I’m not looking forward to teaching this fall without my partner Danielle Simmons

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Danielle Simmons assisting a student during a laboratory exercise on the relationship between electric potential and field in a recent FSU studio physics class.

A few years ago, I was sitting in the office of my colleague and friend David Van Winkle, who was in charge of assigning our physics department’s graduate teaching assistants to courses. The studio physics courses that David and I teach are particularly demanding for the teaching assistants, and not all of the teaching assistants have the personality to succeed in the studio learning environments. So it is customary for the professors teaching studio physics to get together several weeks before a semester begins, pick out graduate students who seem well-suited to teaching studio and then begin the process of recruiting them.

As David and I went through the teaching assistantship candidates, graduate student Danielle Simmons walked in, looked at David, and asked to be assigned to teach a studio physics section. The year before, I had taught a studio physics course with Danielle, a graduate of Orlando’s Edgewater High School and UNC-Chapel Hill before coming to FSU to work on a Ph.D. in experimental condensed matter physics. It had gone remarkably well, so I turned to David and said while Danielle watched, “If you assign Danielle to my class I will kiss your feet.” Danielle approved (of the teaching assignment, not the feet-kissing) and so David placed Danielle in my class (and declined the feet-kissing).

During her time with me, Danielle was way more than my ace TA – she was my classroom partner. She managed just the right balance of accessibility and firmness in responding to student questions and requests. She discerned patterns of student difficulties and came up with strategies for dealing with them on the fly in class.

Danielle was a mentor to the other graduate TA’s and the undergraduate Learning Assistants (LA’s) who served in my classes with her. She remembered issues that came up during laboratory exercises from the previous year and adjusted lab instructions and scoring rubrics to eliminate obstacles to learning during our weekly TA/LA training meetings.

Danielle often functioned as my handler. She frequently made very insightful suggestions about how to run the class better. I am sure that I turned a few down – I just can’t remember any. She was so well plugged into student concerns and moods – which are critical to maintaining a positive learning environment in a studio-style classroom – that I often allowed her impression of a student to supersede my own.

All good things must come to an end. Danielle will be defending her dissertation this fall and (last I heard) taking a job in the private sector. I will not have her guidance and camaraderie in the classroom again.

You might wonder if a physicist who navigated so well in a classroom full of 18- and 19-year-olds had considered the possibility of moving down a few grade levels and teaching in a high school. Danielle gave that possibility some thought. Last year, when several of our physics students had dinner with the Chair of the Bay County School Board, Danielle was there. When a delegation of leaders from Danielle’s home district – Orange County Public Schools – came to the FSU Physics Department this past spring and convinced a few students to start teaching careers in Central Florida, Danielle was there to listen. But in the end she was unconvinced. Danielle told me once that she might have chosen teaching over pursuing a Ph.D. after she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with her bachelor’s degree, but she didn’t get the right pitch. As she approached the completion of her Ph.D. – and the six-figure salary that is surely waiting for her – it was just too late for a change in career direction.

I’m sure that the TA’s with whom I work this fall will be excellent. But it’s difficult to imagine any TA having the impact on students – and on me – that Danielle did.

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Danielle (far right) preparing for a studio physics laboratory exercise on AC circuits with (from left) undergraduate Learning Assistant Kirsty Scott, Physics Department Teaching Laboratory Coordinator Barbara Reyes, and graduate Teaching Assistant Lakshmi Bhaskaran.

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Danielle in her research laboratory.

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Is the Florida “teaching gap” narrowing, as Miami Today reported? Not in math and science.

Miami Today reported this week that Florida’s teacher shortage is being successfully addressed.

My conversations during the last few months with administrators and department heads responsible for hiring high school teachers in math, chemistry and physics has given me an entirely different picture.  Recruiters are increasingly willing to try new strategies, like visiting the FSU Physics Department and talking with our students directly.

One recruiter suggested that the 9% decline in chemistry enrollments in Florida’s public high schools during the last two years might have been caused by the shortage of chemistry teachers.  Physics enrollments have dropped as well – by 8% over the last three years.  It’s possible that the physics teacher shortage is responsible for that as well.

While it’s true that the numbers of individuals holding certifications in math and science areas have been growing, it’s likely that many of those certificate holders have left the teaching profession.  A truer picture of the availability of teachers to fill vacancies in math and science is probably given by the numbers of individuals taking and passing the state’s certification tests in those subjects for the first time.  As you can see below, those numbers have been declining at least since 2013 (we don’t have numbers for prior years).

Just to be clear:  The shortage of teachers in math and science subjects is desperate in Florida, and is becoming more so.

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How a terrible idea achieves eternal life: Florida’s ACT/SAT-based Best and Brightest scholarships

Last year, Florida spent $70 million paying bonuses of about $7,000 each to more than 9,000 teachers in part because those teachers had earned scores in the 80th percentile or higher when they took either the ACT or SAT college placement exam.  Nearly all of those teachers had posted those test scores before they entered college – and for some teachers that was decades ago.  It seemed to many members of the K-12 community (and even some of those outside of it like me) to be a terrible idea when it was implemented in 2015 with the name “Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program”.  (Florida has since added a component to the Best and Brightest program that relies only on teacher evaluations and not on ACT/SAT scores)  Lawsuits were filed and morale was damaged.

However, behind this idea there was a rationale – attracting more talented young people into the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, these ACT/SAT-based bonuses have failed as a recruiting tool.  Teacher shortages have intensified.  If the bonus program was going to work at all, it would have increased the supply of high school math teachers.  It has clearly failed at that – the number of aspiring math teachers taking the state’s high school math teacher certification exam for the first time has dropped 16% since the ACT/SAT-based bonuses were implemented.  The corresponding numbers for most science certification tests have dropped as well.

But the noise surrounding the ACT/SAT-based bonus program has subsided.  When I published an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat recently arguing that the $70 million per year (more than $20 per Florida K-12 student) being spent on the program should be redirected to the state’s base K-12 funding account, I received only one response – from a teacher who complained that I should save my keystrokes for a topic more to his liking.

Nor did I hear from our local budget hawks, Florida TaxWatch’s Dominic Calabro and the James Madison Institute’s Bob McClure.  I live in Tallahassee and I know these guys.  I’ve seen one of them in person since the Democrat piece appeared.  All I’ve gotten is crickets.

I’ve arrived at the head-shaking conclusion that the ACT/SAT-based bonus program is here to stay – it will last as long as Florida does (that is to say, eternally).  Despite the fact that it is an expensive and failed program, it represents a Brilliant Republican Idea (thank goodness I am not a Brilliant Republican – just a Dumb Republican).  So the Republican leadership wants to preserve it.

On the other hand, nobody in the K-12 system has the stomach to argue that the teachers who are presently receiving the bonuses that they earned because of tests they took maybe decades ago should now be deprived of them.

Meanwhile, Florida’s shortage of math and science teachers continues to intensify.  It seems fair to say, to mangle a well-known phrase, that everybody talks about the math and science teacher shortage, but nobody (with a few exceptions) does anything about it.

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Black students in Florida’s STEM pipeline and middle school Algebra 1: A ranking of school districts

Black students remain severely underrepresented in Florida’s STEM career pipeline.  Among Florida public K-12 school students, 22% are black.  Yet in 2015-16, black students earned only 6.8% of SUS bachelors’ degrees in engineering, 11.1% of the system’s bachelors’ degrees in computing, 5.3% of the bachelors’ degrees in math and statistics, and 4.9% of the bachelors’ degrees in the physical sciences.

To complete a bachelor’s degree in one of the above fields, it is very helpful to earn credit for a calculus course in high school.  Not surprisingly, the severe underrepresentation of black students shows up in Florida’s AP Calculus classrooms.  Among Florida’s 2016-17 AP Calculus AB students, only 6.9% were black.  In AP Calculus BC, only 3.9% were black.

And you can’t take a calculus course in high school unless you complete Algebra 1 in middle school.  This spring, 9.5% of 7th graders of all races attending a Florida public school took and passed the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam.  Of the state’s 8th graders, 28.4% took and passed the Algebra 1 EOC.  About 38% of Florida public school students now take Algebra 1 and pass the state’s EOC while they are in middle school.

But the middle school Algebra 1 numbers are quite different for Florida’s black students.  Only 5.0% of Florida’s black 7th graders took Algebra 1 and passed the EOC.  For black 8th graders, it was 17.1%.  Only about 22% of Florida’s black students now take Algebra 1 and pass the state’s EOC while they are in middle school.

However, these statewide numbers obscure a tremendous amount of variation among Florida’s school districts.  For example, Sarasota County is approximately tied with Orange County for second place in the state for the rate at which middle school students of all races take Algebra 1 and pass the EOC.  In each of these two counties, about 48% of students pass take and pass the Algebra 1 EOC while in middle school.  However, in Sarasota County only 19.5% of black students do so.

A ranking of the 38 Florida school districts that have 100 or more black students in each grade on the basis of the success of black students in middle school Algebra 1 is shown below, side-by-side with a corresponding ranking for students of all races.  The present analysis calculates the number of 7th graders in a district who passed the Algebra 1 EOC as a percentage of the total number of 7th graders in the district, and does the same for 8th graders. The districts are then ranked according to the sum of the 7th grade and 8th grade percentages. The sum provides an estimate of the percentage of middle school students who pass the Algebra 1 EOC before moving on to high school.  The plot on the right accounts for students of all races, and the plot on the left includes only black students.  The data used for the analysis comes from the Florida Department of Education’s EdStats system.

The plot for black students shows that Sarasota County ranked 15th in middle school Algebra 1 success for black students, even though it ranked 2nd when all students are included.

Orange County, with the effort it invests in its Calculus Project targeting low income middle school students, maintains 2nd place in the ranking based on black students only.  About 30% of black students in Orange County’s schools succeed in Algebra 1 in middle school.

Collier County, which is far ahead of second place Sarasota and Orange when students of all races are taken into account, has an even larger lead when only black students are counted.

There are other notable cases.  St. Johns County – Florida’s only truly affluent district – is ranked 10th when students of all races are included.  But for black students, it is ranked 32nd – six places from the bottom.

Gadsden County, the economically struggling north Florida county with a largely black student population, is ranked 38th (and last) when students of all races are taken into account but considerably higher – 20th – for black students.

Some notable factoids:

Orange County’s Calculus Project recruits low income students who are completing 6th grade into 7th grade Algebra 1 classes.  As a result, Orange County has one-quarter of all black 7th grade Algebra 1 students in Florida.

Alachua County, the home of the University of Florida, had 718 black 7th graders this year but had fewer than 10 black 7th graders taking Algebra 1 (EdStats doesn’t show a number for any activity that has fewer than 10 students for privacy reasons).  Alachua ranks 34th for middle school Algebra 1 success by black students, even though it ranks 7th when all students are taken into account.

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A reply to Opt Out Florida co-founder Sandy Stenoff on middle school Algebra 1: Here’s why I think it’s important – but yes, these decisions are difficult.

Sandy Stenoff, a Central Florida parent of two children in the public schools and a co-founder of the Opt Out Florida Network, tweeted to me in response to a tweet in which I mentioned the rising number of Florida middle school students who are taking Algebra 1. She said, “Middle school math teachers tell me that we are doing children a disservice by pushing them too hard and too fast into Advanced Math. Most don’t fare as well nor continue pursuing more Advanced Math later on, compared to students who start in high school.” Sandy’s comment deserved a thoughtful response, so here I try to provide one. You can follow Sandy on twitter at @1BatMom (which is a very cool handle).

Among Sandy’s achievements is this column in the Washington Post from 2015 on high-stakes testing and young children – in particular, her young children.

Hi Sandy,

To start with, I want to share with you where I’m coming from on this issue. You mostly know already, but I think it’s useful to lay it out.

My goal in most things I do professionally (and with my education advocacy hobby) is to broaden access to careers in fields like engineering and the physical sciences.  We tend to think of these careers as being only for a few elite students, but we’ve learned in recent decades that many more students can succeed in these fields than we thought previously.  I think that every student bound for a four-year college is capable of succeeding in these fields, and I want these students to be prepared so they have the option of making such a choice.

It is very, very helpful for a student who declares a college major in engineering (and pretty much required for a student who declares a major in physics) to have completed a first semester calculus course before starting college. Why? College engineering programs are accredited by an organization whose acronym is ABET – they pretty much define what the professional community of engineers expects a new bachelor’s degree grad in engineering to have done and to know. The physics community doesn’t have such a formal accreditation structure, but we are a smaller community and have a fairly well-defined expectation of what a new bachelor’s degree grad in physics knows. It is difficult (in the case of engineering) or pretty much impossible (in the case of physics) to complete a bachelor’s degree meeting these accreditation requirements or expectations in four years without completing a first calculus course in high school.

For a student to take a first calculus course during the senior year of high school, she or he has to take Algebra 1 no later than 8th grade (the standard math sequence is Algebra 1-Geometry-Algebra 2-Precalculus).

So that’s why I get excited when students take Algebra 1 in middle school.

Now onto the next question: Is it constructive for middle school students to take Algebra 1? The answer is the same as for every other education question: For some students, yes. For other students, no.

I think we all know middle school students who have thrived in Algebra 1 classes. But clearly not all students should take Algebra 1 in middle school. How many should?

Three Duke University researchers examined this question by looking at the experience that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had when they “initiated a broad program of accelerating entry into algebra coursework. The proportion of moderately-performing students taking 8th grade algebra increased from less than half to nearly 90%, then reverted to baseline levels, in the span of just six age cohorts.” In retrospect, we can be horrified at the way that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district handled this, but we can also learn from it.

The conclusion reached by the Duke researchers was remarkable for its simplicity:
“The optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking is undoubtedly greater than zero. Indeed, our results indicate that the increase in Algebra 1 taking among 7th graders in CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] has had no significant adverse long-term effects. Our evidence also suggests that the optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking, in a population equivalent to that in CMS, is at or below the observed baseline rate around 50%.”
In seven Florida school districts, 50% or more of the students take Algebra 1 in middle school, according to the recently released results for the 2018 Algebra 1 EOC. Of course, there is nothing magic about that 50% number. Some districts are probably too conservative in steering middle school kids into Algebra 1. For example, in Okeechobee County every one of the 98 7th and 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it, and only about 20% of their students take Algebra 1 in middle school. Some districts may push too many kids into Algebra 1. In Putnam County, only 55% of the 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it.

There are other important aspects to this problem, of course. We have a terrible time attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Orange County has tackled this problem head-on through its “Calculus Project”, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds who would not otherwise have been selected for middle school Algebra 1 into taking that course in 7th grade. Does the program doom these kids for failure? Nope. These kids succeed at a high rate because the school district has made the commitment to provide the support these kids needs to succeed, including a math boot camp the summer before 7th grade and after-school sessions during the school year (you can see an Orlando Sentinel article on the program here). The Calculus Project is the most important initiative for getting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into the STEM pipeline in Florida, and maybe in the southeastern US.

The problem of the severe underrepresentation of women in engineering, computer science and physics is frustratingly stubborn. Only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields are awarded to women. Why? There are plenty of factors driving this problem. But here is one that was documented only recently: Middle and high school girls who are good at math often don’t think they are. Boys don’t often have that problem. It’s called the confidence gap, and I am fortunate to have an FSU colleague named Lara Perez-Felkner who is the authority on this.

How should we bring this research to bear on our middle and high school classrooms to open the doors to these careers? We are just starting to explore that question. At the high school in Bay County where I’ve been most involved, Mosley High School, I simply shared about that research with counselors and parents. Those conversations seem to have made deep impressions.

Of course, I can quote statistics and research all day. But if that’s all I did, I’d be failing to acknowledge the deeply personal nature of the decisions that parents, students and educators make about what courses students should take and when. A conversation I had within the last year with our oldest child, a 29-year-old daughter who is a very successful attorney, reminded me about how difficult these conversations can be. This daughter is a wonderful human being as well as a sometimes fearsome lawyer. Her math skills were very strong in high school and college (she was 3rd place in the state Mu Alpha Theta meet in multivariable calculus her senior year of high school), and in meetings populated with high priced attorneys and powerful clients, she is generally the only one who can calculate things. We were talking about the workload she took on in high school, including a full load of AP courses (with a heavy emphasis on science and math) and two swimming workouts per day. Then she said something that caught me completely off-guard: “You mean I had a choice?” I never knew she felt that way – like we were pushing her forward. We always thought she was completely self-motivated. It made me think about how difficult it can be to get academic decisions – and all kinds of other personal decisions – really right.

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Collier County #1 Florida district for middle school Algebra 1, according to newly released results

Collier County blew by Florida’s usual STEM leaders to establish itself as the state’s number one district for middle school Algebra 1, according to my analysis of the Algebra 1 end-of-course (EOC) exam results released yesterday by the Florida Department of Education.

Taking Algebra 1 in middle school puts a student on track to take a calculus course in high school – placing the student in the pipeline for engineering, physics and other STEM careers.

The present analysis calculates the number of 7th graders in a district who passed the Algebra 1 EOC as a percentage of the total number of 7th graders in the district, and does the same for 8th graders.  The districts are then ranked according to the sum of the 7th grade and 8th grade percentages.  The sum provides an estimate of the percentage of middle school students who pass the Algebra 1 EOC before moving on to high school.

Collier and the second-ranked district, Orange County, achieved their high standings in entirely different ways.  Few Collier County 7th graders took and passed the Algebra 1 exam, but more than half the district’s 8th graders took and passed the exam.

In contrast, nearly one-quarter of Orange County’s 7th graders took and passed the Algebra 1 EOC.  The district’s “Calculus Project”, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds into Algebra 1 and provides a summer pre-algebra boot camp for these students, contributes to this success.  (An Orlando Sentinel article on the Calculus Project is linked here)  The Calculus Project is the state’s most important initiative for preparing students from disadvantaged backgrounds for STEM careers.

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Number of Florida middle school students passing state’s Algebra 1 end of course exam continues to surge

The numbers of middle school students passing Florida’s Algebra 1 end of course exam continued to surge this year, according to testing results released by the Florida Department of Education today.

Students who pass Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before are on schedule to take a calculus course in high school, placing them in the pipeline for engineering careers.

The number of 7th graders passing the spring administration of the test was 16% higher this year than last year.  The two-year increase from 2016 to 2018 was 26%.

The number of 8th graders passing the test increased 8% this year and 28% in over the last two years.

The overall passing rate for all grades and all three administrations of the exam in 2017-18 increased to 61% from 56% three years ago, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

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