What invisible looks like: Science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline disappear from the state’s educational agenda

It was sort of funny, actually.  Yesterday, State Impact Florida proclaimed the passing of the FCAT, complete with an illustration of a gravestone.  I responded to their tweet advertising their post by pointing out that their statement was incorrect, that in fact the Science FCAT, which is given to 5th and 8th graders, is scheduled to continue indefinitely.  I had a little fun, comparing the Science FCAT to zombies and – later in the day – sending a tweet that included a link to the Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” skit.  Eventually State Impact Florida acknowledged that indeed the Science FCAT would continue on, and they were kind enough to attribute the correction to me.

Meanwhile, the national education news outlet Real Clear Education picked up the State Impact Florida FCAT death notice, but never corrected it.  It just didn’t seem important enough, I suppose.

The neglect of science education news is hardly surprising, given the disappearance of science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline from Florida’s education agenda.    The focus on Common Core standards in math and English language arts and the new AIR Florida assessments (or is it AIR Utah?) has driven the fact that Florida’s science standards need some serious attention from everybody’s minds.  The hot new STEM field is computer programming, which is an important technological tool for students to learn but is not science and not math (despite national efforts to replace science and math requirements for high school graduation with programming courses).  Florida’s revised school grading scheme, which eliminates bonus points for students who take multiple AP courses, will remove an incentive for schools to properly serve their top quartile students, as did the suspension of class size limits for advanced high school courses several years ago.  The state’s “scholar” high school diploma option remains terribly underpowered in science and math.  You can still earn a scholar diploma without taking precalculus or physics, a situation that makes no sense in our new technological society.

Even the new AP physics courses, which may be the single most important tool we can implement to improve the science and engineering pipeline in Florida’s schools, fell into a black hole for a year.  This left parents, students, teachers and administrators wondering if Florida’s colleges and universities would even grant useful credits for the courses or whether they would fall into the same never-never land that AP Environmental Science occupies.  Florida is a leader in involving more students in AP courses, as long as they aren’t calculus or science courses.

As far as science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline go, it doesn’t matter that there are 17 days left in the legislative session.  For all practical purposes, the session was over a long time ago.

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The rollout of AP Physics 1 and 2: Many leading universities embracing new courses

Responses from 35 postsecondary institutions to an inquiry by a unit of the American Physical Society show that many leading universities are planning to award credit to students who score well on the new algebra-based AP Physics courses.

AP Physics B, the AP program’s present algebra-based course, is being taught for the last time during the present academic year.  Next year, exams will be offered for the new courses, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2, which are each intended to cover about half the content covered by the present AP Physics B course.  Most postsecondary institutions awarded credit for the entire two-semester algebra-based physics sequence for a passing score on the AP Physics B course.  In contrast, AP Physics 1 is intended to result in credit only for the first semester algebra-based course, while AP Physics 2 would provide college credit for only the second semester algebra-based course.

The “breaking up” of AP Physics B into two courses has allowed the developers of the new courses to add topics such as rotational dynamics to the syllabus.

Postsecondary institutions must run the new courses through an approval process for college credit that hasn’t been necessary for previous revisions of AP science courses.  While revisions of AP Biology and AP Chemistry have been rolled out during the last few years, the course titles have remained the same and previous credit-granting policies for those courses were unchanged.

Postsecondary institutions responded to an e-mailed inquiry sent by the APS Forum on Education to its members.  The institutions responding covered a range from elite to community college.

The results as of April 10:

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 5:  Notre Dame, Purdue

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 4 or 5:  Brigham Young University, Colgate University, Portland State University, Randolph College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, Sarah Lawrence College, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 3, 4 or 5:  Colorado State University, Ohio public university system (including Ohio University and Ohio State University), Roosevelt University, University of Arkansas

Credit for first semester of algebra-based physics with score of 4 or 5:  Davidson College

Will not award credit:  Hudson Valley Community College

Do not offer algebra-based physics and therefore will not offer credit for Physics 1 and 2:  Amherst College, Colorado School of Mines, Georgia Tech, Goshen College, University of California-Santa Clara, Wabash College

No decision yet:  Auburn University, Baylor University, Cal State System,  Florida public colleges and universities, Emory University, James Madison University, Lafayette College, Northern New Mexico College, Oral Roberts University, Tufts University, University of Colorado, University of Hartford

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(Another) memo to the Florida State Board of Education: On teaching, “What are Florida’s next steps?”

Tomorrow’s SBOE workshop on quality teaching and teacher preparation will conclude with a Board discussion titled “What are Florida’s next steps?”

There is general agreement that it is critical to get more great teachers into high needs schools.  And the Board itself designates “Critical Teacher Shortage Areas” every year.  As always, this year’s list includes special education, math and science teachers.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the issue of getting strong teachers into high-needs schools on Monday during a panel discussion at George Washington University, saying “Ninety-nine percent of incentives are for talented folks to move to more affluent neighborhoods. We need to make it a badge of honor — a privilege — to work with kids who need the most help,” according to the Washington Post.  GWU Education Dean Michael Feuer was more direct, saying more money was needed.

And then there’s this:  payscale.com says that the starting median pay for new bachelor’s degree grads in physics is $53,100.  Starting salaries for new college grads in math and computer science are similar.  Some say that money isn’t the issue – that strong students should be drawn into teaching by other intangible rewards and shouldn’t be discouraged by the starting salaries of less than $40,000.  But for a young graduate wanting to start a family, there is no substitute for money.

So what should Florida’s next steps be for recruiting strong students into the teaching profession?  Substantial financial incentives targeting high-needs schools and critical teacher shortage areas.  It’s that simple.  The 20 minutes set aside in the agenda for the Board’s discussion isn’t needed – they can finish in 60 seconds.

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Memo to Florida’s State Board of Education: This is what good teaching looks like

This coming Thursday, Florida’s State Board of Education will hold a workshop on teacher recruiting, education and induction.  The first speaker will be Janet Gless of the New Teacher Center, who will have 20 minutes to cover the subject of “What is Good Teaching?”  Presumably, that includes all subjects from reading to physics, and all grade levels from kindergarten (or before?) to high school.  To me, that seems like a lot to cover in 20 minutes.

So I thought I’d help.  To paraphrase Justice Stewart, with respect to good teaching you know it when you see it.  Below I have inserted some pictures from FSU’s studio physics program, which is an adaptation of the SCALE-UP program initiated by the North Carolina State University Physics Education Research group and its indomitable leader, Bob Beichner.  SCALE-UP is used to teach physics (the subject where it started), chemistry, math, biology, astronomy, engineering and even (wait for it) literature.  Yes, literature.

And sure, FSU is a university and not a high school or middle school.  But SCALE-UP has been successfully implemented in high schools, including Orlando’s Bishop Moore High School (see the Orlando Sentinel piece on SCALE-UP at Moore here).  I’ll note just to poke at the folks at redefinedonline.org that Bishop Moore is a Step Up For Students school, and one where apparently high quality science teaching is a priority.  I’m still waiting for Ron and Travis to feature Bishop Moore in a story in response to well, you know.

We are also having prospective physics teachers work as instructional assistants in our studio classrooms.  These experiences have helped draw five students into physics teaching so far, and another is planning to enter the field of physics education research.  As education researchers at the University of Colorado have documented, this isn’t an isolated effect.

To summarize – what you see below doesn’t only work in college-level physics, but also in high school-level science and maybe even in high school-level literature.

So, Dr. Gless, maybe you want to work a few of these pictures into your presentation.  Or better yet, get the Board members to spend a few more than 20 minutes on learning about what makes great teaching and have them walk from the Turlington Building (where Thursday’s meeting is being held) down to FSU’s New Classroom Building to see what good teaching is – and how to recruit more great students into teaching.


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Class Panorama

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AP in Florida: Strong in English, social sciences and Spanish; just average in calculus and science

Here is a list of percentages of 2013 high school graduates in Florida and the US earning scores of 3 or better on individual AP examinations from the 2014 AP Report to the Nation.  The higher percentage (Florida or US) is highlighted.  The results are sorted into the same categories used in the AP report.

Math and Science

Subject               Florida           US

Biology                2.39%            2.99%

Calculus AB       4.22%            4.27%

Calculus BC        1.81%            2.08%

Chemistry           1.59%            1.94%

Computer Sci    0.29%            0.47%

Environ Sci        3.48%           1.55%

Physics B            1.37%              1.37%

Physics C E&M  0.24%             0.31%

Physics C Mech  0.57%            0.78%

Statistics             2.81%           2.66%

English, History and Social Science

Subject               Florida           US

Comp Gov          0.41%           0.30%

English Lang     10.73%         7.45%

English Lit         8.27%           5.92%

Euro History      2.82%          1.80%

Human Geo       5.53%           1.17%

Macroecon         2.78%           1.49%

Microecon          1.75%            1.04%

Psychology         9.28%          4.35%

US Gov                4.50%          3.62%

US History          7.08%         6.32%

World History    5.32%         2.73%

Arts and World Languages

Subject                 Florida        US

Art History          0.89%        0.33%

Chinese                0.03%          0.18%

French                  0.40%        0.34%

German                0.04%          0.10%

Italian                  0.05%         0.03%

Japanese             0.02%           0.04%

Latin                     0.04%          0.07%

Music Theory     0.56%         0.31%

Spanish Lang     4.51%          2.52%

Spanish Lit          0.83%        0.34%

Art 2-D                 1.25%          0.50%

Art 3-D                 0.17%          0.07%

Drawing              0.63%         0.34%



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Leading opponent of evolution education predicted “exodus” from traditional public schools when Florida’s science standards were adopted

The Florida Legislature continues to debate the expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program.  With large Republican majorities in both houses, the proposal is certain to succeed if a difference of opinion between the presiding officers of the two houses on accountability can be worked out.  For much of the last month, Senate President Don Gaetz had insisted that a condition of the tax credit scholarship program expansion be that students at schools participating in the program begin to take the same standardized tests taken by students in traditional public schools and charter schools.  The House leadership and bill sponsor have resisted such a requirement, arguing that tax credit scholarship schools already take nationally recognized standardized tests in language arts and math like the SAT-10.  In addition, they have argued that parent choice provides the ultimate accountability.  There is presently no requirement that tax credit scholarship schools test their students in science.

On Friday, Gary Fineout of the Associated Press tweeted that Senator Gaetz’s position had shifted a bit.  According to Fineout, Gaetz said that he still wants tax credit scholarship schools to use a “common assessment”, but that “he is not insisting that students take the FCAT but parents need to be able to compare schools.”  The shift could mean that Gaetz is ready to agree to an expansion of the tax credit scholarship program without the requirement that participating schools test their students in science.

Florida’s standardized testing program includes the state’s Science FCAT tests for 5th and 8th graders as well as the Biology end-of-course exam.  These tests reflect the state’s unequivocal standards on evolution, which generated a whirlwind of controversy in the months prior to their adoption by the State Board of Education on February 19, 2008 by a narrow 4-3 vote.  The controversy was so intense that some participants felt physically jeopardized.

The February 19, 2008 adoption meeting began with brief arguments by 20 speakers – 10 favoring the standards being considered that included evolution and 10 who opposed the language being considered by the board.  Some of the opponents of the evolution language in the proposed standards argued for a proposal for “academic freedom”, which was intended to “protect teachers and students from retaliation for discussing the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory,” according the Discovery Institute, a critic of naturalistic evolution education and the primary promoter of “academic freedom” proposals.

The 19th speaker and last opponent to speak at the adoption meeting was John Stemberger, an attorney based in Orlando and the President of the Florida Family Policy Council, who predicted the rapid expansion in enrollment at schools outside the traditional public system that did not require students to learn about evolution:

In closing, I think it’s very important for this board to recognize parents in record numbers are pulling their children from public schools.  There’s a reason for that.  Homeschooling, private schools, virtual schools, charter schools are growing in popularity with every year in part because of widespread frustration and disappointment with public schools.  I will submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, if this board does not adopt the academic freedom proposal language, the rate of exodus from public schools will be an exponential high that you will experience in the future.  We respectfully urge you to adopt the Academic Freedom proposal.

Stemberger’s prediction has certainly come true.

You can hear Stemberger’s entire speech here – Stemberger’s talk begins just after the 1:59 mark in Part 1.

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Tax credit scholarship schools should demonstrate that their students are meeting Florida’s academic standards in all subjects…including science!

The Florida Legislature is nearing a collision between the House and Senate on a plan to dramatically expand the Tax Credit Scholarship Program that provides support for students from families of modest means to attend private schools.  The expansion would allow sales tax revenues to be diverted into the program and would provide scholarship support for families that are more affluent than those now eligible for the program.

The collision would arise from this:  Senate President Don Gaetz said he would support the expansion only if the schools that accept Tax Credit Scholarship students adopt the same testing program now used by the state to evaluate students in traditional and charter schools.  The House sponsors of the expansion, including Speaker Will Weatherford, oppose the testing requirement, as do the majority of those involved with the Tax Credit Scholarship program.  (See arguments given by House sponsor Manny Diaz here and Patrick Gibbons, who is a writer for redefinedonline and Public Affairs Manager for Step Up for Students, the organization that administers the tax credit scholarship program, here)  The primary argument against the testing requirement is that parents know what is best for their children, and that their ability to leave a school through the mechanism of choice provides the best possible accountability.

Step Up for Students also points out that schools hosting tax credit scholarship students are already required to evaluate their students using a valid assessment instrument such as the SAT-10 every year.

But there is a gap in this requirement:  Florida’s science standards, as flawed as they are, require students to understand a picture in which a Big Bang began the expansion of the universe about 15 billion years ago and life developed on the Earth by means of natural processes during the last billion years.  While traditional public schools and charter schools are presently held to account for their students’ understanding of the science in Florida’s standards, schools hosting tax credit scholarship students are not.

Some of the schools that host tax credit scholarship students are hosted by religious organizations that deny – as a matter of dogma – that the universe is billions of years old or that the development of the universe or life itself can be understood in the framework of natural processes.  Brandon Haught of the Florida Citizens for Science says that this the “elephant in the room” in the debate about the expansion of the tax credit scholarship program.

But there are also schools that do not have a religious problem with cosmology or evolution that simply don’t want to be bothered teaching science because it is a low priority.  That is problematic as well.

Organizations that receive public funding – including funding through the mechanism of tax credit scholarships – should be accountable to taxpayers for their performance.  The argument that parental choice provides sufficient accountability is flawed for two reasons.  First, accountability to taxpayers is not the same as accountability to parents.  Florida’s academic standards represent the expectations that taxpayers have with respect to the learning of students in Florida’s schools.  Second, parents are not always competent to decide what preparation their own children need for the society of the future.  In fact, our society is presently experiencing a rapid change in its economic structure that many parents are finding confusing and intimidating.

So I conclude this:  Tax credit scholarship schools should demonstrate that their students are meeting Florida’s academic standards in all subjects, including science.  I support the position that Senate President Gaetz has taken that schools that host tax credit scholarship students should administer the same testing program as traditional schools and charter schools do.  I’ll allow one gap here:  If a tax credit scholarship school can find an alternative valid method for demonstrating that its students meet Florida’s standards in math, English language arts and science, then that school will be providing the state with a valuable service.

To return to the religious objection to teaching Florida’s science standards:  Requiring that students learn about a 15 billion year-old universe and a scenario in which life developed through natural processes is not the same as imposing these beliefs on students.  In fact, teachers have been dealing for a century with the challenge of teaching cosmology and evolution to students who are convinced on religious grounds that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old.  How do they do it?  They tell their students this:  You are required to understand how the scientific community sees the universe and the development of life.  You are not required to believe it.

That seems like a reasonable thing to tell our tax credit scholarship schools as well.


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