If you’re an aficionado of education policy, you’re familiar with the lament that many or most of the high school graduates who arrive on college campuses are, in the words of a new report released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, “not academically ready for postsecondary studies.” The first paragraph of the report serves (as intended) as a nice introduction to the problem:
Every year in the United States, nearly 60 percent of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not academically ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness.
The visibility achieved by the college readiness issue is perhaps second only to the visibility of the high school graduation rate issue. No one would argue that these two issues are not important.
But when it comes to the economic future of Florida and the nation, the issue of educating an adequate supply of strong professionals in the engineering, health and science professions is equally important. (For the remainder of this post, I will reluctantly adopt the acronym “STEM” – for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” – as an inclusive term for these professions.) To take one very narrow example: A group of political and business leaders gathered last week in Orlando to push for state support for the development of the clean energy industry in Florida. The critical piece of the clean energy industry puzzle that was left entirely out of the discussion was the importance of educating the scientists and engineers that the industry will need to thrive in Florida over the long term. There is going to be a special session of the Florida Legislature held in Tallahassee later this month. Governor Crist wants to put a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling on this fall’s ballot. Some legislators are talking about pushing a program of state support for the clean energy industry during the session. One thing is for sure: the education of scientists and engineers will not come up.
At the moment, it is highly unlikely that it will come up during the 2011 regular legislative session, either. Florida’s new high school graduation law, approved during the 2010 legislative session and signed into law by Governor Crist, will do little or nothing to encourage talented students to pursue careers in the STEM fields. It will also do little or nothing to prepare these students for the rigors of undergraduate programs in these fields – making them “STEM-ready”. The report released before this spring’s legislative session by the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Closing the Talent Gap, emphasizes the importance of educating more STEM professionals but then drops the ball in making the connection between what is done in our high schools and the numbers of these professionals that graduate from the state’s universities. As far as I can tell, education leaders in the executive and legislative branches of Florida’s government believe that they are now done with math and science in high school – “We did that last year!” Here’s one example of this: Last month, a consortium of twelve states that includes some of the nation’s leaders in K-12 STEM education applied for funding from the US Department of Education to begin the transformation of their high schools’ STEM programs. The funding of this $30 million program is virtually guaranteed, since the department has allocated $30 million for high school assessment improvement and no one else has applied. Mississippi joined the consortium, which also includes Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. Florida did not.
There is one glimmer of hope. Florida’s new high school graduation law also requires the legislature’s research office – OPPAGA – to issue a report on differentiated high school diploma programs in the US before the 2011 legislative session. If Florida implements an “Advanced Studies Diploma” for university-bound high school graduates that includes the requirement of biology, chemistry and physics at the honors level, it will at least ensure that students entering our universities are STEM-ready. Florida’s K-12 Chancellor Frances Haithcock has already made it clear (during the January 20 meeting of the House PreK-12 Policy Committee) that she opposes differentiated diploma programs like the one recently adopted in Virginia or the one that New York State has had forever. But perhaps – just perhaps – some community of STEM professionals in Florida will see the importance of an Advanced Studies Diploma and take the message to Florida’s policy-makers. I’m not holding my breath, but stranger things have happened. After all, this is Florida.