Education policy train getting ready to leave the station – will (non-biology) science even be on board?

Landmark legislation on high school graduation and assessment policy will filed in both houses of the Florida Legislature shortly.  It will be the moment of truth for science in Florida’s schools.

The Tampa Tribune quoted Florida Senate PreK-12 Committee Chair Nancy Detert saying that legislation on school graduation and assessment policy is a high priority this session:  “Frankly, I consider this [Senate] President Atwater’s legacy legislation.  This is going to be the big package of the year.”

House PreK-12 Policy Committee Chair John Legg has already said that his committee will propose a comprehensive bill in early February.  And on Wednesday, FDOE K-12 Chancellor Frances Haithcock sounded a bugle call for action, saying “We are not transparent to our parents about what a diploma in Florida means.”

The legislation will feature changes in graduation requirements and a move away from the FCAT and toward end-of-course exams at the high school level.

The legislative education policy train is loading up and getting ready to leave the station.

But will science – at least non-biology science – be on board?  There are worrisome signs that it will not.

During her remarks to the House PreK-12 Policy Committee on Wednesday, Chancellor Haithcock focused on biology.  Even asked by a committee member to say where she’d like science to be in ten years, the Chancellor was evasive, suggesting that in addition to biology perhaps a little chemistry would be nice.  But the FDOE plan – Chancellor Haithcock’s plan – has only one science subject in its graduation requirement plans and end-of-course testing through 2014, and that is biology.

Senator Detert’s committee released a report in October saying that science subjects should only be required for graduation when all the necessary “appropriately trained” teachers are already in place.  There is a much more adequate supply of biology teachers than of teachers in other areas like physics, in part because of the high salaries that new bachelor’s degree recipients in the physical sciences can earn in non-teaching jobs.  It would take a focused act of political will to recruit more physics teachers, and if physics is not included in the legislation it will be regarded as a low priority.  Physics, Earth/space science and perhaps even chemistry will decline in Florida’s high schools.

Once the House and Senate pass graduation and assessment policy legislation and the Governor signs it – after two years of work – the Legislature will not want to revisit the issue for a very long time.  Biology-only in 2010 will almost certainly mean biology-only in 2015 and beyond.  No wonder Chancellor Haithcock didn’t want to make any long term commitments.

Students will continue to show up at Florida’s universities not knowing the difference between a joule and a volt.  Many of these students will profess their undying passion for science because they love memorizing the names of body parts and organic molecules (the basic energy issues underlying the operation of the body and the binding of large molecules being unimportant, of course).

The graduation and assessment policy train will leave the station on the day that Representative Legg’s committee bill is filed in February.  If non-biology science is not on board, then the work of the last three years on science standards and advocacy for improved science education at the high school level will have failed.

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