Improving student achievement in science is a national and state priority, yet certified science teachers are hard to find. New Jersey’s recently revised graduation requirements are likely to exacerbate the critical shortage of science teachers that already exists in the state. In fact, New Jersey colleges and universities graduate only about a dozen new teachers each year who are issued a certificate or endorsement to teach physics.

Thanks to a new program from the N.J. Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL), a talented corps of teachers is being trained to lead the next generation to high levels of achievement in science. Unlike the alternate route, PSI is designed for currently certified teachers with great teaching skills and an interest in science education.

Origins of PSI

The PSI teacher endorsement program is an outgrowth of a highly successful science program directed by physics teacher Dr. Robert Goodman. He and his colleagues at Bergen County Technical School (BCTS) in Teterboro met on a regular basis to create and refine science units in physics and chemistry. They used SMART board™ technology to deliver common lessons throughout the school.

Goodman, who has been vice chair of NJCTL since its inception, has been recently named director (see Page 26). He was also the 2006 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.

According to Goodman, PSI is based on the Advanced Placement science curriculum. Research shows that students who take AP Physics B exams do better in international science education comparisons.

The PSI course sequence assumes that high school students will participate in an algebra-based physics course first, followed by chemistry, then biology. The physics-chemistry-biology sequence is logical as biology requires a foundation of both chemistry and physics, and chemistry requires a foundation of physics. This sequence also supports higher levels of math achievement as math is embedded in the science program – students taking algebra and geometry experience a practical application of their math skills in their science classes.

“The results of the PSI program on student achievement are remarkable,” says Goodman. “Students at the Teterboro campus are typical high school students. Yet, by the time they graduate from high school, they are five times more likely than students in the average New Jersey high school to have voluntarily taken an advanced placement science class (and exam) and four times more likely to have passed an AP science exam.”

The PSI science teacher certification program

Based on the success of PSI with students, NJCTL crafted a new teacher endorsement program designed to teach educators from other subject areas the content and pedagogy needed to teach PSI physics, chemistry and biology courses. The new program questions several assumptions about the process used to recruit and train new science teachers.

The traditional “alternate route” program drafts science professionals to become teachers. This approach has many flaws, starting with the fact that there is already a shortage of science professionals. This is the core reason why we need to improve science education. Also, it’s not clear that science professionals would want to leave their jobs, which typically pay more than teaching, or that they would be good teachers. NJCTL questions the assumption that “science is hard; teaching is easy.”

PSI has demonstrated that all students can learn science. The next step is to extend that reality to the strong belief that all teachers can learn science. So NJCTL is expanding the PSI approach to teach science to highly skilled teachers--adults who have a passion for teaching, a commitment to the profession, an interest in science, and the dedication to lead the profession. The goal is to get great teachers to become great science teachers by taking coursework in the PSI approach.

NJCTL partnered with Kean University to create courses equal to 30 graduate credits that lead to an endorsement to teach the PSI algebra-based physics program. Teachers are learning the science content of the program, as well as the specific teaching skills needed to teach science education in the PSI classes.

A challenging yet rewarding summer

Teachers in the first PSI cohort completed nine graduate credits this summer, and will continue to take courses through the fall, spring and next summer. These 42 teachers in Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Bergen County Vocational Technical Schools also began teaching at least one course of physics this September under a special pilot certification program created in partnership with the N.J. Department of Education. Teachers will be assisted on site and will meet with their cohort to discuss their field experience while taking subsequent PSI courses. Full certification will be achieved at the completion of the coursework and passage of the science Praxis exams.

Program participant Chris Callahan, currently a teacher of the handicapped at Bergen County Technical Schools, called this summer’s training “intense but effective,” and his instructors “excellent teachers who had well-designed lessons.” Callahan was interested in PSI because “the relevancy of physics can motivate some special needs students.” One of those trainers was Yuriy Zavorotniy, Goodman’s colleague at Bergen Tech who has been integral in developing PSI.

This first group of teachers also included some physics teachers who want to be trained in the PSI approach; several others are science teachers already certified in biology, chemistry or earth science, or are math teachers.

“The opportunity to get certified in a second science was appealing to me,” explains Bergen Tech biology teacher Elizabeth Henriquez. “Additionally, the student success rate this program has shown is astonishing. If even one student from my class gets interested enough to decide to go into a physics-related field, it will be a success. To say we need scientists in this country is an understatement.”

“It was a grueling summer, but I would definitely recommend the program,” says Jersey City educator Doreen Thornton. The earth science teacher needed to be retrained because her district is eliminating earth science courses.

Many of the participants noted that the training has made them better teachers. “I can now explain the physics behind the biology I teach,” notes Thomas Power from Jersey City. “This is another tool in my teaching arsenal.”

Teaching in a 21st-century classroom

An important component of the program is access to SMART Board technology and a classroom setup that promotes student interaction and allows teachers to present lessons in a web-based environment. The four districts participating in this program have committed to providing a 21st-century classroom to PSI teachers, including a SMART Board, SMART responders for students, a projector, a laptop, and round tables.

It was the lure of SMART technology and graduate credit that brought Jersey City physics teacher Tim Lamb to the program. “Teaching physics is awesome,” says Lamb. “It will be great to have a SMART Board in my classroom.”

Measuring success

Success in the PSI teacher certification program will be calculated in several ways. One measure is the number of students who pass mid-term and end-of-course exams in physics. In addition, success will be measured by the number of students who enroll in AP science courses after completing the basic physics course. Success can also be assessed by student performance on state-developed science exams (when available) and by achievement on SAT II content area tests. PSI will also monitor student interest in pursuing science and math majors in college.

The measure of PSI’s success will also be determined by teachers, including the number who complete the PSI program, the number who pass the exit exam for the program and the Praxis, and the number who become fully certified. And, of course, PSI will be evaluated via teacher and student attitudes about the program.

Program expansion planned

There is strong interest in the program among many school districts because of the documented success of PSI with average students and the critical shortage of science teachers in New Jersey. To that end, a second cohort of teachers will begin taking courses in January 2010 to become certified to teach physics. At the same time, a cohort of teachers will begin taking courses to become certified in chemistry.

For more information, visit the N.J. Center for Teaching and Learning’s website at http://www.njctl.org/ and click on “PSI.” You can also watch the “Classroom Close-up, NJ” segment on PSI by going to http://vidego.multicastmedia.com/player.php?v=nc9ueiwq.

Dr. Rosemary Knab is an associate director in NJEA’s Research and Economic Services Division who served as NJCTL’s program developer. NJCTL was founded by NJEA in 2006 as an independent, nonprofit organization that provides professional development and educational research to public school educators.