Who needs opt-out, anyway? FSA system opts itself out.

No, the kids who were opting out were not the center of attention on the first day of the FSA administration.

It never got that far.

The story today was the FSA mega-glitch.  Oops!

Better luck tomorrow!

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Day 1 of Florida Standards Assessment testing: Parents instructing kids to be (civilly) disobedient

Today is Day 1 of Florida Standards Assessment testing, and it marks the beginning of Florida’s three-month standardized testing window.

If there is anything else going on in Florida’s K-12 schools for the next three months, it will be difficult to tell – at least from the outside.

Schools will be struggling to keep their computer systems working well enough to support the computer-based testing.  Teachers and parents will be muttering weird things about the State of Utah.

And lots of people will learn what “NR2″ means.

Some relatively small number of kids will refuse to take their tests.  They will open their testing books, fill in their names on the response sheet and then do nothing.  Or they will open their computer testing modules and then click on the box that says they are finished without answering any questions.

It is civil disobedience, except it will not be grownups who are being disobedient.  It will be grownups telling their kids to be disobedient.

And those kids will be the center of attention.

In my classroom, the students who refuse to take a quiz or a test get zeroes.  But it will not be that simple for the kids who are being disobedient at the behest of their parents.  Teachers, school and district administrators, and even legislators are spending their time and nervous energy trying to figure out what to do with these kids who have been told by their parents to be disobedient.

These parents have a pretty interesting view of the world.  When Florida’s Commissioner of Education pointed out that the law says that these kids have to take the standardized tests, some parent leaders called her a bully.

On those few occasions when my kids were in elementary school and we thought they were being mistreated by their teachers, we (OK, mostly my wife) were in the school confronting the offending teacher and the teacher’s principal.  But no matter what the outcomes of those tense meetings were, we always told our kids to do everything they could to do what they were told by the same teachers who had – in our view – harmed them in some way.  It would never have occurred to us to tell our kids to disobey the authority figures in their schools.

Yet here we are.

I wonder what it will be like when those kids who have been taught by their parents that respect for authority is optional are in my classroom.

I guess we’ll see.

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Dear Governors and State Legislators: Do we want more students to become engineers and scientists? Or not? Differential tuition policies impact students’ choice of fields.

All over the nation, education policy-makers and political leaders say they want more students to pursue careers in the economically important and lucrative fields of engineering and science.  It’s even more important that we give students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to these fields, if they study hard and have the necessary intellectual tools.

In a sane world, that would mean that we give our educational institutions the resources they need to help students achieve the deep understanding of science, math and engineering necessary for success and leadership.  And perhaps they’d even give these students economic incentives for taking on the greater workloads and stress levels that college majors in these fields experience.

But reality looks like this:  Louisiana is considering devastating cuts to its public higher education system.  And to help balance the books, the state is considering charging students in engineering and science higher tuition than students in other fields like English and history are charged.

As folks who know their way around the higher education policy landscape know, many states already do this.  States like Pennsylvania (see a sample tuition schedule here) and Illinois (tuition schedule here).  A group at Cornell inventoried differential tuition policies several years ago, and they found that the incidence of such policies has increased steeply over the last 20 years.

Does this differential tuition really affect students’ choices of majors?  A study completed in 2013 by University of Michigan economist Kevin Stange gives the unsurprising answer:  Yes.  And the impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds?  In his abstract, Stange says, “There is some evidence that student groups already underrepresented in certain fields are particularly affected by the new pricing policies.”  Go figure.

In richly ironic academic language, Stange concludes his abstract with this:  “Price does appear to be a policy lever through which state governments can alter the field composition of the workforce they are training with the public higher education system.”

For better or for worse.

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What are universities for?

The proposal to change the Wisconsin higher education system mission statement that Governor Scott Walker claimed was simply an error in his budget document restarted discussion of the mission of public higher education.  This discussion seems to be polarized along one unnecessarily narrow direction:  Should public higher education institutions be primarily preparing students to meet the workforce needs of the state in which the institutions are located?

The answer to this question is clearly “no”.  The mission of public universities is to prepare students for opportunities to succeed and contribute to our society, whether those opportunities exist in the same state as a given public institution or not.  While members of the Florida Board of Governors occasionally grouse about spending state resources to educate a new engineer who then leaves the state to take a job elsewhere, I consider a well-educated chemical engineer who takes a job in Texas instead of Florida to be a success story.

But when we educate a student in a field in which the opportunities are limited (or worse), are we doing our job correctly?  At the very least, those who are educating students in fields like music performance or creative writing should be asking themselves whether they are doing everything they can to give their students the best possible opportunities to make it economically in the world as it is, and not as the faculty may wish it were.  After all, it seems likely that worrying about where one’s next meal is coming from or how the rent is going to be paid would dampen the quality of one’s musical performance or writing.  And sending a hopeful student into a situation in which the probability of being self-sustaining is vanishingly small seems to me to cross some ethical line.

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PLTW CEO says program’s students take more advanced courses in math and science

At yesterday’s press conference on Project Lead the Way’s new push with the Orange County Public Schools, PLTW CEO Vince Bertram said, “When students start to take our courses, we see them taking more advanced courses in math and science,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.  Fifty-five public high schools in Florida offer PLTW engineering courses, but at least some of the students from those programs leave high school without taking physics or calculus, two courses that are generally considered important in preparing for college majors in engineering.

The National Society of Black Physicists recently tweeted at PLTW that the organization should be asking all of its students to take physics in 9th grade, a scheme often called Physics First.

PLTW’s web site does not include any mention that its students – in the engineering program or otherwise – should take physics and calculus in high school.  However, some PLTW schools like Orlando’s Freedom High School, say so on their web sites.  Freedom’s web site says the engineering courses are “complement traditional mathematics and science classes.”

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The Project Lead the Way engineering program: Is it engineering-without-physics?

Every semester, I’m blown away by the fact that about a quarter of the engineering majors in my introductory physics classes did not take physics in high school.  I wonder what these students could possibly have been thinking in high school, and what their teachers, guidance counselors and even parents were telling them.  Engineering without physics?  Really?  These no-high-school-physics engineering majors face a steeper climb in their college physics classes than the students who came to college well-prepared with physics on their high school transcripts.

But maybe it’s not just the teachers, counselors and parents.  Here’s a disturbing fact:  The nation’s leading supplier of high school engineering curriculum, Project Lead the Way, doesn’t mention physics in the description of its engineering program.  But surely teachers, counselors and school administrators know that students who take the PLTW engineering program should take physics (and calculus, for that matter), right?  Well…not necessarily.  I’ve had PLTW engineering students who did not take either physics or calculus in high school, and that is…not good.

And there is reason to suspect that the neglect of physics at high schools hosting the PLTW engineering program is not isolated but is instead systemic, at least in Florida.  There are 55 Florida high schools that host the PLTW engineering program.  Nine school districts (Bay, Collier, Dade, Escambia, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Volusia and Washington) have made particularly strong commitments to PLTW engineering.  Of these nine districts, only one – Collier – has a rate of physics course-taking that is above the state rate.

To get down to numbers, we use the District Physics Index (DPI), which divides the total number of students taking Physics, Honors Physics (both 1 and 2), AP Physics 1 and 2, and AP Physics C by the number of 12th graders in the district.  For the state as a whole in 2014-2015, the index is 0.232.  The leading districts are Brevard County (0.747), Seminole County (0.720) and Leon County (0.556).

Collier County has a DPI of 0.304 (9th among the state’s 67 districts), which is above the state average but well below the leading districts.  Then the numbers go south.  Dade County ranks 18th with 0.215.  Orange County is 19th with 0.210.  Volusia (22nd at 0.169), Osceola (26th at 0.144) and Escambia (31st at 0.125) are farther behind.  Bay County is 47th at 0.062.

Then there are the two rural districts in the PLTW engineering program, Putnam and Washington Counties.  Only four students are taking physics in Washington County this year, giving a DPI of 0.020 (54th in the state).  Things are not much better in Putnam County, where three high schools participate in the PLTW engineering program but a total of only 18 students are taking physics this year.

At least Putnam and Washington are not among the dozen rural Florida districts that are not teaching physics at all this year.  At least there’s that.

What should PLTW do?  That’s easy.  Say on the engineering program web page that every PLTW engineering student should take both physics and calculus in high school.  And then drum that into every participating teacher, counselor and administrator.

Failing to do even that would be irresponsible.

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Death of the Lecture Hall, Part 2

Do students learn more in a physics MOOC than in a traditional lecture class?  An MIT study says yes (some), but the same study says that “interactive engagement pedagogy” like the SCALE-UP model used for FSU’s studio physics program is much more effective than MOOC’s and traditional lecture courses.


That’s according to a paper in the September 2014 issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (Colvin et al.).  The MIT team measured student learning gains and compared them to those reported for traditional lecture classes and interactive engagement classes by Hake [American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, pg. 64-74 (1998)].

The conclusion I’d like you to draw from this?  We should not spend one more penny on building new large lecture halls.  If an instructor wants to deliver a non-interactive learning experience, she or he should MOOC it.

Perhaps the money saved on $10,000 per seat lecture halls can be invested in facilities purpose-built for interactive engagement pedagogies.

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