Central Florida entrepreneur who wrote in the Orlando Sentinel about developing local talent for the region's science and technology economy forgot about the pre-college part. Fortunately, the region's K-12 and university educators are on it.

In an op-ed in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel, Central Florida attorney and entrepreneur Larry Pino talked about developing local talent to build the local scientific and technological economy – a process he called “economic gardening”. But Pino made a classic error: Underlying his piece is the assumption that the preparation of scientists and engineers begins in college, when in fact it starts much earlier.

Pino needs to read an open letter posted earlier this week by a group of leaders in the sciences at UCF about the science courses that high school students should take. The UCF science leaders who signed the letter included the Dean of the College of Science at UCF, the Chair of the UCF Department of Physics, the Chair of the UCF Department of Chemistry, the Director of the UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and the Chief of Proton Therapy Physics, Orlando Health – UF Health Cancer Center. The letter was organized (and also signed) by Adam LaMee, UCF Physics Teacher-in-Residence and the President of the Florida Chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers. The signers argue in the letter that “it is critical for every student capable of trade school or a college degree to take a full year each of chemistry and physics”. In addition, they point out that “The rate at which Florida’s high school students take chemistry and physics is critically low.” That claim is backed up by a comparison of state and national enrollment rates in chemistry and physics.

The UCF science leaders left math out of their call for improvement, but a high school calculus course is recommended by leaders in many STEM fields, and Florida is well behind the national rate for calculus course-taking just like it is behind in chemistry and physics.

Of course, a student is unlikely to be successful in rigorous high school math and science courses without a solid middle school education in math and science. In fact, that is the motivation for the Calculus Project run by Orange County Public Schools. While that project aims to get students from a broad range of backgrounds (especially disadvantaged backgrounds) into a high school calculus course to open up STEM career options, it begins by recruiting 6th graders with average scores on Florida’s standardized math test into 7th grade Algebra 1 classes. Then it gives those students a remarkable level of support, including summer math boot camps and after-school math tutoring.

And…fostering interest in science – even physics – doesn’t have to wait for high school or even middle school. On Tuesday, Seminole County Public Schools will hold a ribbon-cutting to initiate its Physics Bus program to serve the district’s elementary schools. According to the district’s press release about the event, the bus “will be making scheduled stops at SCPS elementary schools while giving students and their families STEM experiences to develop critical math skills.”

Central Florida is fortunate that so many of the region’s K-12 and university educators understand that developing scientists and engineers starts much, much earlier than college – even if Mr. Pino doesn’t (at least not yet). Of course, Mr. Pino has plenty of time left to learn.

UCF Physics Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee (left) addressing members of the Polk County Board of Education in July, 2019.
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The Polk County educators I met this summer are gifted and passionate experts. My advice to their community and state policy-makers is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

Florida’s teaching corps is much better than the state deserves.

Yesterday’s rally for public schools that included teachers from around the state reminded me about how fortunate Florida has been to have many outstanding teachers help Florida’s children learn and grow.

And the attention focused on Polk County’s teachers by a series of unfortunate events connected to the rally reminded me of some of the remarkable and valiant Polk educators who I met during my visit with members of the Polk County School Board in July (a video recording of the meeting is available here).

One was Lorraine Valerino, who talked at the meeting about how she avoided math as a high school student because of a lack of confidence. Lorraine is now an elementary school math and science teacher who takes pride in her success in turning around students who start the school year afraid of math.

Polk County elementary math and science teacher Lorraine Valerino

Another educator who spoke at the board meeting was Casey Dodge, a high school chemistry teacher who switched schools this year (to Kathleen High School) so that she would have a better opportunity to help students learn science with the understanding they need to be successful in college or career (and in their homes – listen to the recording to get this piece).

Kathleen High School science teacher Casey Dodge

Casey’s Kathleen High School colleague and math teacher Aaron Cress, who works in the school’s aerospace academy, talked about how he is helping students choose math courses that give them the best opportunities for success in college and career – even when (and especially when) there are other choices that are attractive because they are easier.

Kathleen High School math teacher Aaron Cress

Lake Region High School science teacher Robert Holby challenged the school board to consider setting district-wide science requirements that are more rigorous than the state’s graduation requirements.

Lake Region High School science teacher Robert Holby

Christie McCullough, who now teaches agriscience at Winter Haven High School but who started her career as a physics teacher, talked about the need to make adjustments to science requirements in some of the district’s successful high school academies. In particular, she suggested that physics be required in medical academies.

Winter Haven High School agriscience teacher Christie McCullough

Lakeland High School math teacher Lisa Woods spoke passionately about the importance of professional development experiences in which teachers physically gather so that they can learn together and draw energy from each other.

Lakeland High School math teacher Lisa Woods

I drew a lot of strength and inspiration from the teachers I met at that board meeting, and I thought of them when I read about the maelstrom of controversy in which the entire Polk County teacher corps found itself last weekend.

Here’s my advice to Polk County’s residents and Florida’s policy-makers: Just let it go. Lorraine, Casey, Aaron, Robert, Christie and Lisa are terrific educators and they are incredibly important to the future of the district’s students and the community at large. I’m sure they have many colleagues in Polk County who are equally gifted and passionate. The community and policy-makers should do whatever is in their power to recognize the work these teachers do. Can you give them a raise? Give them the biggest one you can – they are worth it. Listen to their advice about assessment and take it seriously – they are experts. And for cryin’ out loud, let them take a day to march on the Capitol if they want without brow-beating them afterward.

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Florida trails the nation in the rates at which high school students take calculus, chemistry and physics

The rates at which Florida public high school students took calculus, chemistry and physics classes during the Spring of 2019 were significantly lower than national rates published in the 2018 Digest of Educational Statistics, recently released by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The national rates were given for the 2015-16 school year.

The Spring 2019 course enrollment figures are available on the web site of the Florida Department of Education.

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A tribute to Florida's high school physics teachers: Being skilled science educators isn't enough. They must be charismatic salespeople, too.

While Florida’s high school physics teachers are smart and tough, they also have to be great salespeople for their subject because in most of the state science and engineering is not in the cultural DNA. They deserve a tremendous tribute – certainly a better tribute than I can write. But I’ll give it a shot here, anyway.

Just to become a physics teacher, an educator must be talented, accomplished and determined. To be effective, a physics teacher must have a strong conceptual understanding of how nature works and the confidence to marry mathematics to that understanding. But that is just the beginning. Physics teachers also have to know the myriad ways that students can go wrong when trying to learn the subject – and that means knowing the research literature on how students learn. And physics teachers must also have the same classroom charisma as art, English and music teachers have. Or rather, physics teachers must have more charisma. Why? Because in most regions of Florida, the economy is dominated by tourism and agriculture and most parents have no experience with higher level math and science. To recruit students into physics classes, teachers must overcome the nervousness or even fear that students and parents (and often counselors and principals) have about the subject.

Some leaders of the K-12 system and even the state government seem aligned against physics and those who teach it at the high school level. A few years ago, the superintendent of a large school district in our state said at a public meeting that students in her district’s high school engineering academies don’t have time in their schedules for physics and calculus. That was an extraordinary thing to say since the American Society for Engineering Education strongly recommends courses in both of those subjects for high school students considering engineering careers. That superintendent won a major award from the Florida Department of Education only a few weeks later. Last year, Governor DeSantis said that while he enjoyed his high school physics class he doesn’t have much use for the subject. Even while he was singing the praises of high school computer science courses, he explained that “Other than trying to keep my kids from falling down the stairs in the Governor’s mansion I don’t know how much I deal with physics daily” (quote from the Florida Phoenix). The governor’s opinion seemed unaffected by the facts that computers operate under the laws of electricity and magnetism, the next great computing revolution will be the commercialization of quantum computing, and Florida’s public higher education system includes two semesters of calculus-based college physics in the “common prerequisites” for a computer science bachelor’s degree.

High school physics teachers have to convince engineering academy students and other aspiring engineers that physics is the scientific foundation of engineering and that college students majoring in engineering are held accountable for their physics learning. They have to make the same argument to aspiring meteorologists. Physics teachers also have to break the bad news to those seeking careers in the life and health sciences, chemistry and even architecture that physics is part of the scientific foundation of those subjects and that performing poorly in college physics courses can slam the door shut on their dreams.

Physics teachers have to do this all while parents and counselors are expressing their fears that a student who earns a poor grade in physics (B?) might get shut out of being admitted to UF or FSU. And the admissions offices at those two institutions are not doing anything to allay those fears.

In some sense, physics teachers are losing the war. High school physics enrollments in Florida’s public high schools are down 12% over the last four years. But perhaps the right way to look at this is at the micro level. Every student that is coaxed into taking on the challenge of a physics course is a victory – and one more student who has a shot at society’s best paid and most fascinating careers. That is particularly true for students from families in which parents work multiple low-paying jobs to provide food and shelter – and Florida has many such families.

Most physics teachers know that they could step out of their teaching careers and instantly increase their salaries by $10,000 or $20,000 – or even more. And yet they stay to fight for the future of every reluctant student.

Florida’s high school physics teachers deserve a standing ovation. They also deserve a big raise. I can provide an ovation. We’ll see if our state’s leaders can arrange for the raise.

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A new study of the STEM gender gap by economists argues that harder grading policies in college STEM classes are partly to blame. But the paper is interesting, anyway.

A new study of data on students and classes at the University of Kentucky conducted by researchers from the Naval Postgraduate School, Duke University, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the Federal Trade Commission argues that “harsher grading policies in STEM courses disproportionately affect women” and that “Restrictions on grading policies that equalize average grades across classes” would help “to close the STEM gender gap” and increase “the overall enrollment in STEM classes.”

The release of the study has triggered the colleges-are-full-of-liberal-idiots crowd [Author’s note: I’m an idiot, but not a liberal idiot] and it is probably causing cases of eye-rolling among the few colleagues of mine who might notice mentions of the study.

What makes the paper interesting to me is the attempt by the authors to quantify the motivations of faculty in setting grading scales and enrollment levels in courses and the motivations of students in selecting courses and majors. I’ve read through once (more or less carefully) and I’ll read it carefully several more times. I already see one problem – the assumption that professors in STEM fields lower average grades in part to reduce the enrollment levels in their classes. Nevertheless, the attempt to pack all of this decision-making by professors and students into an economic model is provocative in a good way.

The NBER download engine is not completely easy to deal with, so I’m including a download of the paper below for convenience of my regular readers (all four of them – or I think I’m at about four).

Above and below – scenes from a Studio Physics class at FSU.

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It's time to end Florida's experiment with teacher bonuses. Put the money into teacher salary increases instead.

I don’t understand why Florida’s leaders are still considering a bonus program as part of the state’s teacher compensation package. The research on teacher bonus programs doesn’t justify the present expenditure level of $285 million per year (nor the proposed $300 million per year). And the continuing plunge in the numbers of individuals entering the teaching profession in Florida (as quantified by the numbers of those taking the state’s subject certification exams for the first time) signals that the money being spent on bonuses would be more effective in attracting strong individuals into the profession if it were spent on salaries.

The most positive take on teacher bonus programs I can find in the research literature is a study of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) by Mathematica Policy Research. TIF was created by Congress in 2006 to provide grants to fund performance-based compensation systems for teachers and principals in high-need schools. One hundred and thirty districts were awarded TIF grants in 2010, and ten of those agreed to participate in a four-year random assignment study. According to the report:

Within the ten evaluation districts, pay-for-performance led to slightly higher student achievement in reading and math by the second year of implementation. Student reading achievement was higher by 2 percentile points at the end of the first year in schools that offered pay-for-performance bonuses than in schools that did not. The total difference remained at 1 to 2 percentile points across the subsequent three years and was statistically significant in most years. From the second year onward, the total difference in math achievement was similar in magnitude, but was statistically significant in only one year. In both subjects, these differences were equivalent to about three to four weeks of learning. Impacts on student achievement also differed across districts and schools, but these differences were mostly unrelated to either district or school characteristics.

While “three to four weeks of learning” might sound significant in a 36-week school year, it’s on the hairy edge of what can be statistically discerned in the present study. And in Florida, we should be thinking about what else we could do with the $285 million we are spending on teacher bonus programs in the present fiscal year that would improve student learning more. We should start by acknowledging that the number of talented young people entering the teaching pipeline is plunging and that for the sake of Florida’s students we need to address that. And we should be able to agree (regardless of political party affiliation) that the taxpayer dollars being spent on bonus programs could be more effectively spent in a way that would make the teaching profession more attractive – by boosting teacher pay.

Individuals who want to teach in Florida must take and pass the state’s subject certification exam in their field (or the elementary ed exams in language arts, social science, science and math to teach at that level) to earn a temporary or permanent (“professional”) certification. So the numbers of individuals taking these exams for the first time gives an excellent measure of the number of individuals entering the profession. The most recent numbers available as of this date are for the 2018 calendar year (2019 numbers should become available in the next few months), but they are stunning enough. The number of teaching candidates taking the Math 6-12 certification exam – required to teach Algebra 2 and above – for the first time dropped 42% from 2013 to 2018. There are sharp drops in Chemistry 6-12, Earth/Space Science 6-12 and Physics 6-12, Social Science 6-12 and Elementary Ed as well.

It is certainly true that salaries aren’t the only issue deterring potential teaching candidates from teaching in Florida. Working conditions – including the state’s accountability testing program – are deterring potential teachers as well. But for a new bachelor’s degree graduate in math, physics or computer science who might be thinking about paying off student debt, buying a house and starting a family, the starting salaries that are $10,000-$20,000 per year below what they could make elsewhere and the uncertain future of salary increases provide a strong disincentive to entering the teaching profession.

While reading this post, you should not conclude that I am a spokesperson for the state’s teacher unions. In an August 23 press release announcing the Florida Education Association’s ten-year $22 billion “Decade of Progress” proposal, the academic focus was on restoring “funding for programs such as music, art and physical education”. The association also proposed giving a 10% across-the-board increase to every public school employee in Florida.

My approach to allocating a reservoir of money available for teacher salary increases would be different. If I had a pot of money for teacher salaries and I could set priorities, my highest priority would be solving the intensifying shortage of math teachers. Among my other high priorities would be recruiting strong teachers to high-needs schools and recruiting and retaining teachers in other subjects where there are well-documented shortages. That effort would likely exhaust a $300 million or even $600 million pot (Governor DeSantis’s proposal to raise the floor on teacher salaries – including starting salaries – to a blanket $47,500 would cost $600 million). And in allocating that money, I’d pay attention to the cost of living and I’d make sure I didn’t penalize districts that already raised additional revenue for teacher salaries increases through referenda. I haven’t found anyone else who would support the approach I’ve outlined in this paragraph.

But what lots of people agree with me on is that it is time to end Florida’s experiment with teacher bonuses. The results are in: It’s not helping the state’s children learn any better.

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A thank you to all who carried me forward with their encouragement and advice in 2019. Without you I wouldn't have made it to the starting line for 2020.

Thank you to the many people – friends, colleagues, students, collaborators in the school districts and elsewhere – who carried me forward with their encouragement and advice in 2019.

For me, 2019 was a year of unusual professional and health challenges. But it was also (and I believe not coincidentally) a year in which I was the recipient of an extraordinary amount of encouragement. Some friends and colleagues invested many hours with me. Others provided welcome recognitions. Still others lifted me with seemingly small acts of cheer that always arrived on the days I needed them most. I can say with confidence that in 2019 I needed every bit of it – big and small.

My wife of thirty-three years, Tracey, carried me forward during those times this year when I had no resolve left. Her counsel was invaluable – she kept me from making several serious errors and lots of smaller ones this year – and she continued to be my fiercest defender.

Since my surgery in mid-November, I haven’t been able to swim as I generally do every day. So I have followed my surgeon’s advice and taken a few walks totaling three or four miles per day. I’ve learned this from those walks: Enough small steps taken with perseverance and aimed in a carefully considered direction can enable me to cover a significant amount of distance toward a goal. That’s a lesson you would never learn swimming back and forth over the black line in a swimming pool. I’ll return to the pool after the first of the year, but I’ll take a few of those long walks a week – both for physical health and to remind myself of the lesson.

A few weeks ago, I knew with certainty that I wasn’t ready for 2020 and I doubted that I would be when the New Year arrived.

Today I know I am ready for 2020 to begin. Bring it on.

On June 11, I addressed the Orange County School Board, which recognized me with an award at the meeting.
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