Orlando Sentinel journalists have shown that reform in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is desperately needed. How should new oversight be provided?

A team of journalists from the Orlando Sentinel demonstrated this week beyond any doubt whatsoever that dramatic reform in Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program is desperately needed, and that it should be implemented quickly, before any more students in the program are damaged any further. The Sentinel’s team has done the State of Florida a tremendous service.

The response from the organization that administers the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Step Up for Students, has been vehement and distressingly typical of the present state of the nation’s civil discourse. But embedded in all of that has been at least a whispered acknowledgement that reform is indeed needed.

It seems to me, as an amateur observer of education policy and politics, that there are two truths central to this issue that it would be useful to stipulate:

First, the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is here to stay. The state’s voters elect Republicans and will almost certainly continue to, and Republicans are going to continue to support a program in which public resources are used by low income children to attend private schools – even religious schools. Even if Democrats are elected to legislative majorities, the program is dug in enough at this point that terminating it would be nearly impossible. So reforming the program should be an urgent priority.

Second, many children who are supported by Tax Credit Scholarships have excellent educational experiences. For example, many of Florida’s Catholic schools do wonderful work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds – in part because of the quality control mechanisms provided by the state’s Catholic dioceses.

The limited regulatory mechanisms in place for tax credit scholarship schools at the Florida Department of Education and Step Up for Students have failed and must be replaced with something that will necessarily be more expensive and more intrusive.

Before a reader screams “Oh no! Not more government!” consider the quality control apparatus that keeps Florida’s Catholic schools operating at a uniformly high level.

Perhaps the regulatory mechanisms maintained by Florida’s Catholic dioceses could be replicated under some new organizational umbrella and expanded to all tax credit scholarship schools. Or perhaps the Florida Catholic Conference could be asked to head up this organization – and given the resources to make it work well.

Either way, Florida’s Catholic leaders should be willing to step up and assume a leadership role for the future of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program has provided financial stability for the state’s Catholic schools and given them the opportunity to reach out to disadvantaged students – which is their spiritual obligation. In return, the church should be willing to assume a level of responsibility for students in the program who are at non-Catholic schools and who are being deprived of an opportunity to be educated.

To the reader who says that this is a pie-in-the-sky idea and that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I would acknowledge that this is perhaps (or likely) true, but that somebody then needs to come up with a better idea. The present situation is too destructive to too many vulnerable students.

And to the tax credit scholarship advocate that objects to my argument by saying that things are as bad or worse in traditional public schools, I say this: Be a leader, dammit. Stop making excuses. Make things better for more kids.

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My message to FSU’s Catholic Student Union last night: Our Catholic leaders embrace modern science.

I visited with about 200 students and spiritual leaders at FSU’s Catholic Student Union last night to discuss life as a Catholic scientist.  I opened by professing the Apostles Creed, with an emphasis on the word creator.  The rest of my power point slides are shown below.

The extended quote from my 2008 America magazine article shown on the second-to-last slide below seems to have application today far beyond the topic of science education.






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“Preparing Postsecondary Students for Success”? The Education Committee of the Florida Senate will let us know what they mean next week.

My blog posts and tweets generally get more attention than they deserve, but not enough to make a difference.

So when a friend pointed out this morning while I was in class that next week’s meeting of the Education Committee of the Florida Senate will be a workshop on “Preparing Postsecondary Students for Success”, I got really excited.  “Hey!  That’s what I do!”, I thought.  I looked around my studio physics classroom at the 65 or so undergraduates majoring in fields like engineering, meteorology, chemistry and (gasp!) physics and thought, “This is it!”  I checked the calendar on my iPhone to make sure I was available for the meeting, being held Monday afternoon 4-6 pm.  And then I braced myself to receive the invitation to present to the Senators.

While I was waiting, I snapped a picture of my postsecondary students preparing for success.  But they didn’t seem to notice my excitement.  Imagine that!  I guess they were too busy trying to figure out what those carts smashing together had to do with conservation of momentum.

But I waited all day, and no invitation came from the staff or chair of the Senate Education Committee.  I guess I’ll have to find something else to do late Monday afternoon.  Like prepare next Friday’s quiz.


Postsecondary students preparing for success in my studio physics class this morning.  As far as I know, none of them were invited to present at next Monday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, either.

There is a scene in Steve Martin’s 1979 movie “The Jerk” in which he grabs a copy of the new phone book, searches furiously for his own name, and on finding it exclaims, “I’m somebody now!  Millions of people look at this book every day!”  If you’re actually helping postsecondary students prepare for success and waiting for policy-makers to notice, you might be having that kind of moment.

Of course, I complain too much.  Senator Bill Montford visited a studio physics class this summer (I wasn’t teaching it, but two of my distinguished colleagues – Simon Capstick and David Van Winkle – were).  The last two FSU presidents – Eric Barron and John Thrasher – visited studio physics classes.  When I tell colleagues from other universities this, they are actually impressed.  I find it depressing that even their own presidents don’t visit those classes, which are certainly – as our studio physics classes are here – the leading implementations of evidence-based pedagogies at their institutions.

If my students are able to enter the careers for which they are planning, they will be economically successful by anybody’s measure.  And our studio physics classes can actually play an important role in the attainment of bachelors’ degrees by students in STEM fields.  The report Engage to Excel published by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012 highlights the importance of engaging introductory science and math courses for promoting persistence by STEM majors.

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Top 25 college majors ranked by salary from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce report “Economic Value of College Majors”

What others mean by “postsecondary success” doesn’t always impress me.  My own university is quite proud of its bachelor’s degree program in hospitality.  Yet a report by the New York Fed published in 2014 showed that 63% of the bachelor’s degree graduates in Leisure and Hospitality who graduated between 2009 and 2011 (admittedly a tough time) ended up in jobs that did not require a bachelor’s degree.

It’s possible – even likely – that next week’s Senate Education Committee meeting will focus on one of the chair’s pet projects – separating governance of the State College System (SCS – made up of institutions previously known as community colleges) from the State Board of Education (which also handles K-12) so that the SCS has its own board like the State University System does.

Maybe there will be a discussion about increasing the graduation rate at SCS institutions for AA degrees.  Or for Associate of Applied Science degrees in fields like engineering technology.

But I’m pretty sure there will not be a discussion of finding ways to help more students to succeed in fields like engineering and physics.  After all, we might be helping lots of our students to become somebodies in those fields, but it’s unlikely that’s the sort of thing the state’s legislators will notice.


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The FSU Physics Department is doing a darn good job. But what do policy-makers want from us?

A report released this week by the American Institute of Physics revealed that in the 2015-16 academic year, FSU’s Physics Department was number one in the southeast for Physics Ph.D. production, and was in the top ten nationally.

Another report – one released last fall by a task force on undergraduate physics education formed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers – cited FSU’s bachelor’s degree program in physics as one of five national models.

It seems to me that the FSU Physics Department is doing an awfully good job at fulfilling the mission it’s been given by university and state leaders.

But I wonder what – if anything – our state’s leaders think of what we are doing here in the Keen Building (where the FSU Physics Department is based), or what they would think of us if they knew we are here and what we are doing.  Given the overall tone of comments about the state’s universities over the last several years, I doubt that anything we are doing is impressing leaders in the executive or legislative branches – perhaps because they don’t know about it.

Our university’s most important mission should be to give our students access to great 21st century careers, and we certainly do that.  Physics graduates at both the bachelors’ and doctoral levels are any university’s most economically versatile graduates.   Salaries earned by bachelors’ graduates in physics are equivalent to those earned by engineering graduates.  Our doctoral graduates earn research positions at national laboratories and leading universities around the country.  Those who choose to enter the private sector start at salaries close to or over $100,000.

The FSU Physics Department is working hard on the issue of equity.  Our department is a site for the American Physical Society’s Bridge Program, which is addressing the woeful underrepresentation of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans among Ph.D. graduates.  Of roughly 1,000 Ph.D.’s awarded in physics at American institutions each year, the numbers awarded to African-American, Hispanic and Native American students each year add up to 40 – about 4% of the total.

The FSU Physics Department has not attracted a $100 million private donation like another unit on campus has.  But even if that whole $100 million had already come in and been stashed in an endowment (it hasn’t) it would only be yielding about $4 million per year in spendable income.  The FSU Physics faculty members in nuclear physics bring in federal grant income of about $2 million per year all by themselves.  Our astrophysicists, high energy physicists and condensed matter physicists bring in more.  And that doesn’t count what might be considered the Physics Department’s “share” of the operating budget at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is at FSU because Physics faculty members decided to challenge MIT’s “ownership” of the laboratory several decades ago.

The Physics Department has managed to grow in productivity during the last three decades even though its facilities on the main campus haven’t grown at all.  The department makes heavy use of three SCALE-UP classrooms – all of which have been constructed in the last decade – for introductory courses, but they are owned by the Registrar’s Office, which allows other academic units to use them.

Speaking of introductory courses, each semester the Physics Department provides introductory-level instruction for more than a thousand undergraduates majoring in fields like engineering, computer science, Earth sciences and life sciences, and for those preparing for professional school in the health sciences.  The department’s Studio Physics Program is the university’s leading evidence-based teaching program, serving about 250 students each semester.  Even the department’s lecture courses have adopted elements of the Studio Physics Program’s interactive engagement pedagogy:  This fall, 640 students in the department’s lecture courses are using SCALE-UP classrooms to take part in collaborative problem-solving activities during recitation periods.

FSU’s Physics Department does exactly what policy-makers should want it to – provide Florida’s students with world-class opportunities to access leadership careers in the 21st century economy while operating with constrained state resources.

It might be helpful for those in leadership and policy-making positions to acknowledge that.



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Is the understanding of basic science concepts important for engineers and applied scientists?

This video about the simple problem of lighting a light bulb with a wire and battery from Philip Sadler at Harvard is thought-provoking.  Do students in engineering and applied science need to learn basic science concepts?

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American Physical Society Fellow Susan Blessing to speak at Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony

Florida State University Physics Professor Susan Blessing, who was recently elected to be a Fellow of the American Physical Society, will be the scientific keynote speaker at this fall’s induction ceremony for the Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook Future Physicists of Florida FSU Panama City Chapter, where middle schoolers from Bay County will be recognized for achievement in math and science.

The ceremony will be held on Monday, November 27 at FSU’s Panama City Campus.

Professor Blessing joined the FSU Physics faculty and the department’s high energy physics group in 1993.

In addition to being a member of the Physics faculty, Professor Blessing serves as Director of FSU’s Women in Math, Science and Engineering Living Learning Community, a position she has held since 2005.  In this position, Professor Blessing is the university’s leading advocate for women in the computing, engineering and physics fields in which women are most strongly underrepresented.

Professor Blessing assumed formal leadership of the Physics Department’s undergraduate program in 2011, although she had made innovations in the program since 2001.  Under her leadership, the program was recently recognized as one of five national model undergraduate physics programs by a task force on undergraduate education assembled by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Future Physicists of Florida (FPF) was founded to recognize middle school students with ability in math and science and to encourage those students – and especially their parents – to persevere in the upper level high school math and science courses necessary to properly prepare for the rigorous college majors in engineering, physical sciences, computing and health professions. Last fall, FPF induction ceremonies were held in Bay County, the Florida Keys and at FSU, and more than 400 students were inducted.

The first FPF ceremony for Bay County students was held in the fall of 2015, and during the last two years more than 300 students from the county have been recognized.

FPF is only one of the activities that the Bay District Schools and FSU have undertaken to improve the preparation of the county’s students for rigorous college majors in STEM fields.  Among other activities, FSU has purchased physics laboratory equipment that is being used at four of the district’s high schools.  Districtwide high school physics enrollments have tripled since 2015-16.

The Bay County FPF chapter was named for the Cooks in February of this year after they made a gift to establish the FSU Panama City STEM Institute Endowed Fund, which is providing annual support for STEM activities at FSU Panama City and around the district.


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FSU Lawton Professor of Physics Emeritus and former VP for Research Kirby Kemper to speak at Orlando Science School Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony


Professor Kemper

FSU nuclear physicist Kirby Kemper, who served as the university’s Vice President for Research and earned the institution’s highest faculty honor, will deliver the scientific keynote address to Orlando Science School’s Future Physicists of Florida inductees in a ceremony to be held at the FSU Physics Department on Friday, November 3.

Professor Kemper arrived at FSU’s nuclear physics laboratory in 1968 and has since published hundreds of papers in scientific journals.  His Ph.D. graduates have played key roles in some of the world’s most prominent nuclear physics laboratories.  Professor Kemper was honored with FSU’s highest academic honor, the Robert O. Lawton Professorship, in 2002.

Professor Kemper has served as Physics Department Chair and Vice President for Research at FSU.  He retired in 2012, although he continues to have a high level of scientific productivity and to maintain a network of international collaborations.

Orlando Science School was one of the first schools to participate in the Future Physicists of Florida program in 2012.  The charter school was established in 2008 as a middle school, and has since expanded into the high school and elementary school years.  Each year, Orlando Science School accumulates an impressive collection of awards in math and science competitions.  However, the school maintains a commitment to recruiting students from Orlando’s impoverished Pine Hills neighborhood.

Future Physicists of Florida (FPF) was founded to recognize middle school students with ability in math and science and to encourage those students – and especially their parents – to persevere in the upper level high school math and science courses necessary to properly prepare for the rigorous college majors in engineering, physical sciences, computing and health professions.  Last fall, FPF induction ceremonies were held in Bay County, the Florida Keys and at FSU, and more than 400 students were inducted.


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