Florida’s 4th graders are pretty good at math, but our 8th graders are awful. How could this be?

The answer to almost every question about student achievement includes the phrase “great teachers”.

That’s probably true for the question posed by the two plots below as well.

Here is the question:  How is it possible that Florida’s 8th graders are so awful at math if our 4th graders are pretty good?

The answer is probably that we have more great teachers of math at the elementary school level than we do at the middle school level.

Why is that?  For one thing, middle school math teachers have to be much better at math themselves than elementary teachers do.  And individuals with stronger math skills have many more rewarding career options than those with weaker math skills have.

So are Florida’s voters, parents and policy-makers willing to do what it takes to recruit more strong math teachers to our middle schools so that our middle school students can be as good at math as our elementary students?  No.  Not yet, anyway.

Instead, we throwing in the towel and reducing the number of middle school students who are being placed in Algebra 1.

In 2016, giving up on secondary level math is equivalent to giving up on the futures of our students.  When we have an education commissioner or a legislator who is willing to say so, then there will be a flicker of hope.

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Florida’s performance on 2015 NAEP 8th grade math was dismal, but…

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double-facepalm

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Bay County begins the long climb toward the top of Florida’s STEM career preparation rankings, where Seminole County awaits

With an audience of about a hundred FSU physics professors and students looking on, Seminole County high school physics teacher Luther Davis climbed up on a table at the front of the Physics Department’s lecture hall to describe a visit to his classroom by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Luther was a member of a panel of four present and past high school physics teachers who had come to FSU in October of 2015 for a discussion about teaching. As the professors and students listened, Luther described how the members of the governor’s security detail seemed to get jumpy and reach for their weapons when Luther did the same thing – climbing on a table – to make a point to the governor about the power of teachers in the lives of students.

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During a panel discussion at FSU’s Physics Department in October 2015, Lake Mary High School’s Luther Davis describes Governor Scott’s visit to his classroom, and the reaction of the governor’s security detail when Luther climbed on a table in his classroom.  Looking on at left is Rutherford’s Rachel Morris.  Godby High School 2015-16 Teacher of the Year Zondra Clayton is at the far right, and UCF’s Physics Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee is next to Zondra.  This blogger is in the middle.

Luther teaches physics at Seminole County’s Lake Mary High School, where two-thirds of the students take physics. Seminole County is Florida’s strongest school district for high school math and science, and Luther is one of four physics teachers at Lake Mary. He is so charismatic and so involved in the life of Lake Mary High School that he won the highest national award for math and science teachers – the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching – in 2005. It came with a trip to the White House to meet then-President Bush.

While Luther spoke about Governor Scott’s visit to his classroom, another panel member – Bay County’s Rachel Morris – looked on. Rachel was also recognized by Governor Scott:  she received one of the governor’s “Shine” awards for teaching during a cabinet meeting in December of 2014.

When Rachel told the physics audience about her experience at Bay County’s Rutherford High School, the story was quite different from Luther’s. The month before, at the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, Rutherford had scheduled only one physics class – a section with 14 students to be taught by Rachel, who mostly teaches geometry and other math classes. But the school was struggling to cover all the necessary math classes, and the Rutherford administration informed Rachel that her physics class would be cancelled so that she could teach another section of geometry.

Instead of giving up her physics class and the opportunity for the 14 registered students to be well prepared for college majors in science and engineering, Rachel agreed to give up her planning period, so that instead of having six classes and a planning period each day she would have seven classes and no planning time. She survived the 2015-16 school year like that, and as a result her 14 physics students went off to college much better prepared for STEM careers.

It would be easy to end this story by making the observation that while Seminole County is Florida’s best district in preparing high school students for STEM careers, Bay County is on the other end of the spectrum – the dismal end. But every algebra student knows that the slope of a line is an important quantity, and right now Bay County’s slope is steep – and positive. At last report, Rachel will have 25 students in her Rutherford High School physics class this fall, almost twice what she had last year.

A few other Bay County high schools are showing similar or greater growth in physics enrollment. Mosley High School started last fall with six physics students, but this fall they are starting with 37. Bay High School physics teacher Nancy Browne will have a full schedule of physics classes this fall for the first time ever. Bay High School will have about a hundred physics students this fall – about the same number as the entire Bay County school district had last year. In all, Bay County will have about twice as many physics students this fall as it did last spring.

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From left, Bay High School’s Nancy Browne, Rutherford High School’s Rachel Morris and Mosley High School’s Sean O’Donnell wrestle with the relationship between the electric potential and the electric field

The growth in physics enrollment in Bay County is not an accident. Bay and Mosley High Schools conducted concentrated recruiting drives aimed at both students and parents to attract more students to physics. Mosley’s effort was actually broader than physics – counselors, teachers and administrators worked to get more students into chemistry, precalculus and calculus classes as well. At Rutherford, Rachel contacted individual students over the summer to make sure that those who had expressed interest in physics last spring actually ended up enrolled in her physics class this fall.

The Bay County effort to draw more high school students into advanced math and science classes coincides with the district’s entry into the National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program, which rewards students and teachers for success in AP math, science and English courses and provides tutoring and Saturday sessions. The 2016-2017 school year is the first for Bay County’s participation in the program.

FSU President John Thrasher decided to further pump up Bay County’s physics program by purchasing $40,000 worth of physics lab equipment and lending it to teachers at Bay, Mosley and Rutherford High Schools. FSU has a branch campus in Panama City.

While the physics teachers in Bay County are working hard to attract more students to their classes, the teachers at Lake Mary High School are doing the same to maintain the central position that physics occupies in the school’s academic program. Luther Davis’ unique high school astronomy class interests many students, but since physics is a prerequisite for the astronomy class it drives physics enrollment as well. Lake Mary teachers have physics shows at halftimes of the school’s football games, and Luther is a football game announcer. So while physics is an integral part of the fabric at Lake Mary High School and other Seminole County high schools, the physics teachers constantly work hard to keep it that way.

Even with a strong rate of improvement, Bay County has a long way to go to catch up to math and science superpower Seminole. With the doubling in physics enrollment this fall, Bay County’s rate will still be a factor of six behind Seminole’s. And the gulf between the two school districts isn’t limited to physics. Seminole enrolls high school students in chemistry at double the rate that Bay does. Bay is a factor of two behind Seminole in precalculus enrollment rate, and a factor of four in calculus enrollment rate.

But the determination of teacher-leaders like Rachel Morris and the support of the district administration in Bay County is a bright ray of hope for the district’s students.

It will take years for Bay County to catch up to Seminole County, but as long as Bay County’s math and science achievement slope remains positive the Panhandle school district will have a chance.

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Florida’s “opt-out” lawsuit: As civil disobedience goes, pushing your kids into trouble is questionable

My kids – the youngest is 20 – have gotten themselves involved in projects related to things I care deeply about.

My middle child is designing a distance learning version of an interactive engagement SCALE-UP science teaching facility.

My youngest is working on the nuclear spectroscopy of Polonium-211 with me.

Heck, even my oldest is working on something that is at least fairly close to my heart – defending LULAC in a lawsuit on a pro bono basis.

Obviously, they all made their own decisions to get involved in these projects.

In contrast, a Leon County court is presently considering an act of civil disobedience performed by a group of eight-year-olds at the insistence of their parents.  This act of civil disobedience – the refusal to take Florida’s 3rd grade FSA standardized test – carried the risk of limiting the students’ academic progress.

The school districts where the eight-year-olds refused to take the tests have a policy of refusing to promote students who do not take the tests.  This was not a secret – the parents knew quite well what the consequences of “opting out” of the test were.  When the school districts acted according to their policies by refusing to promote the students, the parents filed suit to keep the students from suffering the consequences of the decisions made by the parents.

I’ve never been afraid of making people angry for the sake of what I think is a good cause.  I’ve been locked out of events and dialogues.  I’ve been shouted at over the phone by high-ranking officials.  I once caused Leon County School Superintendent Jackie Pons to defend his hated rival Rocky Hanna.  (Imagine that!)

But I would never have inserted my kids into those arguments.  In fact, in at least several cases I can remember we did really dumb things required by schools simply because they were required, and we taught our kids that sometimes you just have to put up with crap like that.

Today, I’m not even arguing about the value of testing or any of the other policies that Florida has adopted over the last twenty years.  I’m just marveling at the parents who would use their young children as battering rams against educational policies with which they disagree.  I don’t understand these parents at all.

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Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremonies at FSU and in Bay and Monroe Counties set for fall

The Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremonies for Fall 2016 are now set.

The second annual Bay County Schools induction ceremony will be held on Tuesday, September 20 at FSU’s Panama City campus.  The scientific keynote speaker will be Jeremiah Murphy, an astrophysicist who is an Assistant Professor in FSU’s Physics Department.

The fifth annual FSU ceremony will be held on Friday, October 7 on the FSU campus.  The day will include a tour of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.  The scientific keynote speaker for the FSU induction will be Susan Blessing, who is Professor of Physics at FSU, a member of the Physics Department’s high energy physics group and the Director of the Women in Math, Science and Engineering (WIMSE) living-learning center.

The second annual Monroe County Schools ceremony will be hosted on Friday, November 4 by the Marathon Middle High School.  Once again, Professor Murphy will provide the scientific keynote.

The goal of the Future Physicists of Florida program is to encourage middle school students who have demonstrated some mathematical ability (and perhaps even more importantly their parents) to persevere in their high school math and science studies so that they have the option of pursuing college majors in engineering and science.

Scenes from last year’s ceremonies can be seen below.

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View from the stage at last year’s Bay County FPF induction ceremony

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Last year’s FSU induction ceremony

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Some of last year’s Monroe County inductees

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Will Bright Futures scholarships promote readiness for the 21st century economy?

With the return of Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program to the state’s policy spotlight, policy-makers, educators and parents should ponder this simple statement of college readiness:

Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.

How could any parent, any educator, or any policy-maker disagree with such a statement?  Isn’t this what we want for our kids?

Yet too many Florida students head to college having already cut themselves off from the most lucrative college majors – those in engineering, computer science, mathematics and physics.  The prescription for readiness for those majors is straightforward:  chemistry, physics, and calculus (or at least precalculus).  That’s the recommendation – or even the plea – of the American Society for Engineering Education.  And those are subjects that students will have to deal with in college if they are preparing for careers in medicine or computer science.

If there is one policy lever in Florida that could drive more students to take courses in chemistry, physics and upper level math in high school, it’s the Bright Futures scholarship.  Incoming Senate President Joe Negron wants to increase funding for the program to make the top level scholarship equal to tuition at the state’s public universities – as was the case when the program was created and prior to budget cuts in the last decade.

While President Negron is working to increase the Bright Futures award amount, he should also be adjusting eligibility requirements for the scholarship.  At present, the only high school courses in math and science that a student must take to be eligible for the scholarship are those required for graduation – Algebra 1, Geometry, Biology 1 and a few other math and sciences courses chosen to check off the boxes.

My own university, at least, is still only paying lip service to the idea that students should be better prepared for STEM majors.  I run into too many undergraduates whose highest high school math course is Algebra 2.  No wonder College Algebra is such a barrier to so many students!  And half of our pre-health students – and a quarter of engineering majors – did not take a physics course in high school.  Such students are at high risk of flunking out of their majors.

There would be significant resistance to the idea of including chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in the requirements for Bright Futures.  After all, policy-makers, educators and parents graduated from college in a different era – one in which any college degree (and often just a high school degree) was sufficient to provide access to middle class jobs.  But the world has changed a great deal in the last few decades.  Our kids are facing a much more open and competitive world.  We have a responsibility to push our kids (yes, push them) to do what’s necessary to prepare for this new world.

The Florida Legislature should help us do this by requiring chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) for Bright Futures scholarship eligibility.

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Those who are concerned about the shortage of math and physics teachers in Florida should take a look at this

The math, engineering and physics salaries here are for bachelor’s degree holders aged 25-59 who do not have graduate degrees, and are taken from the 2015 report “The Economic Value of College Majors” from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  The teachers’ salaries are for 2012-13 and are taken from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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