There are three major concerns about SB 4 that are expressed by the K-12 community and others – that SB 4 is a “huge unfunded mandate”, that the new graduation requirements in science in SB 4 will cause a catastrophic drop in the graduation rate, and that the highly qualified chemistry and physics teachers needed will not be available. Two of these – the “huge unfunded mandate” concern and the graduation rate concern – have no basis in fact and belong in the SB 4 Folklore File. The third concern is valid and must be addressed – if necessary by means of top-down edicts – quickly.
Here’s a look at the two concerns that belong in the Folklore File:
“Huge unfunded mandate”: The only cost imposed on the school districts by SB 4 is the cost of finding enough new chemistry teachers to teach chemistry to the 40,000 additional Florida high school students who will be taking chemistry every year. Every high school math teacher in Florida is already qualified to teach Algebra 2 (one of the new graduation requirements imposed by SB 4). The course-taking rate for Biology 1 (another new graduation requirement) in Florida is already 95%. And the course-taking rate for physics will not go up at all because chemistry is a prerequisite for physics. So chemistry is it, and teaching the additional 40,000 students per year will probably require in the neighborhood of 400 new chemistry teachers statewide.
The districts do not need new science teaching positions to meet the chemistry demand since the number of courses required for graduation is already three – equal to the SB 4 number. So the big shift will be to replace science teachers who are unqualified to teach chemistry with teachers who are. Alternatively, science teachers who are not qualified to teach chemistry could be retrained to become qualified to teach chemistry.
As discussed in a previous post, the only possible additional cost of hiring new chemistry teachers into existing science teaching positions is the $5,000 per year salary differential that market salaries indicate for chemistry teachers (but which has not yet been collectively bargained in any of Florida’s 67 school districts, to my knowledge). If each of 400 new chemistry teachers receives the $5,000 salary differential, that amounts to $2 million per year statewide. The cost of retraining science teachers to become qualified in chemistry might be as high as $15,000 per teacher. That would amount to a one-time cost (for 400 teachers) of $6 million.
Are these costs an unfunded mandate? Yes. Are they huge? Hardly. I’d settle for the descriptor “modest.”
Catastrophic drop in graduation rate: There is no evidence that the new graduation requirements in science will cause a catastrophic drop in Florida’s graduation rate. In fact, there is substantial credible evidence that any drop will be small and temporary. As I have done previously (here and here) I will cite three sources of evidence. The first is a study recently released by the University of Chicago that examined the impact on the graduation rate in the Chicago Public Schools of an increase in the science graduation requirements implemented in 1997. The graduation rate dropped 4% in the first year of implementation and then an additional 1% the next year. But by the fifth year after implementation, the graduation rate had recovered to the pre-implementation level. The second source of evidence is the graduation rates in four Florida districts – the Super Science Counties – that have had more stringent graduation requirements in science for years. Their 2008-2009 NGA graduation rates (Brevard 95%, Duval 64%, Monroe 81%, and Polk 72%, compared to the statewide rate of 76%) don’t support the argument that higher graduation requirements significantly depress graduation rates. The third source is yesterday’s Boston Globe article on the implementation of the science end-of-course exam requirements on Massachusetts high school students. The new requirement caused a drop in this year’s graduation rate of less than 2%.
Yes, there will be a modest, temporary drop in the graduation rate due to the science requirement in SB 4. But in the 21st century, science is a central subject along with math and language arts. As the Chicago study stated, it took the new 1997 graduation requirements to get school personnel to accept that.
And the one issue we really should be worried about? It’s the supply of qualified chemistry teachers. If you’re really worried about that (as you should be), this is what you should do. First, walk over to the science teacher education unit at your friendly neighborhood college or university and ask how many experienced chemistry teacher educators they have on staff. I don’t mean biology teacher educators who took some chemistry as undergraduates and maybe covered a chemistry class or two during their years in a public high school – I mean people who have made a career out of preparing chemistry teachers and (even better) who have published research on the issues specific to chemistry classrooms. If your local science teacher education unit doesn’t have any such people on staff, suggest that they hire some. If that doesn’t work, talk to (or write to) their Dean. If that doesn’t work, either, write to the President of the college or university. If that fails, write to the Commissioner of Education. If none of that works and you’re absolutely desperate, write an op-ed. Or find out who your legislators actually listen to and talk with them.
FSU researcher Carolyn Herrington expressed her concern to the Miami Herald some weeks ago that there would be an attempt to roll back the new graduation requirements in SB 4. And preventing that – and keeping the science education momentum pointing forward – is what I’m trying to do.