Student learning and opportunity should be at the center of BOG deliberations about the future of classrooms

As Florida’s Board of Governors considers the future of classrooms in the State University System, members can focus on either saving money or on improving student learning in fields that provide economic opportunity.

Of course, I hope they choose to focus on opportunity.

But I should be forgiven if I’m a little pessimistic on that score.  The presentation that BOG Assistant Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Chris Kinsley gave to the Board’s Facilities Committee on the “Impact of Online Education on Space Needs” argued that the need for new space in the SUS has been reduced by $1-2 billion by the system’s push for online education but said nothing about improving student learning in high-demand fields like engineering, math, and physics – and the facilities needed to do so.

If Kinsley and his BOG colleagues asked about improving student learning, they might get some answers that surprise them.  An MIT study demonstrated that introductory physics students enrolled in a MOOC with recorded lectures made somewhat greater learning gains than students in a traditional lecture course.  However, student learning gains in both of these formats fell far behind those achieved in interactive engagement courses like the SCALE-UP format that FSU’s studio physics program (and, ahem, MIT’s Physics Department) has adopted.

So what conclusion should the Board reach?  Fewer lecture halls and more interactive engagement classrooms would be logical.  For those courses where instructors insist on the lecture format, lectures could be recorded and the need for new lecture halls mitigated.  Improved student learning would probably result.

But it would also be fair for Kinsley and his colleagues to ask whether the dramatically higher student learning gains achieved in a physical interactive engagement classroom could be reproduced in an online environment.  The first answer is that it hasn’t been done yet.  The dramatic improvements in learning gains in an interactive engagement environment are driven by intensive social interactions – among students and between students and instructors.  Nobody has yet come up with a way to reproduce that social bandwidth fully online.  If they had, perhaps Florida’s Legislature would meet via Skype instead of wasting all that money on physically coming to Tallahassee every spring.

However, there are people thinking about how to do it, and perhaps those techniques will become available in the next decade.

But for now, if the highest priority is to give students from diverse backgrounds access to the nation’s most lucrative career paths like engineering, physics and math, we’ll have to find the resources to construct the physical interactive engagement classrooms we need.  That might not make Kinsley and his colleagues at the Board of Governors happy.  But it’s the truth.

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Florida’s Board of Governors says that university system’s online learning push will dramatically reduce classroom space needs

In a presentation to the Facilities Committee of the Florida Board of Governors at their meeting last week, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Chris Kinsley said that the system’s new emphasis on online learning is reducing the need for new classroom space by between $1 billion and $2 billion.

The presentation was an early step in the development of a new model for determining the amount of classroom space needed by each of the system’s universities.

The model presently being used has been in place for twenty years.

The presentation can be seen here.

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2016 ACT: Florida high schoolers strong in reading, weak in math, even worse in science. But that’s not the important point.

Of the students in Florida’s high school graduating class of 2016, 81% took the ACT.  Twenty-two other states had ACT participation rates higher than Florida’s, including eighteen where the exam was required for all high school students.  It’s fair to look at how Florida results stack up against these twenty-two states.  The state-by-state results were supplied by ACT.

The four plots shown below compare the average scores that Florida students earned on the four ACT sections to the other high-participation states.  As you might expect, Florida high schoolers performed reasonably well compared to the competition in reading, significantly weaker in math, and much weaker in science and English.  This is the result of Florida’s nearly 20-year-old emphasis on reading and the failure to make the investments necessary to improve student achievement in math and science.  (Although…English?)

But the more important point to make is this:  The ACT provides an easily interpreted means for Florida parents and voters to compare the achievement of Florida’s students directly to that of students in other states.  The present FSA and EOC tests presently required of the state’s high school students do not provide that.  A switch from the state’s present high school testing program to the ACT is therefore in order.  And…since the vast majority of Florida’s students take the ACT, replacing the high school FSA and EOC exams with the ACT would reduce the testing load on the state’s high schoolers.

Who could argue with that?





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FSU and the SUS performance-based funding program: Should FSU be trying to improve its metrics? Or just say the program is unfair?

A significant amount of funding for Florida’s State University System (SUS) institutions is now distributed using a performance-based funding program that financially rewards institutions for addressing some of the state’s policy priorities.

The state’s two “preeminent” (and oldest) public institutions – the University of Florida and Florida State University – start from fundamentally different places when it comes to the state’s policy priorities, which focus in part on producing graduates (at both the bachelor’s and graduate levels) in fields where demand for these graduates is highest.

The University of Florida is the state’s land grant institution and thus has always been oriented more toward engineering, science, health professions and agriculture than the arts and humanities.

Despite Florida State University’s world-class programs in some STEM fields – many of which were established after World War II when GI’s came to universities in droves – the university’s beginnings as a college for women were focused on the arts and humanities, and the institution’s balance still reflects those origins.

So UF fits comfortably into the emphasis on “Programs of Strategic Emphasis” (PSE) metrics built into the performance funding program, while FSU does not.

The figure below illustrates one of the metrics used in the performance funding program – the percentage of an institution’s bachelors’ degrees that are awarded in Programs of Strategic Emphasis.  FSU is ranked last in the SUS – even behind New College – and UF is ranked first.


It’s worth noting that Programs of Strategic Emphasis include not only the category of STEM fields, but also the categories of Education, Health, Global Competitiveness and something called “Gap Analysis”, which is a list generated by finding fields outside of the other categories for which in-state demand exceeds supply. A few examples from the “Gap Analysis” category: Accounting, Banking and Human Resources.

Being last in this metric (and ranking low in the corresponding metric for graduate degrees in PSE and the metric for salaries for recent bachelor’s degree graduates – which as you can imagine depends sensitively on the mix of majors of the bachelors’ degrees awarded) costs FSU money.  So what, if anything, should FSU do to address this?

To improve in the bachelor’s degree metric shown above, FSU would have to significantly increase its graduates in the PSE degree categories (I prefer that approach to cutting arts and humanities graduates, where FSU has historical strength).  And to increase PSE graduates, the university would have to focus on recruiting more strong students in those fields.

How could FSU do this?  Some ideas:

  • Address the shortages of seats in science and math courses caused by the lack of science-specific facilities like laboratories, computer classrooms and SCALE-UP classrooms (of which only two are presently available for use by science departments) by making the construction of new facilities for teaching undergraduate science, math and computing the highest priority for the university’s academic construction program.  The construction of a new science-math-computing teaching facility should be supplemented by the renovation of existing underutilized science buildings.
  • Concentrate merit-based scholarships on students who have taken high-level math and science courses like calculus and physics in high school.  FSU still admits students who have had no high school math course higher than Algebra 2.
  • Invest in outreach to math and science teachers in high schools around the state so that these teachers know the strengths of FSU’s STEM programs.  (Fun fact:  A joint task force of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers will soon cite FSU’s undergraduate program in physics as a national research university model. It will then be official that FSU has the best undergraduate physics program in the state.)

Would such a focus on increasing the number of graduates in Programs of Strategic Emphasis be bad for FSU?  I have colleagues who believe it would be because it would change the university’s historic level of emphasis on the arts and humanities, and that the PSE  and starting salary metrics should just be ignored because they are not “fair”.

FSU’s leadership should be weighing the perceived costs and practical benefits of a focus on building up the university’s Programs of Strategic Emphasis.  The decisions made in the next few years will impact the institution’s fiscal destiny for years to come.


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150 Bay County middle school students were inducted into the Future Physicists of Florida. So what comes next?

Parents who attended Tuesday’s Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony at Florida State University’s Panama City Campus with their children asked me one question over and over again:  What’s next?

The answer to that question is this:  Bay County’s district high schools have a team of outstanding physics teachers, and they have tickets to a lifetime of opportunity for your kids.

FSU has been working closely with physics teachers Nancy Browne at Bay High School, Rachel Morris at Rutherford, and Sean O’Donnell and Lance King at Mosley to expand and improve the opportunities to learn physics and prepare for careers in engineering, science, computing and health professions.  Browne, Morris and O’Donnell spent six consecutive Wednesday evenings this summer (at six hours per session) working with FSU faculty members to both deepen their understanding of electricity and magnetism and to learn to engage their students in learning this challenging subject.

FSU’s President John Thrasher proved he is all in for improving access to STEM careers for Bay County students by injecting $40,000 worth of physics laboratory equipment into Bay, Mosley and Rutherford High Schools to support the teachers’ efforts to improve student learning opportunities.  That equipment is now in place and is ready for use.

But Tuesday’s ceremony carried implicit challenges for both the Bay County school district and the parents of the students who were honored.

Bay District Schools must make sure that the students honored Tuesday as well as their classmates have access to the high quality courses in physics, chemistry, precalculus and calculus that high school students must take to prepare for careers in engineering, science and health professions.  And then the district’s counselors and teachers must steer students into those courses.  That is not an easy task because those courses are among the most challenging that high schools offer.

The good news is that many of Bay County’s teachers and counselors have taken on that challenge, and the result is that the district’s enrollment rates in those courses, which historically have been well below Florida’s averages, have started to improve.  For example, about twice as many Bay County high school students are taking physics this fall as did last year.

As for the parents, who are their children’s primary educators:  Parents have to understand how important it is to persevere in upper level math and science courses, even when they seem difficult and the route to a good grade seems cloudy.  Parents who avoided these courses themselves in high school because of a lack of confidence in their own abilities have to encourage their children to take them, anyway.  That is a tall order.

Because of its teachers, counselors, administrators and parents, the Bay District Schools seem poised to open a new world of opportunity for its students.  Tuesday’s induction ceremony was a call to take on the challenges that lie ahead with enthusiasm and energy.

Eryn Dion of the Panama City News-Herald posted some video from the ceremony here.


Nancy Browne (Bay HS), Rachel Morris (Rutherford) and Sean O’Donnell (Mosley) working on a circuit lab during a Wednesday evening workshop this summer

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Channeling my inner Trump: What if we limited H1B visas? Would businesses then support improved math and science education for our own kids?

Ed Moore’s op-ed last week awakened my inner Donald Trump.

Ed is the President of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida and a frequent commentator on Florida politics.  His op-ed, published in several newspapers around the state (here’s the link at, argued that Congress should loosen up the limits on H1B visas that allow foreign specialists in technical fields to work in the US so that more recent foreign graduates from Florida postsecondary programs can stay.

Yet at the same time, here in Florida we have not made the public investments necessary at any educational level (from kindergarten on up) to give more of our own students the opportunities to succeed in lucrative STEM fields.  It seems that we can’t even really decide if this is important.  We are insistent that our students be able to read.  But math and science?  Not so much.

So instead of pushing for the major public investments necessary to significantly improve the prospects for Florida’s own students to succeed in STEM fields, Ed and business leaders argue for allowing more foreign workers to fill these jobs.  After all, it’s cheaper.

I doubt you will find a single one of my colleagues in the FSU Physics Department who agrees with me on this.  Certainly tech industry leaders don’t.  And perhaps I sound xenophobic.  It could even be argued that I’m being unappreciative of the charitable investments that businesses have already made (for example, see Change the Equation).

But the investments made by businesses so far have been modest.  No Florida business (or consortium of businesses) has yet offered to provide $10,000 annual salary supplements to thousands of high school teachers in chemistry, computing, math and physics.  For example.  Or funding for meaningful summer professional development experiences of multiple weeks’ duration.

Alternatively, Florida businesses could lobby for the state government to support such initiatives.  But that’s not yet happening, either.

Instead, we have a call to loosen up the H1B visa process so that we don’t need Florida kids to achieve at the highest level.  Admittedly, that’s a much simpler approach.

And if we continue down this road, what are Florida’s kids going to do for jobs?  Well, they can clean the homes where the foreign workers live and wait their restaurant tables.  Perhaps that seems reasonable to others, but not to me.  That perception – that it’s unlikely that the lives of Florida’s children will be more fulfilling than those of their parents – is helping to fuel the Trump candidacy, in Florida and elsewhere.

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Florida’s performance-based funding metrics get lots of attention during UWF Presidential search

During UWF’s just-completed Presidential search, there was lots of discussion about whether Florida’s performance-based funding program – championed by the candidate who ultimately came in second – was especially hurting UWF.

One of the metrics in the program, the percentage of bachelors’ degrees awarded by each institution that are in the State University System’s list of “Programs of Strategic Emphasis”, which includes STEM fields, is shown below.  At least for this metric, it’s not UWF that has a problem.


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