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Many STEM Teachers Don't Hold Certifications

Shortages force educators to teach subjects outside of their specialty areas.

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With teacher layoffs and staff shortages nationwide, some teachers are being asked to teach subjects they are not certified to teach.

Roughly 30 percent of chemistry and physics teachers in public high schools did not major in these fields and haven't earned a certificate to teach those subjects, according to a new survey released Monday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Half of earth science teachers are similarly unqualified.

Tom Luce, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) and a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, says that, oftentimes, a certificate to teach science isn't enough.

"In our mind, a certificate doesn't necessarily mean somebody has content knowledge," he says. Although subject certification varies state to state, Luce says that taking one chemistry class in college might qualify a teacher to teach the subject. "If you don't have content knowledge then it's very difficult to not only teach the class, but it's virtually impossible to inspire somebody."

According to the NCES study, which surveyed high school teachers during the 2007-2008 school year, fewer than half of chemistry and physics teachers majored in those subjects, and a quarter of math teachers don't hold math degrees. The problem extends to history, where less than two thirds of teachers hold a history degree. Conversely, 82 percent of English teachers, 90 percent of art teachers, and 95 percent of music teachers hold a bachelor's degree or higher in their field.

Luce says the problem is most prevalent in middle school, where more than two thirds of math teachers aren't qualified to teach the subject, a 2007 report by the National Academies shows. Only 1 in 10 middle school physical science teachers have a degree or certification in the subject, according to the same report. "That's when you lose a kid's interest," he says. "They don't even want to try in high school because they think, 'I didn't like this in middle school.'"

NMSI's UTeach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teacher training program has been heralded by President Obama. The program, operated in 22 universities, allows undergraduate students to earn a bachelor of science in math or science while earning a teaching certificate. A similar program by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship foundation will train 450 STEM teachers in three states.

But when districts need to fill teaching vacancies, they are often forced to take the best available option—which means a math teacher might be asked to teach physics, or a biology teacher might teach chemistry.

[Learn how companies are promoting STEM education.]

Luce doesn't blame the teachers. "Their principal comes to them and says 'Guess what, you're going to teach algebra next year.' Well, I'll put it very simply," he says. "You can't teach what you don't know."

Linda Rosen, chief executive officer of Change the Equation, a STEM education advocacy group and former math teacher, agrees that districts are sometimes forced to choose from a small pool.

"If a state or district is really down to the wire and school is fast approaching, they need an adult in that classroom. They're not just going to choose a warm body off the street, but they may give out emergency certification at that point," she says.

Some districts are implementing mentoring and training programs led by highly trained teachers, and may pay for teachers to take classes in the subject they will be teaching. But in many poor school districts, both urban and rural, schools are facing teacher shortages.

"Teaching in high-poverty, high-needs schools is not necessarily an appealing option," Rosen says. Even though many teachers may find themselves teaching outside their specialty, that doesn't necessarily mean they are bad teachers, she says, noting, "There are a lot of dedicated people who are trying their best."

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