U.S. Physics Teacher Shortage and the Need for PhysTEC

The United States has a severe, long-term shortage of qualified physics teachers. In fact, in 2013, the National Task Force on Teacher Education reported that "the need for qualified physics teachers is greater now than at any previous time in U.S. history."

Specific indicators of the need for qualified physics teachers

School districts have difficulty filling physics positions

School districts consistently rank physics as the highest need area among all academic disciplines with regard to teacher shortages.[1]

Low fraction of teachers with physics degrees

Only 47% of physics classes are taught by a teacher with a degree in the subject, compared with 73% of biology classes and about 80% of humanities classes (see Figure 1).[2]

Figure 1. Fraction of high school classes taught by teacher with degree in subject
Source: See Footnote 2

Of the approximately 3,100 teachers who are new to teaching physics each year[3], only about 1,100, or 35%, have a degree in physics or physics education.[4] This appears to be a long-term trend, as only 35% of the 27,000 U.S. high school physics teachers have such degrees, suggesting that most physics teachers have no substantial training in either physics or physics teaching.[5,6] While having a physics degree is not required for being an effective physics teacher, the National Academies' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm stated that the most consistent and powerful predictor of student achievement in science and mathematics is a teacher who is fully certified and has at least a bachelor's degree in the content area.[7]

Rising number of students taking physics

The numbers of high school students taking physics has been growing rapidly: over the past two decades, that number has more than doubled to 1.38 million students, with the number of Advanced Placement or second-year physics students increasing more than nine-fold to 229,000 (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Physics enrollment in U.S. high schools
Source: See Footnote 8

Overall, 39% of high school graduates have taken a physics class.[8] While such growth in the popularity of physics is positive, it adds to the demand for qualified teachers.

Consequences of unqualified and underqualified physics teachers

In 1995, the last time the U.S. participated in an international study that tested high school physics proficiency (the Third International Math and Science Study or TIMSS), U.S. students scored lowest, behind 14 other nations.[9] U.S. mediocrity in precollege physics student performance reflects the substantially more stringent requirements that most other industrialized nations have for physics coursework in grades 6-12 compared to most states in the U.S.

Unsurprisingly but alarmingly, a more recent study from 2009 comparing student understanding of basic physics concepts indicated that student performance in the U.S. is about two standard deviations lower than that of their peers in China.[10]

Unequal access to physics education

Access to a good science education is far from equitable. Results from the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed large and persistent science achievement gaps among races and ethnicities at all grade levels. For example, 65% of white students were at or above the basic level in science compared to 19% of black and 30% of Hispanic students.[11]

Fewer physics courses in high-poverty schools

High poverty schools are less likely to offer physics courses, especially advanced physics.[12] In addition, teachers of physics at such schools are less likely to have a degree in physics or physics education.[13]

A threat to democracy

As the U.S. population becomes more diverse by race and ethnicity[14,15], these issues of unequal access to a good science education and the associated economic opportunities will only become more urgent. Indeed, inadequate science education threatens the very foundation of our democracy as meaningful participation in crucial social decisions requires ever-increasing levels of scientific and technological understanding.

See how PhysTEC is addressing these challenges.

Teacher Education is a regional issue

It is critical that many institutions distributed across the nation engage in the preparation of future physics teachers. Nearly two-thirds of PhysTEC graduates teach within 50 miles of the university where they were educated, and only 1 in 6 teach further than 200 miles.

Much of the content and data on this page came from the 2012 report of the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics.

More on the Task Force and its report.


  1. American Association for Employment in Education, Inc., 2010 Executive Summary: Educator Supply and Demand in the United States (AAEE, Columbus,OH, 2010).
  2. Jason G. Hill and Kerry J. Gruber, Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey, Statistical Analysis Report [NCES 2011-317] (National Center For Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2011). Available at: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011317.pdf.
  3. Annually, the nation hires 1400 teachers who are new to teaching physics and also new to teaching high school students; the remaining 1700 teachers are experienced high school teachers who are new to teaching physics; see: Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye, Turnover Among High School Physics Teachers (American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, 2011). Available at: http://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/turnover-among-high-school-physics-teachers.
  4. Casey Langer Tesfaye and Susan White, High School Physics Teacher Preparation (American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, 2012). Available at: http://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/high-school-physics-teacher-preparation.
  5. Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye, Who Teaches High School Physics? Results from the 2008-09 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers (American Institute of Physics, College Park, 2010). Available at: http://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/high-school-physics-teacher-preparation.
  6. The more qualified teachers teach a greater number of physics classes, so about 43% of all physics students have a teacher with a degree in physics or physics education. (Source: Private communication from Susan White, American Institute of Physics.) A somewhat different statistic is reported by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which claimed that 51% of physics students are taught by a teacher who has a major in the discipline. However, larger schools were more likely to be selected in the NCES sampling methodology, which probably resulted in over-sampling of physics teachers with a physics degree. See report cited in Footnote 2.
  7. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. National Academies Press, 2007. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309100399
  8. Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye, High School Physics Courses & Enrollments: Results from the 2012-13 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers (American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, 2014). Available at: http://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/high-school-physics-courses-enrollments-0.
  9. (a) Ina V. S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Albert E. Beaton, Eugenio J. Gonzalez, Dana L. Kelly, and Teresa A. Smith, Mathematics and Science Achievement in the Final Year of Secondary School: IEA's Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) [IEA = International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement] (Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, 1998). Available at: http://timss.bc.edu/timss1995i/HiLightC.html. (b) TIMSS International Study Center, TIMSS Physics Achievement Comparison Study: IEA's Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS International Study Center, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, 2000). Available at: http://modeling.asu.edu/Evaluations/TIMSS_NSFphysicsStudy99.pdf.
  10. L. Bao et al., "Learning and scientific reasoning," Science 323, 586-587 (2009).
  11. W. Grigg, M. Lauko, and D. Brockway, The Nation's Report Card: Science 2005 (NCES 2006-466) [National Assessment of Educational Progress] (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C., 2006). Available at: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006466.
  12. A. M. Kelly and K. Sheppard, "Secondary school physics availability in an urban setting: Issues related to academic achievement and course offerings," Am. J. Phys. 77, 902-906 (2009).
  13. Michael Neuschatz, Mark McFarling, and Susan White, Reaching the Critical Mass: The Twenty Year Surge in High School Physics; Findings from the 2005 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers (American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD, 2008), p. 44. Available at: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/hs05report.pdf.
  14. J. S. Passel and D. Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. (Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., 2008). Available at: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=85.
  15. While the student population is becoming more diverse, this is not reflected in the teaching workforce. Only about 3% of high school physics teachers are African-American or Hispanic. See p. 16 of Neuschatz et al., Reaching the Critical Mass (Ref. 13).