Florida vs. Massachusetts – Are Great Science Standards Enough to Raise Student Achievement?

At last week’s Florida Board of Education meeting, K-12 Chancellor Frances Haithcock and Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen presented a comparison of the standards and performance of the K-12 systems in Massachusetts and Florida.  One of the items they highlighted was Florida’s new science standards, of which the FDOE – and the committee that drafted them – are justifiably proud.  However, the adoption of strong standards, while necessary, is only the first step to producing world-class science achievement at the K-12 level.  Since Haithcock and Tappen avoided a discussion of what it really takes to produce world-class science education performance, I recommend that the Board members read a letter sent to Commissioner Smith by 39 of the members of the science standards committee shortly after the adoption of the standards by the Board in February 2008

The letter lists seven steps the signers believe are necessary to build a world-class K-12 science education system in Florida:

1)      Ensure the alignment of curriculum, instructional methods, assessment and pedagogy with these new standards.

2)      Require four high school science credits for graduation.

3)      Adopt the 2003 National Science Teacher Association teacher preparation standards.

4)      Establish a permanent panel of scientists, business leaders and educator-leaders that advise the Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education on science education issues.

5)      Support the development and adoption of research-based instructional materials, including laboratories and authentic field experiences.

6)      Commit at least $100 million per year to professional development of science teachers that is based on the best research about how students learn this subject.

7)      Provide an immediate differential pay structure that will increase salaries of science teachers by 20%, and provide full state funding for this.  This step is recommended in the report “Teachers and the Uncertain American Future” issued by the College Board’s Center for Innovative Thought.  We believe that all the recommendations in this report should be implemented in Florida.

Step 1 – alignment – is certainly underway.  However, the Florida Legislature has shown no interest in Step 2, requiring four science courses for graduation (as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi do).  Commissioner Smith may have some scientists, business leaders and educator-leaders with whom he confers on science education issues, but there is nothing like the organized panel recommended in Step 4.  I am not aware of any large-scale efforts in the development and implementation of new instructional materials (Step 5), but I would not be surprised if at least a few projects are in progress.

On the positive side, there is progress in teacher preparation programs at Florida’s state universities, which is Step 3.  One example is the new program at FSU’s Physics Department, which is being implemented with the department’s internal resources and without support from the FDOE.  Similar efforts are underway at other institutions and in other disciplines.

However, it is clear that Step 6 – a significant professional development effort comparable to Florida’s successful professional development program in reading education – is not taking place.  A letter sent during the 2009 legislative session to Governor Crist by 106 science professors from throughout Florida complained about the inadequate scale of the state’s professional development program in science, called PROMiSE, saying

 The scale of the professional science development program provided by the FDOE, called PROMiSE, is inadequate to the task of transforming our corps of science teachers.  By not pointing this out, the FDOE left policy-makers with the false hope that significant progress has been made in improving science teaching in Florida’s schools. 

The Gang of 90 white paper makes a similar recommendation, proposing a $30 million per year professional development program for science at the secondary level.

To her credit, Chancellor Haithcock alluded to the salary issue, Step 7, in her response to a question from Board Member John Padget about why Florida’s performance presently falls so far behind that of Massachusetts, which pays its teachers considerably better than Florida.  However, the Chancellor’s comments (which can be heard on the video archive of the Board meeting linked here  late in Part 3) mostly focused on testing and standards and did little to acknowledge the importance of the other investments necessary to build a world-class K-12 science education establishment in Florida.

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