4 weeks of instructional time.”  Overall, the report points out the obvious needs in diversifying the population of Physics teachers, offering more useful professional development and having more teachers participate in that professional development.

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