The Crisis in Physics Education

The US economy is in a time of major transition, as we move from an agriculture and manufacturing based economy to one more firmly based on knowledge and continuous innovation.  The jobs of the future will require greater ability to invent, improve and adapt, and to see beyond present problems to future opportunities.  This requires a scientifically educated and trained populace.

At this critical juncture, the US faces a current and future shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals.

This shortage is due in no small part to a critical shortage of qualified high school physics teachers. High school physics is a prerequisite for nearly all STEM careers.  The shortage of physics teachers is leaving too many US students unprepared for college study in STEM disciplines. America lags far behind most of our global competitors in physics training.

Read on to learn about the severity and nature of this crisis in high school physics education.

The US has a critical shortage of high school physics and middle school physical science teachers.

  • Of all school subjects, Physics has the most severe teacher shortage, followed by math and chemistry.  There are large surpluses of biology and earth science teachers.
  • Only 1/3 of all high school physics teachers have a degree in physics or physics education.
  • Almost 1/3 of all high school physics teachers have taken fewer than 3 college physics classes.
  • 90% of middle school students are taught physical science by a teacher lacking a major or certification in the physical sciences (chemistry, geology, general science or physics).
  • Our local and regional school districts have had substantial difficulty finding and retaining qualified physics teachers. 52% of New York City high schools do not even offer physics.

Too few US high school students take physics.

  • Only 1/3 of US high school students take physics. This is far less than in most countries with which we compete economically.  Many countries require all students to take physics.  To bring the US to their standard would require a fivefold increase in the number of physics teachers.
  • Physics, more than any other subject in high school, teaches quantitative and analytical reasoning skills. Math is an important tool, but physics makes math “real”.
  • Physics is a prerequisite for nearly all careers in engineering, chemistry, biology, environmental and earth sciences, and the medical and veterinary sciences. Many with physics training go on to careers in finance, economics and management. These are well-paid, well-respected careers that historically have provided a upward path for the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
  • Because so many physics teachers are underqualified, too few of those who do take high school physics emerge with the skills and confidence to pursue college study in physics and STEM disciplines.  Too many science-capable students end up in biology and the life sciences.

We are not training enough scientists and engineers.

  • Too few US citizens are pursuing STEM careers.
  • The National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” describes how domestic shortages of technical talent threaten our economic competitiveness.
  • Since 9/11, immigration of foreign talent to the US has been severely limited.
  • The large STEM-trained populations in China and India are supporting burgeoning industrial development in those countries.

Our national security is at risk.

  • In many defense industries, the average age of the technical workforce is nearly 55.
  • Too few of the younger generation are choosing to work in these industries.
  • We cannot make up this shortage by hiring foreign nationals.

Women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields.

  • Women are underrepresented by a factor of 2. African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented by a factor of 4 or more.
  • Most leakage from the STEM career “pipeline” occurs in high school and in the transition from high school to college, not in college.  Most students who do not  / cannot take high school physics never enter the pipeline.
  • Engaging, well-prepared physics teachers are critical to providing capable students — and especially women and minorities — with the confidence and interest to pursue STEM degree programs. Poor initial physics experiences can dissuade and demoralize.
  • Highly qualified physics teachers tend to be hired by wealthy suburban school districts, not by districts in our inner cities and rural areas.  Inequality of opportunity in physics education contributes to inequality in college and career outcomes.

Teacher education programs do not attract students who are strong in physics.

  • For historical reasons, most K-12 teacher training in the US occurs at Tier II and Tier III colleges and universities. These have lower admissions standards and attract fewer students who are strong in physics.
  • At Tier I universities like Cornell, physics-capable students are abundant. However, teacher training programs have little visibility to these students, and have little caché with their professors, parents and peers.
  • In New York State, physics teachers must first earn and undergraduate degree in physics or physics education.  The top 10 institutions for physics teacher training produce 52% of all certifications but only 16% of physics majors.  These institutions have relatively unselective admissions.
  • The top 10 NYS institutions for training physics majors produce 61% of all majors but less than 4% of physics teacher certifications.
  • Tier I institutions must thus play a larger role in recruiting and training physics teachers if the shortage is to be addressed.



The US has a critical shortage of high school physics and middle school physical science teachers.

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