Professors generally don’t like to talk about students who fail in their classrooms, but it’s important that we do for the sake of the next generation of students.

Some students fail my introductory calculus-based physics class.

Those of us who teach these classes generally don’t like to talk about failure, but it happens. Some folks in the real world (that is, the world outside university science departments) don’t like to acknowledge that students sometimes fail, but it’s important that they do. Because by looking at why some students fail, we can help at least some of the students who follow in their footsteps succeed.

There are many reasons students fail in my classroom. Most of the time, students fail because of a combination of them.

Students who miss my class regularly are likely to fail. (So future students should come to every class)

Students who didn’t take a physics class in high school are more likely to fail than those who did. And that’s not just in my class. A study of calculus-based physics classes like mine recently published by physics education researchers at West Virginia University concluded that whether a student took high school physics or not is the single most important factor in determining a student’s score on a pre-test using a concept inventory, which in turn is the best predictor of a student’s course grade. There are certainly students who didn’t take a high school physics course who do well in my class. However, nearly all of the students at the bottom of my grade distribution didn’t take a high school physics course.

One colleague of mine dismisses the importance of high school physics and says, “If students work hard, they always succeed. If they fail, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough.” Certainly a high effort level contributes to student success. However, I am convinced that there are students who are so disoriented by physics when they arrive in my classroom that they don’t know what to work hard at. These students often memorize equations and problem solutions (as they have done in their previous science courses in high school and college) and then tell me they are exasperated because “I understand the material but I can’t do your [weekly] quizzes!” My response is almost always “If you can’t do my quizzes, then you don’t understand the physics.” While that may seem insensitive, I think it is important that students who are doing poorly understand that they must substantially change the way they are trying to learn physics. Fortunately for them, I teach in a SCALE-UP classroom, where students interact with each other and with instructors while performing labs and collaborative problem-solving exercises. We have two three-hour classes per week, and we pretty much beg students to learn physics with understanding rather than memorize equations and problem solutions.

There is a great deal of discussion (and research) about the importance of what I’ll call a “welcoming environment” in the college physics classroom. That is especially obvious in my classroom. If a student isn’t comfortable working with the other members of her or his group, that student gets into trouble quickly. If students in my SCALE-UP classroom aren’t interacting, then they aren’t learning. My students work in groups of three (and sit at nine-seat tables), and if two students in a group aren’t including the third in their discussions, then the third student is screwed. If one student is monopolizing the conversation in a group, then perhaps the two quiet students are screwed. Being on the short end of the stick in a group happens more often to women (who are only one-third of my class) and Black students (who are generally one-tenth or less of the class) than it does to the non-Black male students, but it can happen to any student. One of my jobs in my classroom is to look for students who are not being included in their group’s conversations and to move those students into groups where they are fully included. Often that means moving women students into groups with more or all women. Sometimes (but not always) Black students learn better in groups that have other Black members. Every student is different, and I sometimes place a student in several groups before finding one that works for her or him.

Nevertheless, some students don’t succeed. Sometimes they are successful when they repeat the class, but most often they are not. Those students must change their majors out of engineering or the physical or mathematical sciences, and that is often heartbreaking. I remember seeing a Twitter exchange several years ago in which a science professor was saying that several students in his class were in counseling. Another professor – one not in a science field – responded “They are probably in counseling because of your class!” It is likely my class has been the last straw driving a student into counseling at least once, and probably more than that. That’s not something in which I take any pride. But it is an unavoidable part of teaching a physics course that is intended to build a foundation for a STEM career.

This week, it is especially important to acknowledge that personal or family difficulties can impair a student’s ability to learn. Sometimes a student can recover emotionally from such an event quickly enough to resume learning during the same semester – in fact that is what happens most often. But occasionally a student will be so badly knocked back by an event that the only prudent thing to do is walk away from school for the remainder of the semester and try again the following semester. Nobody likes the idea of a student losing a semester to something that isn’t her or his fault, but it happens.

In any classroom where there is substantial achievement, there is also going to be failure. Wishing that were not so or insisting that failure can be banished from a serious classroom can keep us from preparing the next generation of students for even greater success.

My SCALE-UP physics class in the Fall of 2021.
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In loco parentis? Lessons from parenting could guide us as we deal with post-pandemic college physics students.

One day last week, I was talking with a physics colleague who was expressing frustration about the inability of our present group of pandemic-impacted students to work at quite the same pace as students did a few years ago. This colleague, who has been here for many years and who has kids who have graduated from college, was also frustrated about the willingness of professors to try to adapt to that reduced pace. I framed my response in terms of how we raised our own children. I remember saying this: “How did we handle our own kids? Didn’t we nudge them to the edge but stop them before we pushed them over it? Shouldn’t we do the same with our students?” The colleague’s expression softened and I could see that I had broken through, at least a little.

Certainly the group of seventy-two students I have this fall in a face-to-face studio-style (SCALE-UP) version of a first-semester calculus-based introductory physics class is quite different from the classes I had before the pandemic. It is even quite different from last fall’s class, which was the first face-to-face class I had after the 2020-21 online year. Last fall’s class had some excellent students who were thriving despite the circumstances, but it also had a significant number of individuals who seemed unable to interact with others or even function as students.

For those of you who like quantitative observations, I can compare my Force Concept Inventory (FCI) pretest results from the fall of 2019 to those from the fall of 2021, which were quite similar. In both classes, one-third of the students said they hadn’t taken a physics class in high school. So in those ways the two groups looked alike. But their personalities were completely different, and the fall of 2021 class had problems I had never seen before – about a third of the students habitually missed class and were unable to talk constructively with their peers when they attended.

This fall’s class seems much more resilient than last fall’s. Only a few students are having serious attendance problems, and during class exercises (labs and collaborative problem-solving performed in groups of three) the room is alive (and loud) with conversations among peers. And when I listen in on those conversations, they are mostly about the physics on which they are working. The students (and my assistant instructors) have turned our classroom into a healthy learning environment.

But that isn’t to say that we have returned to the pre-pandemic norm. This fall’s FCI pre-test results were shockingly poor. This is an inside baseball reference for physics education researchers or their fans (like me), but here it is: 60% of my students scored below 10 on this 30-question multiple-choice assessment instrument. In the past it has typically been 40%, which colleagues who teach college physics in many other states would already find quite awful. The drop in pre-test performance this fall isn’t because fewer of this fall’s students took high school physics – one-third reported on my first-day survey that they hadn’t taken physics in high school, just like in previous years. What stuck out in this fall’s pre-testing is the number of students who reported taking an AP physics class in high school (including AP Physics C Mechanics) and who still scored below 10 on the FCI pre-test. Many (most?) students struggled in high school during the last two years, even those students who were taking the highest-level coursework – and regardless of the heroics of their teachers.

I shared my pre-test results with a physics teacher educator on my campus and she responded, “So what are you doing to remediate your students?” My short answer was “nothing”. After all, the expectations of the faculty in engineering, meteorology and other fields served by my physics course have not changed, so I still need to get my students to the same level of understanding at the end of course as I did before the pandemic. Of course, I have colleagues who consider my studio-style class to be the remedial option for calculus-based physics (with “serious” students taking the more traditional lecture option), so maybe I’m already remediating. And I know that there are at least a few faculty in engineering who would like us (or at least me) to cram more topics into the studio-style course (entropy, anyone?).

But in the end, students still have to know that an object that is traveling at a constant velocity doesn’t have a net force on it, that there is no such thing as a “motion force”, that an object in a circular orbit around a planet is always falling and isn’t “weightless”, that an object with zero velocity can still be accelerating and that a ball bouncing on the ground loses some of its energy during a bounce (which can be quantified by measuring the maximum heights of the ball before and after the bounce). Yes, applying calculus to those scenarios is important, but it’s useless if the students don’t understand the laws of nature at work.

And so we nudge our students into intellectual territory that is uncomfortable for them (because most have never been asked to understand something they are watching at the level I am asking) even though we know that they’ve had a tough couple of years and that on the average they knew less at the beginning of the semester than the predecessors did a few years ago. I’m doing everything I can think of to keep my students from shutting down without compromising our learning goals. I wore shorts during one class early in the semester so that I could run (yes, literally run) back and forth across the front of the classroom illustrating how acceleration can be in the same and opposite directions as velocity (and wearing a mask while doing it – not so easy). I am posting dog pictures on the projector screens during class (and we will visit Phoebe the Physics Dog in person tomorrow – don’t tell them so it can be a surprise).

But as parents struggle to do, I am trying to nudge my students to the limits of their effort and the edge of the abyss of despair without quite pushing them into it.

Several years ago, a member of the Catholic parish I attend said that I had turned my class into a ministry. If that was true then, it is much truer now. Yes, I pray for my students before classes and their weekly quizzes (I forget occasionally, but mostly I remember). And I’m painfully aware that at least a few of my students this semester will not succeed and will have to abandon their dreams of being engineers or meteorologists or computer scientists or even physicists. Because even though I try not to push my students quite over the edge a few will topple over the edge, anyway.

But while we cannot lower the bar on physics understanding for our students even in this post-pandemic era, it will still help to remember that they are each somebody’s son or daughter, each created by God and holding fast (at least for now) to their own dreams.

Members of my Spring 2022 class being welcomed by Phoebe the Physics Dog.
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Talking with parents to improve their high school kids’ preparation for college STEM majors: We should do more of this.

In the effort to improve the preparation of high school students for college STEM majors, the very best strategy is to talk with the parents of those students.

Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to get access to those parents. So when I’m given opportunities to talk with parents, I jump at them.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the summer of 2015, then-Bay County School Board Chair Ginger Littleton invited me to talk with some members of the district staff about high school preparation for college STEM majors. After that meeting – which was held at FSU’s Panama City campus and which seemed constructive – Ginger invited high school counselors and Assistant Principals to meet with me.

After that second meeting, two counselors from Mosley High School approached me and asked if I would be willing to meet with parents at Mosley some evening. I had my doubts about the usefulness of talking with parents, and since I lived in Tallahassee, which is 120 miles away from Lynn Haven (where Mosley is located) I thought twice about it. But I had the sense to realize that the people on the ground at the school had the best sense of what was needed, so I agreed to come. The attendance for the first meeting was modest (I remember something like 40 parents were there) but the discussion with the parents was so good that I agreed to come back and do additional presentations over the next year or so.

Of course, even before they met me the counselors had decided to make a big push to increase enrollments in chemistry, physics and calculus courses in their school. My visits were just part of their plan. By the time they were done a few years later, the chemistry enrollment had risen from 151 (in fall 2015) to 319 (in fall 2018), the calculus enrollment had increased from 32 to 68, and the physics enrollment had exploded from 6 to 173. (No, that is not a typo. Mosley had about 1,800 students at the time.) Mosley had become the Florida Panhandle’s leading high school for college STEM major preparation.

While I was enjoying playing a small role in Mosley’s rise, I became aware of a study on parent outreach performed as part of the Wisconsin Study on Families and Work. Their study sent brochures on high school STEM course-taking (chemistry-physics-upper level math!) to parents and provided an informational web site. Their result was that “a motivational intervention with parents can have important effects on STEM preparation in high school, as well as downstream effects on STEM career pursuit 5 y[ears] later”. So the importance of parent outreach is proven and is not a secret, since this paper appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

I had a parent outreach event in December 2019 at the Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday event, where I gave talks to a few groups of parents who devoured the information I shared hungrily. I’m heading back Orange County this December 3 to reprise those talks to parents for the first Super STEM Saturday event since the pandemic. The event will be held at Apopka High School, just as the 2019 event was.

I don’t always get invited back as I did at Mosley (for awhile at least) and in Orange County. Last fall, I gave my standard talks on high school preparation for college STEM majors to parents at two schools in Tallahassee. At one school, one of my audiences was made up of parents of 12th graders, who learned from my talk what their aspiring engineering majors should have taken in high school and were not advised to take by the school staff. I heard later on that this was not well-received by the school staff.

But the biggest problem is that people like me who are willing to visit with parents get such opportunities so seldom. Perhaps the school staff don’t like the idea of outsiders like me giving parents what amounts to academic advising – even if the advice I’m giving is to help prepare their own children for college math and science classrooms like mine.

So I’ll keep accepting the invitations I receive and I’ll try not to spend much time thinking about the successes that could be achieved if only people like me could get to talk with parents at more schools.

The summary slide from a ppt titled “What courses do college STEM faculty say high school students should take to prepare to major in their fields?”, which is available here.
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No, you can’t learn physics just by reading about it. So no, the assertion in a NYT op-ed that “If you can read, you can learn anything” isn’t true.

No, you can’t learn physics just by reading about it.

That’s probably true of other science fields as well. Like biology. But I’ll come back to that.

What set me off on this (well, just a little really) was reading Emily Hanford’s New York Times op-ed on reading instruction. Ms. Hanford is a journalist for American Public Media who started reporting on reading education in 2017. She won the inaugural public service award from the Education Writers Association in 2019, and a recent Time magazine report gave her credit for coining the phrase “the science of reading”.

I enjoyed reading her Times op-ed, but the second sentence of the piece stuck in my craw: “If you can read, you can learn anything.”

Well no, you can’t. If only Ms. Hanford were right, my job as a college physics professor would be a lot easier.

I’m going to assume that my readers know better, that learning physics with understanding requires experiences with hands-on experiments and engaged problem-solving.

Instead of spending keystrokes on that, I’m going to share a few tidbits about why it matters that people understand that reading isn’t enough to learn physics, or even more broadly science.

Here’s one: If people believe that reading is all that is necessary to learn science (with perhaps a bit of math thrown in for good measure), then they will not worry about neglecting science in the K-12 schools. Unfortunately, the Reading Is All That Matters cult seems to have a significant number of adherents among school leaders and policy-makers. As a result, the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education found that students in grades K-3 spent an average of just 18 minutes per day on science, compared to 89 minutes for English language arts and 57 minutes for math (from an article in Edutopia).

With the widespread post-pandemic concern about “lost learning”, science instruction may be degraded further. When researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California surveyed school district officials in 2021 about their priorities for post-pandemic instruction, they learned that “only 27 percent of the districts we surveyed made science a high priority in their recovery plans, whereas more than 80 percent prioritized math/ELA”. California started early on implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, but the pandemic may sideline that effort for a very long time.

The idea that knowing how to read is all that is necessary to learn science leads to some odd pathologies. Back in 2012, I was invited to serve on a panel of community members that reviewed several of Florida’s standardized tests, including the 8th grade science exam and the high school biology end-of-course exam. I was a member of the committee that wrote the state’s science standards in 2007-2008, so I suppose it was logical to invite me. I remember being pretty impressed with the physics questions on the 8th grade exam. But the biology exam was a different beast altogether. An engineer sitting next to me summarized my own feelings when he said, “I don’t need to know any biology at all to pass this test. I just have to know how to read.” All of the science content knowledge required to pass the exam was included in brief readings in the exam. At the end of each brief reading, there were several multiple-choice questions referring to the content in that particular reading – and nothing else. It was a reading exam, not a science exam. That was the high school-level science exam given by the state to meet the federal government’s accountability requirement.

I assume that Florida’s biology end-of-course exam hasn’t changed much since then.

By focusing high school science accountability requirements on biology, Florida’s education policymakers have caused (at least in part) the K-12 system’s neglect of other science subjects like chemistry and physics. The rate at which Florida’s public high school students take chemistry is significantly below the national rate, and the rate at which those students take physics is less than half the national rate.

And perhaps that biology focus happened because it’s much harder to write a reading-test-masquerading-as-a-science-test for chemistry and physics than it is for biology.

So Ms. Hanford, if by some crazy twist of fate you happen to read this, I want you to know that what you say about the all-sufficiency of reading for learning is doing damage to the education of students in my state, and probably in others. But I mostly enjoyed your piece.

District answers to questions about whether math, ELA and science are priorities for post-pandemic recovery, from the PPIC report “The Impact of COVID-19 on Science Education”.
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At my university, the number of undergraduates majoring in life and health science fields is increasing rapidly. Maybe that’s true at your university, too.

Enrollment in my department’s algebra-based physics classes, taken by most students majoring in the life and health sciences, is increasing very quickly. I am painfully aware of that because I am my physics department’s new Associate Chair. Therefore, figuring out how to meet that rapidly growing demand is part of my new job. The number of students taking the first semester of the algebra-based sequence this fall is about 15% larger than last fall, and as you can imagine I’m trying to come up with a way to project future enrollments in this course.

If the enrollment in our algebra-based course is growing that quickly, then it is almost certain that the number of students majoring in those fields is growing rapidly as well. And it is (according to our university’s fact books). Life and health science majors take physics during their 3rd or 4th years here at FSU, so the right population to look at is the upper division majors. The evolution of that population through Fall 2021 is shown here:

Upper division majors at FSU in four departments: Biology, Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences, Neuroscience and the human sciences department that houses Exercise Physiology and Nutrition.

I’m sure I missed some majors relevant to this discussion, but the majors included in this plot are Biology, Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences (IMS), Neuroscience, and the majors from the department in the College of Human Sciences that house Exercise Physiology and Nutrition. The number of upper division students in these majors increased by more than a quarter from Fall 2018 to Fall 2021.

The standard story is that the pandemic is driving the increase in the number of students majoring in life and health sciences. But what the plot makes clear is that at least here at FSU, that increase was well underway a few years before the pandemic hit in 2020, although before 2020 it was driven largely by the advent of the new IMS program.

FSU is not the only public university in Florida experiencing rapid growth in the number of life science majors. In the plot below, I compare the numbers of Biology majors at FSU, UF, UCF, FAU and UNF. There are more universities in Florida’s State University System, but I could not figure out how to easily extract numbers of majors from their web sites.

The numbers of Biology majors are growing at FSU, UF and UCF, and that growth started in 2020.

I cannot say when this growth will level off. But it seems likely that the growth in students interested in life and health science careers is one of the less unpleasant consequences of the pandemic.

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What will Florida’s math and science classrooms look like in the wake of this year’s ugly district school board campaigns?

When this year’s ugly district school board campaigns in Florida are over, will anybody remember that one of the responsibilities of our public schools is to give students the opportunity to achieve at the highest level?

Of course, many of the issues that school board candidates are battling over are desperately important.

Yes, the mental health needs of our students should be addressed. Yes, students who are not heading for a four-year college should have access to excellent career and technical education opportunities. Yes, we should not be bullying students because of their race or gender identity. Yes, students should learn about the horrific things that have been done in the past to some Floridians because of their skin color. And yes, students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be given an opportunity to achieve at the highest level just like more advantaged students.

When the campaign battles over these issues are over and the victors have taken their seats on Florida’s district school boards, will those victors remember that one of their jobs is to give every student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential?

As a state, we have done a poor job of giving each student the opportunity to prepare for STEM careers that require a bachelor’s degree or beyond. The rate at which Florida’s public high school students take calculus is about half the national rate. Our state’s students take physics at less than half the national rate. One-seventh of Florida’s large public high schools (that is, high schools with more than 1,000 students) didn’t teach physics at all during the 2021-22 school year. Our state’s students are even behind the national enrollment rate in chemistry.

Partly because of that, Florida was ranked 35th in the nation in 2019 for the rate at which students earned bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering fields. That sorry statistic has consequences for the state’s economy. During that same year, Florida was ranked 43rd in the nation for the percentage of its workforce that had jobs in knowledge- and technology-intensive industries – industries that pay their workers relatively high wages. That was one of the factors that led to Florida being ranked 35th in the nation for median household income in 2019. In turn, that low median household income is a primary reason why US News and World Report ranks Florida 41st in the nation for housing affordability.

I hope my concerns are groundless. I hope Florida’s new district school board members will make it one of their high priorities to support student excellence, even in subjects like calculus and physics. That means finding a way to recruit, develop and retain highly qualified teachers in math and science. And that means making public schools better places to teach for educators in all subjects than they are now.

Sometime next year, we will start to see what the results of this year’s district school board warfare are in our state’s high school math and science classrooms. As of today, I’m pessimistic.

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What percentage of American high school students graduate with the science trifecta – biology, chemistry and physics? The answer to that and related questions from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently updated the tables for its Digest of Educational Statistics. Here are some goodies from those tables:

Among the national high school graduating class of 2019 (including public and private high schools), 34.9% of students had taken biology, chemistry and physics – yes, all three. That includes 36.4% of boys and 33.3% of girls.

There are all kinds of ways to slice up those course-taking numbers. The percentage of graduates who had completed biology, chemistry and physics at schools with low free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) eligibility rates (0-25%) was 42.5%, while it was 25.4% among students at schools with FRL rates of 76% or greater.

The report lists three categories of high schools – “traditional public”, “public charter” and “private”. Among students at private schools the percentage of graduates who had completed the biology, chemistry and physics trifecta was 48.3%. For traditional public schools, the percentage was 33.8%. And at public charters, the percentage was 26.7%.

Among racial and ethnic groups, 56.0% of Asian graduates had completed biology, chemistry and physics; 35.0% of white graduates had done so. The percentages among Hispanic and Black graduates were 35.0% and 26.4%, respectively.

Of the American high school graduating class of 2019, 15.8% of graduates had taken a calculus course. The rates for boys and girls were identical to within statistical uncertainties.

At schools with low FRL rates (0-25%), 25.4% of graduates had taken calculus, but only 8.6% had done so at schools with high FRL rates (76-100%).

The percentages of high school graduates that had taken calculus at the different types of high schools were 24.3% at private high schools, 15.1% at traditional public high schools and 9.3% at public charters.

Among Asian graduates, 45.6% had taken calculus. The corresponding percentages for white, Hispanic and Black graduates were 18.3%, 9.5% and 6.2% respectively.

Of all students enrolled in American high schools during the 2017-18 school year, 11.1% were taking a physics course, 19.5% were taking a chemistry course and 30.0% were taking a biology course. On the mathematics side, 4.7% were taking a calculus class.

The course-taking rates for Florida high school graduates are not easily available; however, the FLDOE provides ready access to course enrollment statistics. In the fall of 2021, 4.7% of all students in Florida’s public high schools were enrolled in a physics course (compared to the 11.1% 2017-18 national rate); 16.0% were enrolled in a chemistry course (the 2017-18 national rate was 19.5%); and 2.7% were enrolled in a calculus course (compared to the national 2017-18 rate of 4.7%).

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Do some K-12 educators surrender to the temptation to have college-bound high school students substitute CTE courses for foundational science and math courses?

Every high school student bound for a four-year college who might possibly choose a college major in engineering or a physical, life or health science should take chemistry, physics and at least precalculus, if not calculus.

Under no circumstances should such a student replace a chemistry, physics or precalculus course with a career and technical education (CTE) course – even if that course is in computing. It’s great if a student adds such a course to her or his high school program, but not if it is at the expense of the foundational science and math courses.

Any educator – teacher, counselor, administrator – who recommends that a high school student bound for a four-year college replace chemistry, physics or pre-calculus with a CTE course should be ashamed.

Often, when an educator advises a student to make such a horrible choice, it is out of ignorance. I gave my now-standard pitch about why chemistry, physics and calculus are important to a wide range of STEM majors to a group earlier this year. When I was done, one of the leaders in the group appeared contrite and said, “I didn’t know”. It was an extraordinary public admission. Of course, I’ll feel better about that event if students in that school are taking chemistry, physics and precalculus at higher rates this school year than they were last year. I’ll know that in February, when the Florida Department of Education releases its K-12 course enrollment numbers for the Fall 2022 semester.

But the education funding system for Florida’s public K-12 schools includes incentives for educators to steer students away from courses like chemistry and physics into CTE courses. The program is called the Career and Professional Education Act (CAPE) and it is now about a decade old. School districts receive additional funding for each industrial certification exam passed – much as each Advanced Placement exam passed generates funding for the district. When it was passed, CAPE was a breakthrough – a way to incentivize districts to prepare their non-college bound students for careers that would allow them to live middle-class lives.

But there is a catch here. In general, it is easier for a student to pass an industrial certification exam than it is to pass an Advanced Placement exam. District administrators can maximize their district’s funding by steering their top tier students – the ones bound for four-year colleges – into CTE courses to earn the relatively easy passing grades on industrial certification exams instead of into Advanced Placement courses with their exam passing rates of only about 50%.

I have never personally known a K-12 educator – teacher or school or district leader – who has done such a thing. Nevertheless, the CAPE dark side incentive is out there in the schools, and district leaders who are desperate for funding must be tempted. Occasionally I have seen schools or districts doing things that made me wonder whether leaders of those schools or districts had succumbed to that temptation.

The movement to replace foundational math and science courses with CTE courses (especially in computing) can become comically cynical. I vaguely recall a media report about a lobbyist for a K-12 computing organization who was arguing to Florida legislators that computing courses should be allowed to satisfy graduation requirements in math (she won, by the way). My recollection is that she was reported to say something like, “Of course students should take coding instead of math. It’s way more fun!”

What really stings is when colleagues at my own university tell educators and students that replacing chemistry, physics and (pre)calculus with CTE courses is a wonderful thing to do. Realistically, I can do nothing to stop them. And since they are giving Florida’s leaders and public the message that they want to hear, I always lose public competitions with them. Always.

The upshot is that many students who arrive on our campus intending to be engineers and computer scientists don’t have the high school classes in foundational science and math they need to be well-prepared. The engineering majors have replaced physics with an engineering class or two. The computer scientists have substituted coding for calculus and physics. And often their career dreams die in my classroom. Watching that happen is the hardest thing about my job, and it happens all the time.

It will keep happening as long as some of the state’s K-12 educators surrender to the temptation to steer their college-bound students into relatively easy CTE courses instead of the foundational chemistry, physics and (pre)calculus courses these students should really be taking.

In case you were wondering, this is actually an undergraduate physics major working at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU’s Tallahassee campus.
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Boys significantly outnumbered girls in AP Physics courses in Florida’s public high schools during the 2021-22 school year

Girls were dramatically underrepresented in AP Physics 1 and AP Physics C classes in Florida’s public high schools during the 2021-22 school year, according to data posted by the Florida Department of Education.

In AP Physics 1, 62% of the 5,653 students were boys. The situation was even worse in AP Physics C. Among the 1,136 students who took AP Physics C Mechanics, 69% were boys. And in AP Physics 2, 71% of the 649 Florida public high school students who took the course were boys.

AP Physics 1 and 2 are algebra-based classes, while the AP Physics C courses (Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism) are calculus-based courses that can substitute for the calculus-based college physics courses required for students majoring in engineering, computer science, physics and other physical science fields like meteorology and chemistry.

The worst situation among AP math classes was in AP Calculus BC, in which 57% of the students were boys. In AP Statistics, girls outnumbered the boys – 53% of the students were girls.

The imbalance in physics enrollment in the public high schools – which has not improved during the last decade – is reflected in the rates at which men and women earn bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics in Florida’s State University System. During the 2019-20 academic year, only 23% of the bachelor’s degree graduates in engineering were women. Furthermore, only 23% of the bachelor’s degree graduates in physics were women. (Data from IPEDS)

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The Tampa Bay Times editorial board recommended a “no” vote on a property tax referendum to raise teacher salaries in Hillsborough County. They are wrong.

If I were a gracious guest, I would start out by thanking the Tampa Bay Times opinion page staff for placing in this morning’s Perspectives section my essay “Science and engineering majors need early prep”, a plea for public high schools to provide their students with opportunities to learn chemistry, physics and calculus. I highlighted the fact that Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) offered physics in every large (more than 1,000 students) high school during the 2021-22 school year. Only one other Florida megadistrict (Orange County) did that. Furthermore, the HCPS district staff made some changes in the way high school students select science courses, resulting in a 29% increase in physics enrollments in Fall 2021 over Fall 2020 and a 36% increase in chemistry. This year, I ranked Hillsborough third in the state for how well it prepares high school students for college STEM majors – behind only perennial STEM powerhouses Seminole and Brevard Counties.

But what I want to talk about instead is this: In the same section, the paper’s editorial board advises Hillsborough County voters to vote “no” on an August referendum that would raise property taxes by one mill to provide $146 million per year in additional education funding – and most of that would go to increase the salaries of teachers and other educational staff.

Teachers are at the center of everything that schools do. The Florida Education Association says that there are still about 9,000 vacant teacher positions in Florida schools with the start of the school year only a few weeks away (of about 176,000 teaching positions in Florida’s public schools). I don’t have specific data on high school science and math teachers, but my guess is that the shortage of those teachers is even more intense than for the teacher corps at large. Anybody who wants to maintain upper-level math and science offerings in every one of Hillsborough’s large schools should be rooting for the referendum to pass.

The TB Times editorial board raised concerns about the district’s history of fiscal irresponsibility, which even the board admitted is now in the past. This is what they said:

For nearly a decade, the Hillsborough school district routinely spent more than it raised in revenue, using internal transfers and cash reserves to cover a half-billion dollar deficit. Superintendent Addison Davis has made headway in controlling costs since the district hired him in 2020. He has cut positions, imposed new spending controls and taken steps to balance the budget, from renegotiating contracts to exploring ways to better commercialize school sports and facilities. But those reforms need to take root before the district asks taxpayers for more. Voters need a track record that demonstrates a fundamental change, and stronger signs that this turnaround will endure.

The district needs to continue work on right-sizing the workforce and generating new revenue streams. It is only now examining what to do with scores of school campuses operating at two-thirds or less capacity. A consultant’s report on underused schools is expected in January, but any response — closing, consolidating or repurposing campuses — is likely many months, if not longer, away. In short, the district still has remedies worth exploring before asking for more money.

The editorial board goes onto say that the referendum should be tried again in 2024 and be passed if the district demonstrates that it can maintain a high level of fiscal responsibility. And yet, there are students in the Hillsborough County Public Schools right now who will not get a second chance at having great teachers in physics or any other field once they lose those opportunities in 2023 and 2024. Furthermore, I was witness to how the failed referendum for teacher salaries in Bay County (blasted by a more than two-to-one margin) devastated the morale of some math and science teachers there. It’s quite likely that a loss in Hillsborough County will drive some teachers away all by itself – because it will prove to those teachers that voters don’t care about quality K-12 education.

The number of Hillsborough County voters who read this post is likely to be zero, so it will have no influence at all (probably equal to the influence I would have in my home county). But if you happen to be a Hillsborough County voter, please vote yes on the referendum. Please.

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