Education leaders in Florida and the nation react to middle and high school math results from PISA, TIMMS and NAEP


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2015 PISA: US near the bottom of the industrialized world in math, and Florida is well below average in the nation. So…

The United States now ranks 31st among 35 industrialized nations tested on the math section of PISA, the OECD test of 15-year-olds.  The 2015 PISA results were released this morning.

Florida’s 8th graders scored far below the national average on the math section of the 2015 NAEP Assessment.  Those results were released last year.

The conclusion?  Florida – or more precisely Florida’s students – are in deep trouble when it comes to competing for good 21st century jobs, which more and more require strong math skills.

The bottom line?  First, Florida’s educational leaders need to acknowledge that the state’s level of student achievement in middle and high school math is an urgent issue.  Once that is done, Florida needs to do whatever it takes to attract more strong math students to math teaching.  Redirecting some of the money from the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program to an effort to attract and retain strong math teachers is one way this situation could be addressed.


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How hard should a STEM education advocate push? Knowing when to back off isn’t easy.

When I gave the FSU Physics Department’s colloquium talk on October 6, I probably became the only speaker ever to end a talk in the department by quoting a prayer.  My last power point slide quoted Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I shared with my colleagues as I showed that prayer on the screen that I’ve never really had a problem with the courage part, and that I seem to be doing better with the serenity piece as I age.  But the wisdom thing?  Sometimes I despair that I’m not making any progress on that at all.

I write this at the end of a two-week period in which I’ve pushed an unusually large number of people in positions of authority particularly hard – and perhaps too hard in several or all of those cases.  There is no personal peril in this:  I am a tenured full professor who is otherwise at the bottom of the university food chain.  I have no personal reason to try to seek higher office.

But I’d like to accomplish something occasionally.  And there is the rub.

In Florida’s K-12 schools and at my own university, the status quo is clearly inadequate.  Many thousands of students are being denied some of the best career opportunities our society has to offer because we don’t provide the educational resources these students need to access them.  In thousands of other cases, students are denied these opportunities because we allow them (with their parents’ approval) to make decisions at early ages – like 14 and 15 years old – that lock them out.  My own university enables such choices because it admits students who have, say, taken no math course in high school above Algebra 2, or students who haven’t taken a full complement of high school science courses, which includes chemistry and physics.

Of course, just thinking about that gets me fired up.  And I still struggle with finding the wisdom required to have a constructive conversation with someone in person, by e-mail or via social media about how they are still just not doing well enough to provide their students with the best opportunities.  What makes those conversations particularly ticklish is that the people with whom I have them are generally convinced that they are making things better.  Here I am, just past my 56th birthday, wondering whether I’m getting any better at all at having those conversations, and whether I ever will.

So to all of you who are willing to talk with me, thank you for your patience.  I promise to keep seeking the wisdom that Niebuhr was talking about.

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High school and early college: Are 11th and 12th grades wasted years?

Jeff Solochek’s article on Dayspring Academy’s dual enrollment arrangement with Pasco-Hernando State College in yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times made me reflect again on how 11th and 12th grade fit into the education of Florida’s kids.  As Jeff said in his article, Dayspring founder and former chair of the Florida Senate PreK-12 Committee John Legg “routinely questioned the value of the 11th and 12th grades, suggesting too many students simply were biding time before college or a career.”

After reading Jeff’s article yesterday morning, I asked the students in my own introductory physics class – who are majoring in subjects like biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics – about their experiences in 11th and 12th grades.

Most of my students were caught completely off-guard by the question.  For them, 11th and 12th grades were the most crucial years of their education prior to coming to FSU.  If they had arrived at FSU without the courses in physics, precalculus and calculus that they took in 11th and 12th grades, some of them would have been unable to complete their bachelor’s degree programs in four years since they would have had to – for example – start their math progressions with essentially high school-level courses in trigonometry and precalculus.  And they would have been starting those low-level math courses in college environments that are less personal than the small(er) classes that characterize high schools.

While my calculus-based studio physics class is as effective and friendly as a college learning environment can be, students who arrive without a previous physics course – preferably the new algebra-based AP Physics 1 course – are at significantly greater risk of failure.  In fact, roughly a quarter of my students do just that – show up in a college major that involves physics without having taken a high school physics class.  I have enough experience with such students to know it is a bad idea.

The academic programs in science, engineering and computing disciplines represented in my class are vertical – the course programs consisting of sequences of courses that cannot be shortened because of the importance of prerequisites (see for yourself in FSU’s Academic Guide here).  For nearly all students, there are no shortcuts.  You have to learn the math, science, engineering and computing one step at a time.  You can’t shorten college from four years to two, or shorten high school from four years to two, without endangering a student’s career opportunities in STEM fields.

And by the way, this argument about the vertical nature of STEM majors might be one that those who earned bachelor’s degrees in fields like political science might not understand at all.  Perhaps a decade ago, I worked with an undergraduate physics major who decided near the end of her junior year to add a second major in political science.  She completed all of the political science requirements in a year, running the table in those courses with straight A’s.  A political science major was fast and easy, there were few or no prerequisites, and many high school students could be just as successful in a major like political science even if they skipped 11th and 12th grades.

So what about the student who decides in 10th grade that she or he will not major in a STEM field, and that a degree in political science (or creative writing, or music performance) is her or his career aspiration?  Can’t this student skip 11th and 12th grade and all that nasty math and science?

Lots of students in Florida pretty much do that.  But we as a state should not be allowing them to.  During the last several months, I’ve talked with FSU undergraduates and recent graduates who wish they had stuck out those high school courses in precalculus, chemistry and physics so that they could have had the opportunity to enter science, engineering and health fields in college.  With the right advice and coaxing from parents, teachers and counselors, they would have done so.

Here’s the bottom line:  Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.  It should be the norm in Florida that students entering FSU, or UNF, or New College have at least precalculus (and preferably calculus), chemistry and physics when they arrive on campus.

Any early college scheme that doesn’t recognize that imperative is closing the doors to the best economic opportunities (and satisfying and exciting careers) for its own students.

And yes, I said that to the faculty of Dayspring Academy when I visited them in August.  We’ll see what happens.


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2015 TIMSS: Physics is the world’s capstone high school science course. It should be Florida’s as well.

The 2015 TIMSS results released yesterday were not big news.  What TIMSS told us about student achievement in math and science in elementary and middle school we already knew from the recent releases of 2015 NAEP results, both at the national and state levels.  The nation’s improvement has leveled off.  Florida, which was the only state that made the investment in TIMSS necessary to get separate results, is particularly distressed in middle school math.

The most important lesson from TIMSS for Florida is the one that is so obvious that everybody seems to have missed it.  In addition to the 4th and 8th grade math and science assessments, TIMSS included an “Advanced” component – an attempt to measure the readiness of high school graduates for college majors in science and engineering.  The only science subject addressed in TIMSS Advanced was physics.  Not biology.  Not chemistry.  It was physics.

Physics is the world’s capstone high school science course.  But it isn’t in Florida.  Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate is a bit more than half of the nation’s.  About a quarter of the engineering, chemistry and computer science majors I see in my intro calc-based studio physics course did not take a physics course in high school.  About half of the students in our algebra-based intro class – taken by life science majors – did not take high school physics.

As a result, Florida’s students struggle to compete with students from other parts of the nation and world.  Schools and districts in Florida should be offering their students high quality physics courses and then doing everything they can to coax their students to take them.


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Bay District Schools aiming higher: STEM advocate Ginger Littleton elected board chair

Most people in the nation who know Ginger Littleton’s name know her as the Bay District School Board member who tried to disarm a gunman by swinging her purse at him when the Board was being held hostage in 2010.

The Ginger Moment I remember best was not potentially lethal but was breathtaking just the same.  I was meeting in the Dean’s Conference Room at FSU-Panama City with a group of Bay County school and district administrators, academic coordinators and counselors in October of 2015, the morning after our first Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony.  Ginger had organized the meeting and was chairing it.  I was preparing to share some statistics about enrollments in upper level math and science courses at the district’s high schools, and the news wasn’t good.  I figured I would be in my usual role as bad cop.

As the meeting began, Ginger started to speak.  All of her passion and concern about the future of Bay County’s students spilled out in an intense, boiling stream.  As Ginger prepared to hand the meeting over to me, I realized I had stopped breathing.  I remember thinking, “What can I possibly say now?”  And then it finally hit me:  At that meeting, for the first time in my memory, I was the good cop.  I relaxed and started to share what I knew about Bay County schools.

In October 2015, the news about STEM career readiness in Bay County high schools was not good.  As I shared the news about how neighboring districts were doing a better job and other districts in the state were doing a much better job, I started to think again about all of this bad news and how the people in the room would react.  I was thinking about my central principle of education policy:  “What people really want to be told is that what they are already doing is wonderful.”  I was not telling the Bay County folks that what they were already doing was wonderful.  This was not going to end well.

Then I finished, and there was discussion.  And then a guidance counselor from Mosley said this, which I will never forget:  “Can you come back next month?”  I was stunned.  After all of that bad news and implicit criticism, they wanted me back?

I went back to Bay County, again and again.  I’m going again next week, for my regular monthly meeting with three of the district’s physics teachers and a meeting with parent leaders at Mosley High School.  And the reader shouldn’t conclude that I’m doing this out of some noble self-sacrificial impulse.  I’m going now because I am refreshed and renewed by the spirit of the Bay County teachers, parents, counselors and administrators who I meet.  A few months ago, when I was having trouble scheduling my monthly meeting with the physics teachers, I finally pleaded, “I need a fix!”

The outputs – and it seems so shallow to quantify my experiences there – are undeniable.  Physics enrollments across the district doubled this fall over last spring.  At Mosley, chemistry enrollments are up almost 60% and physics enrollments are up more than a factor of five.  I feel like a fortunate spectator, watching an organization that had been hibernating awaken to excellence.

And it began with Ginger.  Like me, Ginger charges ahead while ignoring the usual convention that you should say to your audience that what they are already doing is wonderful.  But her audience – Bay County’s leaders, parents, teachers, counselors and voters – seem to be welcoming her tough message.  The News Herald’s Eryn Dion tweeted yesterday that Ginger’s election as board chair was greeted with “tumultuous applause”.  Bay wants to do better, and Ginger is their champion.  It’s a privilege for me to be a small part of that.

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2015 Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony

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Another small victory: FSU Physics Department’s undergraduate program national distinction recognized in local paper…sort of

If you can’t get into the local paper’s news section, at least take a crack at getting onto the opinion page.

Exhibit A:  “FSU physics department named in top 5” on the opinion page of Tuesday’s Tallahassee Democrat.

The advantage of doing it this way?  You get to do the spin yourself.

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