Florida moving up on the ACT science exam (sort of): Now 47th, except…

Florida has moved up to 47th on the ACT science exam in the just-released 2014 state rankings (thank you to Leslie Postal for posting the news about. the release and a more general look at Florida’s performance on School Zone).  Florida students averaged 19.1 out of a possible 36 points on the exam, on which 23 is considered college-ready for science.  It is the highest ranking Florida has achieved (out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia) since I started paying attention in 2010.

Well, except the news isn’t quite as good as I’m making it out to be.  The three states below us (Mississippi, North Carolina and Hawaii) and the state tied with us for 47th (Louisiana) all had larger percentages of high school grads take the ACT than Florida did.  81% of Florida high school grads took the ACT, while 100% took the exam in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, where the test is required of all grads.  In Hawaii, 90% took the test. The margin between the average scores in Florida (19.1) and the two states tied for 49th at 18.9 – Mississippi and North Carolina – suggests that if all Florida high school grads had taken the test that our state would have slipped back to 50th place.

The ACT science results provide one more bit of evidence that learning science is not a priority in Florida’s K-12 schools.

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The engineering and physical science pipeline is badly broken, and the fix will require leadership from those professional communities. When will somebody step up?

Last week, I delivered a talk to the Nuclear Physics Town Meeting on Education and Innovation at Michigan State University.  It was a return to my professional “home” – the nuclear physics community – after stints with the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education (the last two years as Chair) and the Executive Committee of the society’s Forum on Education during the last four years.

I returned to plead for the leadership of the nuclear physics community in fixing something that’s badly broken – the engineering and physical science pipeline.  My talk documented what’s broken about the pipeline.  Despite the growing reliance of the national economy on technological innovation, the production of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics is flat over the last ten years as a percentage of total bachelor degree grads.  In fact, the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970.  Yes, you read that correctly – the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970.  The percentage of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by women has been stuck at about 20% for a decade.  The percentages of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by African-Americans is drifting downward under 5%.  The percentages of those degrees earned by Hispanics is not doing much better.

I argued using statistics from AP exams and physics course-taking in high school that these problems originate before college – somewhere in K-12.  I showed a group of 8th graders from Orlando Science School who were inducted into the Future Physicists of Florida in October of 2013, and observed that if we could get that group intact – with its large percentages of women (well, girls since they were in 8th grade) and minority students – into college engineering and physics programs that we would finally make significant progress in solving the fields’ diversity issues.  The target has to be middle school students, and we have to stay with these students while they are in high school.

I also pointed out that some nuclear physicists besides me are already engaged in similar efforts to reach out to middle and high school students, and argued for a nuclear physics community-wide effort to address the engineering and physical science pipeline.

Of course, if it had gone well I wouldn’t be writing this post.

Fragmented, one-off efforts of scattered individuals will not change the big picture.  Weak self-congratulatory organizations like Change the Equation don’t seem to be getting anywhere.  Nobody in the K-12 establishment really cares – people are too busy fighting about whether strong reading and math standards and assessments are good for their paychecks or egos.

So it’s up to the scientists and engineers themselves.  Someday, some segment of the science and engineering community will step up and make a powerful, coherent effort to address the issues I raised in the talk.

But as of today, nobody has.

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High school physics instruction takes great leap forward with arrival of new AP physics courses

The most important thing for a high school physics class to have is a great teacher.

But once you have that, the next thing to have is a great physics curriculum.  That curriculum – the new algebra-based AP physics courses – arrives this month in classrooms around Florida and the nation.  

The new courses, AP Physics 1 and 2, were developed by a group of physicists, high school physics teachers and physics education researchers.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are replacing AP Physics B, a single year-long course.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are each designed to take a year and will cover somewhat more physics content, making them a better match to algebra-based physics courses taught at the college level than AP Physics B had been.  In 2013, 5061 Florida high school students took the AP Physics B exam, scoring an average of 2.57 on the 5-point AP exam scale.

Furthermore, while AP Physics B was designed to be a second physics course – taken after an Honors Physics or standard Physics course – AP Physics 1 is intended to be a first physics course.  While taking the standard high school science sequence, Biology-Chemistry-Physics, some highly motivated students had faced a difficult decision for their junior year science course selection – whether to take an Honors Physics course or an AP Chemistry course that they believed (and were sometimes told by teachers and counselors) would look better on an application for a selective college.  The new AP physics courses eliminate this dilemma by making Honors Physics obsolete.  In fact, no high schools in Florida or elsewhere should be teaching Honors Physics this fall.

This quiet revolution in high school physics teaching has gone nearly unnoticed by the media.  The only story that has appeared in the Florida media is this from the Gainesville Sun that notes rather skeptically that AP Physics 1 will be taught to a small group of 8th graders in Alachua County this fall.  The journalist completely misses – and is probably unaware of – the importance of the new courses for a broader audience of Florida students.  In fact, about 20% of Florida high school students have been graduating with an Honors Physics or standard Physics course.  If all of those students take AP Physics 1 instead, then that will represent roughly a ten-fold increase over the number of students who have taken AP physics previously.    

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Sunday’s Tallahassee Democrat op-ed: Reality check on STEM earnings

Florida’s K-12 policies tilt students – especially girls – toward the least lucrative STEM careers.

It’s linked here.

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Groudhog Day: The evolution education controversy arrives in Florida again

In tomorrow’s Tallahassee Democrat, Associate Editor and columnist Mark Hohmeister points out that the evolution education controversy returns to Florida over and over again.  Mark was reviewing Going Ape, the history of the evolution education controversy in Florida authored by Brandon Haught and recently released by the University of Florida press.  The history starts with William Jennings Bryan early in the 20th century and continues to the present.

Sometimes the whole thing just seems like a bad movie.

Haught reported earlier this year on the Florida Citizens for Science blog that school board candidates in rural Holmes County – all of them – insisted that Young Earth Creationism should be taught in Holmes County schools instead of evolution.  I didn’t find that terribly surprising or discouraging.

But what made my shoulders sag this week was the statement by Pinellas County School Board candidate Ken Peluso that “creationism and evolution should be taught side by side”, according to Gradebook.  Peluso is not a fringe candidate.  He was endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times on July 31 (before his creationism comments) and the Pinellas County Teachers Association.

Peluso backtracked today (according to Gradebook).  But as far as I’m concerned, the damage is done.

Maybe Peluso’s retraction will quiet the debate for now.

But if Brandon Haught has taught us nothing else, it’s that in Florida the evolution education controversy will always return.

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My summer reading recommendation: Jonathan Kozol, starting with “Savage Inequalities”

The start of the fall semester is only a few weeks away, but it’s not too late to do some summer reading.  Christopher Westfall at the FSView/Florida Flambeau asked me and other FSU faculty members for summer reading recommendations.  Perhaps Westfall was expecting a good read on cosmology or stellar nucleosynthesis from me, but what he got instead was this:

Educating each of America’s children to the best of her or his potential is the most critical challenge facing our nation. While we are not doing a particularly good job of educating our middle and upper class children, our historical neglect of children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not only immoral, but also economically shortsighted. 
Kozol’s classic Savage Inequalities, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992, documented the grievous educational inequalities brought on by unequal funding of schools in poor and affluent school districts. 

He followed Savage with three other books on the same subject, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995), Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (2000), and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005). 

While I don’t always agree with Kozol on policy, it is important for every responsible American to understand the issues that Kozol documents.

When I wrote back to Westfall, I thought about adding the fact that I’m a lifelong Republican.  But as a professor, I’m supposed to know enough to bring students to the cognitive dissonance brink but not push them over, and adding my political affiliation seemed like taking a chance that might backfire.

One other note:  Westfall’s identification of me seemed to indicate that Westcott Medal winner and Dean of Faculties Emeritus Steve Edwards coauthored the recommendation.  Steve didn’t.  I proudly carry the title “Steve Edwards Professor of Physics” and that sometimes leads to confusion.

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A breathtaking vision for Duval County’s neediest schools

“Breathtaking” is the only word I can think of to describe the ambition and vision represented by the Quality Education for All (QEA) project being undertaken by a partnership of Duval County Schools and the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida.

According to the Florida Times-Union, QEA has raised $36 million from private donors that will fund substantial – as large as $20,000 – incentive payments to high-performing teachers and principals who work and succeed in 36 of Jacksonville’s most difficult schools.  The Duval County School Board will vote this week on whether to accept the first $15 million grant from QEA.

Even with the incentives, it is difficult to find enough strong math and science teachers immediately.  So the district is implementing two other strategies that focus on these subjects.  First, the district will deploy about 100 Teach for America teachers to teach these subjects in the program’s middle and high schools.  While most TFA teachers leave after two years, it has been shown (most recently in Miami) that students in TFA-led math classes learn more than students in other math classes in high-needs schools.  Second, the district will initiate a four-year residency program for new teachers in STEM fields.

The long-term success of the Duval program will depend on the sustainability of the private funding stream, and that is probably the program’s greatest weakness.  It would be much more comforting if a public funding source were available to sustain the program and others like it.  But nobody – not school districts, not the State of Florida, and not even the education reform community – seems to have any interest in public funding of substantial pay incentives either to attract strong teachers of all disciplines to high-needs schools or to attract more strong mathematicians and scientists into secondary-level teaching.

But maybe – just maybe – the success of the QEA program will compel Florida’s K-12 establishment to take significant pay incentives seriously.

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