Tens of thousands of Florida students left the public schools in Fall 2020 due to the pandemic. However, the numbers of Hispanic and Black 4th graders grew substantially in the fall. It’s likely this growth was caused at least in part by the suspension in the spring of FSA testing – and the resulting suspension of the requirement to retain 3rd graders who cannot pass the FSA tests.
While the numbers of Hispanic 3rd and 5th graders in the state’s public schools in Fall 2020 were 7.5% and 3.9% lower (respectively) than in Fall 2019, the number of Hispanic 4th graders grew by 5.2% in Fall 2020. Among Black students, 3rd and 5th grade enrollments dropped by 9.5% and 4.5% (respectively), but 4th grade enrollment grew by 6.5%.
The number of white 4th graders dropped by 2.3% in Fall 2020, compared to drops of 5.4% in both 3rd and 5th grades.
Florida requires the retention of 3rd graders who do not pass the FSA reading test for that grade level. In 2018-19, the most recent year in which FSA testing was held, 17,403 3rd graders were retained. Of those, 37.5% were Black, even though only 22% of public K-12 students were Black. Hispanic students also accounted for 37.5% of 3rd grade retentions, even though only 34% of Florida K-12 students are Hispanic. Only 20.5% of retained 3rd graders were white.
But Florida already has a large-scale ESA program, although it is not at the K-12 level. This ESA program is for the postsecondary level and is called Bright Futures Scholarships. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The State of Florida is spending $650 million on it this fiscal year.
So Bright Futures is an ESA that favors the affluent and is biased against those who are not white and Asian.
Perhaps before we try to upend Florida’s public K-12 schools with an ESA program, we should try to get the state’s postsecondary ESA program – Bright Futures – right. Start with this: Grant every high school graduate in Florida a $10,000 ESA for postsecondary education. Since about 200,000 students graduate from the state’s high schools each year, that would seem to cost about $2 billion per year. But many of the state’s high school graduates never pursue postsecondary education – although the $10,000 in the ESA might increase the number that pursue degrees or certificates. At any rate, the annual cost of such a program would likely be considerably less than $2 billion per year. We could liquidate Bright Futures and use that $650 million as a down payment on the new postsecondary ESA program, which we can call FESAPS (for Florida ESA for Postsecondary Studies).
Many students should attend four-year colleges, but many others decide for all kinds of reasons that a two-year degree or a certificate that takes even less time to earn is better for them. FESAPS would be a big boost for such students. One of the goals of Florida’s education system should be to give every student the best possible opportunity to achieve a middle class life – which with few exceptions requires postsecondary education of some sort. FESAPS would be a major step toward such a goal.
Florida is facing tough budget times. But more importantly, the state’s reliance on the tourism and hospitality industries has been exposed as a major economic vulnerability. We have a responsibility to give the state’s young people opportunities to pursue careers that are more economically robust than low-paid tourism jobs. In addition, it is in our interest to attract industries to Florida that are more reliable than tourism – and to do that we must provide the workforce that such industries need to thrive. FESAPS would help with both goals.
Black students are severely underrepresented among bachelor’s degree graduates from Florida’s State University System. While 21.6% of the students in the state’s public K-12 system are Black, only 12.2% of the system’s bachelor’s degree grads in 2018-19 were Black, according to the IPEDS system at the National Center for Education Statistics.
Among individual institutions, New College of Florida (NCF) and Florida Polytechnic University (FPU) had the lowest percentage of Blacks among bachelor’s degree graduates at 2.3% and 3.3%, respectively. However, several other campuses had percentages below 10%, including the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus (USF-Sarasota) at 4.5%, the University of Florida (UF) at 5.9%, the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus (USF-St. Pete) at 7.1%, Florida State University (FSU) at 7.3%, Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) at 7.7% and the University of North Florida (UNF) at 9.1%. Florida A&M University (FAMU), an historically Black university, had the highest representation of Black students among bachelor’s degree graduates at 90.1%.
Hispanic students were underrepresented among SUS bachelor’s degree grads as well. Of these graduates, 28.1% systemwide were Hispanic, while 34.5% of public K-12 students are Hispanic. Hispanics accounted for fewer than 15% of graduates at four SUS campus – University of North Florida (11.0%), New College (9.9%), University of West Florida (9.0%) and Florida A&M (1.8%).
Women were underrepresented among bachelor’s degree graduates at only one SUS institution – Florida Polytech (16.7%). That institution focuses on disciplines in which women are underrepresented like engineering and computer science. However, even given that the 16.7% number is still remarkably small.
A science teacher at a Florida public high school who I have known and trusted for years asked me to post this reflection anonymously. I have spoken with enough teachers around the state this fall to know that while this particular set of circumstances may not be common, the disruption in learning described here is widespread.
The following are observations of a Florida public high school teacher. Everything written is based on in-person experience throughout the majority of the first semester.
Freshmen arrived on the first day of high school in Florida this year, just like every year, to an unfamiliar campus full of hundreds of other teens they didn’t know. They searched for the right classrooms and learned new rules and procedures established by a variety of new-to-them teachers. But adding to the normal anxiety many of them felt was the strangeness of wearing masks and being asked to social distance, something teens are not known for. And many of their friends were missing from campus, having opted to attend classes via video from home.
Unfortunately, one set of those new freshmen were welcomed to their first high school science class by a substitute. The teacher originally assigned to that class switched to a different subject and now the science position was vacant. For a few weeks the substitute, with no credentials or experience in teaching this subject, did his best to provide the students with meaningful work with the help of the school’s science teachers. He was soon replaced by another substitute, who picked up where he left off. But worksheets and textbook reading were the main modes of learning about science throughout the first month of school for these kids.
Then that teaching position was eliminated after the school’s first official student count was completed in October. Those students were divided up amongst the three other teachers who taught that same subject. But that resulted in a few very crowded classes and at least one teacher faced more than 180 total students. So, a short while later some students were moved to other science teachers to even out every teacher’s roster.
Then came the effort to eliminate as many hybrid classes as possible. These classes were ones in which teachers were simultaneously teaching students sitting in the classroom and students sitting at home attending via video. Many teachers said that hybrid teaching made it impossible to give either set of students the focus needed for a quality education. So, a few days into the second quarter significant schedule changes gave many teachers classes full of only in-person students and classes full of only video students.
However, the changes meant some freshmen science students were sent to yet another teacher. This also resulted in science classrooms designed to hold 32 students and that had been set up this year for fewer students to allow for social distancing now sometimes held as many as 37. Social distancing obviously wasn’t possible.
Relief came quickly after that when the eliminated science position was restored. Student schedules were changed again. But at the head of the reinstated class was a substitute, the third one for this position. Worksheets and textbooks came back out with the substitute doing her best to guide the students without knowing the subject herself. A certified science teacher will likely be in place in early January.
Imagine being one of these students. How much science have they learned as the first semester winds down? And what disruptions have they faced in their other subjects? What about the students who were quarantined out of school for about two weeks after possible exposure to someone with COVID-19? What about the students whose teacher is quarantined for several days? What about the students stepping onto campus for the first time after switching from video to in-person? It’s overwhelming to think of all the challenges these kids have faced in school on top of anything they’re experiencing at home.
I’m sharing this not to point fingers. This school’s principal and administration team certainly aren’t to blame. They’re just as exhausted as the teachers and students as they try to solve this year’s ever-shifting puzzles while somehow maintaining a truly helpful, positive attitude. I’m sharing this because you need to know what the first half of the school year has been like for students.
Now, how do you think these kids are going to do on the state-mandated, high stakes end-of-course exams this year?
The kids need to be the priority, not the testing. We need to unburden and de-stress them. We need to provide them with a much more stable second half of the year. 2020 has been brutal to everyone, but the kids don’t have the experience or maturity that an adult uses to cope. Concentrate on the kids’ safety, mental health and real learning, not the test preparations. This chaotic year has tested them enough.
One of my New Year’s wishes is that 2021 is better than 2020 for Florida’s K-12 teachers.
This fall, teachers dealt with the exhausting hybrid teaching model while their anxiety about whether they would become ill was always present just under the surface. Schools were disrupted by quarantines of tens or even hundreds of students at a time, and in some cases whole schools were closed for a week or more at a time.
Florida’s educational leadership is still planning to resume its annual testing program this spring after a hiatus in 2020. It’s not clear what will be accomplished by testing this spring, since the program will show little but what we already know – most students have had their academic progress disrupted, with the worst affected being those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If these leaders want a baseline measurement for future testing, it would make the most sense to have a statewide pretesting program in the fall, when we expect life will look much more normal and students will feel more secure. Nobody deserves to be flogged with a high stakes testing program this spring.
My reach is limited. I can perhaps make 2021 a tiny bit better than 2020 for a few teachers who I know well and interact with regularly. If Florida’s leaders want next year to be better for teachers than this year has been, they have the power to do so on a large scale – by altering this year’s standardized testing program so that it makes sense and by dealing with the budget situation in as humane a way as possible.
That wouldn’t be such a problem if young people were being educated to remedy that situation. But they aren’t. In 2018, our state ranked 37th in the nation in the number of bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering conferred per 1,000 18-24 year-olds. (National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators)
Does the problem originate on Florida’s college campuses? No. The rates at which students in Florida’s public high schools enroll in calculus, physics and chemistry – all of which are recommended for students planning to major in STEM fields in college – are well below the national rates. In the Fall of 2019, Florida public high school students enrolled in calculus at a rate 35% below the national rate, in physics 55% below the national rate, and in chemistry 15% below the national rate. (Florida Fall 2019 rates from Florida Department of Education. National 2015-16 rates from National Center for Education Statistics.)
Every year, Florida brags about its success in Advanced Placement courses and exams. And in social science, the arts and world languages the state is indeed a leader, due in part to the financial incentives that teachers and schools receive for AP success. But in math and science, Florida is only average. The results from May 2020 exams are shown below. (Source: College Board)
In fact, if it weren’t for AP Environmental Science and AP Computer Science Principles – neither of which offers useful college credit – Florida would look even worse in math and science.
Black students continue to be severely underrepresented among bachelor’s degree graduates in engineering, physics and computer science at Florida’s State University System institutions. But they are also severely underrepresented among Florida high school students who pass AP exams in calculus, physics and computer science. (Sources: IPEDS and College Board)
Michelle Joyce, a former physics teacher at Collier County’s Palmetto Ridge High School and now a graduate student at the University of Florida, came up with a marvelous way to close this post and end the year. It’s always good to have Santa as an ally.
On the first day of my introductory physics course for students majoring in engineering and physical and computational sciences, I ask each of my new students to fill out a survey asking which high school she or he has attended. When I am fortunate enough to have a graduate of a public high school in Seminole County, I am confident that student will be just fine.
Why am I so confident that Seminole County students will be fine in my class? Because I know they will be well-prepared. They will have had strong instruction at their high schools in calculus, physics and other science and math subjects, and they will have arrived on our campus ready to succeed.
Seminole County Superintendent of Schools Walt Griffin has played an important part in making sure that the students I see in my physics classroom are well-prepared. When Walt retires in June, he will leave big shoes for the next Seminole County superintendent to fill.
I will miss Walt, and my faculty colleagues in STEM fields at Florida’s universities would miss him too if they were paying attention to how what goes on at the state’s high schools affects the learning in their classrooms. Under Walt’s leadership, Seminole County has set the pace for the state in math and science.
But I can tell you from painful experience that poor leadership can undermine strong teachers. I can also tell you that strong leadership attracts and empowers teaching talent.
Walt has also been supported by a strong school board. If you didn’t already know that Seminole County has a strong school board, you should take a look at the tweet below sent out in anticipation of a state football championship game involving one of the district’s high schools. (Powerful. Even the forearm cast is intimidating!)
The impact of Walt’s leadership has extended to schools beyond the boundaries of his school district and even to Florida’s universities. He will be missed, and he will be very tough to replace.
The year 2020 should have been enough to convince Florida’s policy-makers that providing students with opportunities to pursue STEM careers must be a high priority for the state’s educational system.
The development of the mRNA technology powering the COVID vaccines that Pfizer and Moderna are delivering to millions of people this month (and that will be delivered to hundreds of millions more in 2021) required collaborations between biological scientists and engineers. Engineers are addressing the problems of producing and delivering those hundreds of millions of doses around the world.
The Zoom conferencing platform, run by an army of engineers and computer scientists, has changed the way America meets.
Those are just a few of the more visible examples of how the role of science and technology has grown in our lives in 2020. And they point the way to the opportunities that may be open to Florida’s students in the future, if only we prepare them properly for those opportunities. That preparation must begin long before these students set foot on a college campus for the first time.
These problems appear at the pre-college level, too. In fall of 2019, the rate at which students in Florida’s public high schools enrolled in calculus classes was 35% below the national rate. In physics, that deficit was 55% – that is, the state’s public high school students enrolled in physics less than half as often as students around the nation do. Florida’s public high school students were even behind the nation in chemistry, enrolling in chemistry at a rate that was 15% below the national rate (national rates from NCES, Florida rates from FLDOE).
Even in Florida’s weak STEM education ecosystem, Black students get the worst of it. Even though 22% of the state’s public K-12 students are Black, during the 2018-19 academic year Black students were awarded only 6.4% of the engineering bachelors’ degrees, 3.6% of the physics bachelors’ degrees and 8.0% of the computer science bachelors’ degrees awarded by Florida’s State University System (from IPEDS).
Now Florida’s institutions of public education are facing significant budget cuts at the same time that the needs for remediation and mental health services are increasing dramatically in both the K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions because of the impacts of the pandemic on students. Will resources be taken out of the advanced math and science courses high school students need to prepare properly for college STEM majors? Will Black students be even more neglected than they already were? The answers to those questions will be determined by leaders at the state, district and school levels in the coming months.
That is two spots lower than the state ranked in 2017, the last year prior to 2019 for which the rates for all states were reported.
Science and engineering occupations are robust economically, and Florida’s poor standing in these fields may make the state’s recovery from the pandemic-induced economic slump particularly difficult.
Florida is one of the nation’s more socioeconomically challenged states, as measured (for example) by the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate, which in 2017-18 was 57.3%. The national rate was 52.6%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nevertheless, other states with comparable lunch rates had significantly higher rates of science and engineering occupations than Florida, as shown below.