Florida Legislature’s education reform initiatives ignore the most important issue – recruiting and retaining strong teachers

The highest priority for any K-12 reform initiative should be recruiting more strong teachers into classrooms and then making sure they stay there.

Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature’s recent reform packages – HB 7069 last year and the various proposals in the pipeline this year – implement nothing that has proven effective for increasing the number of strong individuals teaching Florida’s students.

The teacher recruiting and retention centerpiece of last year’s HB 7069 was writing the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program into statute.  The program had already been in place for two years through the magic of budget language, so it now has a three-year track record we can examine.  The Best and Brightest program awards bonuses of around $7,000 to teachers if they meet two criteria.  The first (and most controversial) of the two criteria is to meet a minimum score on a standardized test like the SAT, ACT or professional school exams.  But the second – to earn a “highly effective” rating on the school district’s teacher evaluation rubric – isn’t particularly reliable, either.  Teacher evaluation rubrics and the percentages of teachers who earn “highly effective” ratings vary strongly from district to district – as shown for 2016-17 in the figure at the bottom of this post (data from the always excellent Florida Department of Education website).

But the strongest argument against the Best and Brightest program as a teacher recruiting tool is that it isn’t working.  During the three year history of the Best and Brightest program, the supply of new high school math teachers (those who can teach Algebra 2 and higher) has dropped by about a quarter.  If the Best and Brightest program were working, that number would be increasing and not decreasing.

Legislative leaders seem to have even less interest in recruiting and retaining strong teachers this year than last year.

This year’s primary focus seems to be on expanding the state’s lightly regulated scholarship programs for sending K-12 students to private schools.  As the Orlando Sentinel documented in its “Schools Without Rules” series last fall, teacher quality has not been a strength of the state’s scholarship programs.  The Sentinel’s journalists found teachers and even principals who had not earned bachelors’ degrees teaching in schools that enroll students with state scholarships.  It seems unlikely that will change this year.

As before, any improvements in teacher recruiting and retention will have to originate at the district level.

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With applications to universities like FSU at an all-time high, is it time to require more high school math and science for admission?

Some of the most frustrating experiences I have as a physics educator at FSU have to do with mistakes that students made in high school – with the approval of their parents, counselors and teachers.

I have had students come to my office who have decided they want to major in physics, only to find that the decisions they made in high school to take courses like Statistics and College Algebra instead of moving on to Precalculus and Calculus have made it impossible for them to succeed in pursuing their new (and now shattered) dream of a career studying the fundamental laws of nature.

I have had many students majoring in engineering, computer science and physical sciences stumble in my introductory physics classes because they skipped physics in high school and can’t get traction while the better-prepared students around them succeed.  One of the reasons this is so common – about one-third of the students in my classes are in this situation – is because Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate is about half the national rate.  And high school physics enrollments in the state have dropped 8% in the last three years.

Is there a way to fix this?

Sure.  FSU could require precalculus, chemistry and physics for admission.

And this is exactly the right time to implement such a policy.

Applications for freshman admission to FSU are up about 20% this year.  About 50,000 have applied.  The university is planning for an incoming class of about 6,200, so it will admit about 15,000 students – less than one-third of applicants.

FSU wants to grow its number of engineering graduates.  The state’s performance funding model rewards the university for the percentage of its graduates who earn degrees in “Areas of Strategic Emphasis”, which include STEM and health fields.

Surely a new admission requirement for high school courses in precalculus, chemistry and physics would cut down the number of applicants.  But even if only 40,000 students applied next year instead of this year’s 50,000, the university would still be highly selective.

Will it happen?  Almost certainly not.  The culture of the institution is still deeply rooted in its historical emphasis on humanities and the arts.  It sometimes seems that FSU’s world-class success in some science and technology fields is almost accidental.

So we will continue to rely on parents, counselors and teachers to guide aspiring FSU undergraduates into taking the courses like precalculus, chemistry and physics that will allow students the full range of career options once they arrive on campus.  At some schools, students and parents will get that guidance.  At other schools, they will not.

And those of us who are trying to shepherd FSU students through their college math and science courses will continue to do the best we can.

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On the 10th anniversary of Florida’s science standards, a “thank you” to Florida Citizens for Science

Nearly ten years ago, on February 19, 2008, the Florida State Board of Education voted by the narrowest possible margin, 4-3, to adopt science standards for the state’s K-12 public schools that included the theory of evolution.

The board’s vote was not a broad scientific attack on religious faith. After all, my Catholic Church supports a scientific understanding of biological evolution and cosmology. A Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître, was a pioneer in developing the Big Bang Theory in the 1920’s. Recent popes have expressed their acceptance of the theories of evolution and the Big Bang.

But there are some faith traditions that object strenuously to these scientific ideas for doctrinal reasons, and those traditions are heavily represented among Florida’s citizens. No amount of legislating or outstanding science teaching is ever going to resolve the concerns that members of these churches have about the teaching of evolution and cosmology in their children’s schools.

Just before the State Board of Education vote ten years ago, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) published the results of a poll in which Florida parents were asked about the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Only 22% of parents polled said they wanted public schools to teach an evolution-only curriculum, while 50% wanted only faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design taught.

It’s unlikely that those percentages have changed very much.

So have the science standards adopted in 2008 done any good, even if the doctrinal objections to evolution and cosmology held by so many Floridians haven’t been overturned?

I’m convinced the answer is that the standards have done tremendous good, and that the watchdog group Florida Citizens for Science deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. A discussion held at a recent Nassau County School Board meeting (reported by Florida Citizens for Science Treasurer and Communications Director Brandon Haught) provides an excellent illustration of why.

The discussion in Nassau County was initiated by a citizen named Jay Shutt who took advantage of Florida’s new law on challenging educational materials to argue that Nassau County should “stop the teaching of Darwinian evolution as fact.” Shutt revealed his primary concern at the beginning of his comments at the board meeting – the possibility that the teaching of evolution could “crush” the religious faith of Nassau County’s students.

Every speaker at the meeting expressed sympathy with Shutt’s concerns. But in the end, the school board decided to continue teaching evolution in Nassau County classrooms because the science standards and legal precedent required it, and because ignoring the law would invite legal challenges – including one from Florida Citizens for Science.
Because of Florida’s science standards and the Florida Citizens for Science, Nassau County students who are not members of churches that require members to believe in a young earth creationist picture continue to have access to scientifically accurate instruction. And even students who are members of those churches can at least find out why scientists have reached their conclusions.

Florida’s ten-year-old science standards are doing their job, thanks to the Florida Citizens for Science. It’s worth celebrating the anniversary of the standards and the vigilance of their guardians.

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80 students inducted in a special Future Physicists of Florida ceremony in Marathon

Tuesday afternoon’s Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony, which recognized 80 middle school students from the area of the Keys hardest hit last fall by Hurricane Irma, was special for several reasons.

First, the inducted students – who attend Sugarloaf School and Marathon Middle High School – are all veterans of the storm and the rebuilding effort, which is now in its fifth month.  The ceremony was held in the auditorium of the Marathon school, which was surrounded by water at the height of Hurricane Irma.

Second, the Marathon event marked the first time that an FPF induction featured a member of the community as the scientific keynote speaker.  The speaker was Chip Kasper, who is Marine Program Forecaster at the Key West National Weather Service office.  Chip gave a terrific talk about how he was inspired to pursue meteorology as a career by his experience in a hurricane in Texas while he was in middle school.  He also talked about how important high school preparation is for being successful as a college student majoring in meteorology.  Chip graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology in 1998.

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NWS Key West meteorologist Chip Kasper addresses Future Physicists of Florida inductees

Third, nearly all the students inducted on Tuesday will be attending Marathon Middle High School, which may be the state’s leading traditional district school for steering students into physics courses.  This fall, the school had 86 students enrolled in physics class (in all grades 9-12).  When this is compared to the number of 12th graders in the school, 89, this gives an astounding physics enrollment rate of 97 physics enrollments per 100 12th graders.  The Florida statewide rate is 20, so Marathon enrolls students in high school physics at a rate five times higher than the state as a whole.

The primary reason for the physics success at Marathon is physics teacher Chris Hayes, who joined the Marathon FPF inductees at Tuesday’s ceremony.  Before coming to the Keys a few years ago, Chris taught in Texas, where nearly all students took physics under the state’s “4×4 graduation plan” until it was repealed in 2013.  Thus, Chris is comfortable teaching physics to a very deep student population – and is comfortable inviting all of Marathon’s students to take physics.  Of the 86 students taking physics at Marathon, 22 are taking AP Physics 1.  The remaining 64 are enrolled in Honors Physics.

The Marathon administration is also an important part of the school’s physics success.  Every rising 11th grader is automatically enrolled in physics.  Students and parents can opt out of physics, but few do.

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Monroe County Science Coordinator Melissa Alsobrooks

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Monroe County Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter

 

 

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Are parents’ and students’ college admission fears driving down high school physics enrollments?

Last summer, Florida State University’s lab school, which graduates about 130 high school students each year, spent $30,000 to build the ideal hands-on studio-style physics learning environment.  In one of its classrooms, the school installed D-shaped tables that seat six students each and large computer monitors on the walls so that all of the students sitting at each table can monitor the work that other students are doing.  They purchased the lab equipment necessary to the implement learning exercises designed by physics education researchers.

But according to Florida Department of Education numbers, only 12 students were taking physics in that classroom this fall.  That means that high school students in FSU’s K-12 research school were enrolling in physics at only half the rate of the state at large and only one-quarter of a national rate measured in a survey of state departments of education in 2015.

Why is the physics enrollment rate so dismal at a school that is supposed to be a showcase for state-of-the-art educational practices?  When I met with high school officials last spring, they told me that parents were concerned that if their students signed up for a physics class and struggled that the resulting grade – perhaps a “B” or a “C” – would keep them from getting admitted to highly competitive colleges.

And when parents talk about “highly competitive colleges” here in Florida, they are not just talking about Yale or Amherst.  They are talking about the state’s “preeminent” public universities – FSU and the University of Florida.  The numbers of applications to these two institutions have continued to grow, making it tougher to get admitted.

Are parents right to be concerned that a “poor” grade in physics (or calculus, for that matter) could keep them out of UF or FSU?  Perhaps.  Recently, I asked an FSU admissions official for an unambiguous statement of encouragement for taking physics and calculus in high school.  He did not respond.

Nevertheless, there are high schools where large numbers of students take courses like physics and calculus despite college admissions pressures.  Fifteen miles north of FSU’s lab school, students are enrolled in physics classes at Lawton Chiles High School at six times the rate they are at the lab school.  During the next several years, about half of Chiles graduates will have had a physics course – outpacing the state rate by more than a factor of two and even beating the national rate.

Chiles has an unusually affluent student population – even more affluent than that at FSU’s lab school.  But Godby High School – 10 miles northwest of FSU’s lab school – does not.  In the Fall of 2016, Godby had a free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate of about 90%.  Nevertheless, Godby students were enrolled in physics at a rate four times higher than at the lab school, double the state rate and within shouting distance of the Chiles rate.

So why are FSU lab school parents and students deterred from physics classes by fears about college admission when those at Chiles and Godby are not?

Perhaps the best insight I have received about this question has come from a physics teacher 250 miles away from Tallahassee – at Lake Mary High School in Seminole County, north of Orlando.  Seminole County is a traditional Florida superpower in math and science.  The entire school district takes high school physics at a rate even higher than that of Tallahassee’s Chiles High School.  This is what the teacher, Steve DeSanto, had to say a few years ago:

The most significant reason for our high physics enrollment has little to do with us as teachers.  Lake Mary has a school academic culture that feeds into physics.  We have AP, Gifted/Talented, and Honors courses throughout the curriculum.  Students are given ample opportunity to challenge themselves from the day they walk onto campus as a freshman.  Among our honors students, the school culture leads down the academic path – an honors student is simply expected to take biology, chemistry, and physics.  That’s the way it is.This comes in large part from the teachers they have before reaching physics.  The teachers are advising the students during registration.  We always tell our science teachers to register kids based on their ability, not based on their behavior.  A bright kid who doesn’t do homework shouldn’t end up in standard classes due to laziness.  Bright kids should be in honors classes.

Before I move on, I should point out one error in Steve’s analysis:  The physics teachers (including Steve) play a key role in maintaining the culture of excellence, as the Orlando Sentinel described a few years ago.

But aside from that caveat, is it true that some schools are just somehow gifted with cultures of excellence and others aren’t?  Is there no way for a school like FSU’s lab school to turn its culture around so that it is like Chiles, Godby or Lake Mary?

The search for an answer to that question takes us to Bay County, 100 miles west of Tallahassee in the Florida Panhandle.  The Bay County school district has about 28,000 students – comparable to Leon County (where Tallahassee is located).

Two years ago, Bay County had the lowest physics enrollment rate of any non-rural school district in Florida.  Since then the district’s enrollment rate has increased by a factor of about two-and-a-half.

How have they done it?  Teachers and counselors at the district’s high schools have summoned the courage to talk with students and parents about the importance of taking physics as well as other subjects important for preparing for college majors in STEM fields, including chemistry, precalculus and calculus.

Three years ago, there was no physics being taught at Bay County’s Rutherford High School.  This fall, thanks to the effort and charisma of teacher Rachel Morris, the school has about 60 students taking physics – including a number taking a second-year physics course under the umbrella of the school’s International Baccalaureate program.

Two years ago, Mosley High School had six students taking physics.  Now, thanks to the guts and determination of guidance counselors Sharon Hofer and Laura Evans and the skill and patience of physics teacher Lance King, Mosley has about 60 students taking physics, including a second-year AP Physics 2 course.  Chemistry enrollments at Mosley have tripled during the same time, and calculus enrollments are up as well.

As recently as last year, Bay County’s Bozeman School – a K-12 school located in the rural northern part of the county that graduates about 100 high school students each year – didn’t offer physics at all.  For this year, Bozeman’s leadership recruited chemistry and physics teacher Denise Newsome and started a physics class of 20 students.  Bozeman is now by far the best school in the rural Panhandle for math and science.

To be sure, the Bay District high schools have had external help from FSU, including an infusion of physics lab teaching equipment for the new physics courses and an aggressive middle school outreach program.  But without the courageous initiative of teachers and counselors – backed up by the resolve of leadership to support these efforts – none of the external support would have mattered.  There is much more work to do in Bay County, but the district is on track.

Bay County’s improvement demonstrates there is hope for change in the culture at FSU’s lab school.  Unfortunately, we can’t count on help from college admissions officers like those at FSU.  But at least at some high schools teachers, counselors and leaders are willing to push for excellence, anyway.

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The studio science classroom at FSU’s lab school just prior to completion.

 

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Florida must prepare its children to compete for leadership roles in our technological economy – a response to an Orlando Sentinel op-ed

Anyone who cares about the economic future of Florida’s children should take a serious look at this morning’s Orlando Sentinel op-ed on the nation’s H1-B visa policy by YuKong Zhao.

This is the core of Zhao’s argument for expanding the H1-B visa program:

With the decline of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, America is failing to educate enough home-grown engineers to support the rapidly growing high-tech firms, which are the No. 1 growth engine of the American economy in recent decades. In my view, many of the engineers in these companies are foreign born, as are many professors in STEM departments of American colleges. Today, high-skilled immigrants have become the backbone of American ingenuity.

Zhao is – almost certainly unintentionally – throwing down the gauntlet in front of Florida’s educators.

Zhao is arguing that our own students aren’t well enough prepared to fill the roles that the American economy needs to stay in the lead on innovation.  He continues that since our own education system has failed in this way, we must expand our recruiting of foreign-born engineers to fill these roles.

Is Zhao right about the decline of STEM education, at least in Florida?

Yes.

In our state, high school physics enrollments have declined 8% in the last three years.  Our high schools are slowly being starved by the growing shortage of new math teachers.

Worse yet, the majority of Florida’s education policy-makers don’t seem aware of or concerned by this decline.  The only proposal addressing Florida’s teacher shortage that is advancing in the Florida Legislature this session is a self-delusional shortcut bill that would put a bit of money into teachers of computer science but would ignore the growing shortages of math and science teachers needed to properly prepare students for college majors in computer science (or engineering, for that matter).  The superintendent of one Florida school district got away with saying that the students in her district’s engineering academies don’t have time to take “electives” like calculus and physics.

The good news is there is irony in Zhao’s decision to publish his op-ed in Central Florida’s leading news outlet.  Orange County’s Calculus Project is the state’s leading effort to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete with the engineers that Zhao wants to import.  Seminole and Brevard Counties are Florida’s math and science superpowers.

But most students in much of the rest of the state are being left behind.

The easy, protectionist response to Zhao’s argument is to limit or shut down the H1-B visa program.  That is the wrong response.

Instead, Florida’s educators and educational policy-makers should resolve to prepare our students to compete successfully with Zhao’s imported technologists.  The challenge involved in doing so is enormous – it involves a shift in our state’s K-12 culture.

But the only other option is to concede that our own children will not have the tools to fill leaderships roles in our technological economy.

That would be tragic.

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Florida’s district high school physics enrollments have declined by 8% during the last three years. (Source:  Florida Department of Education)

 

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The number of new high school math teachers in Florida is declining rapidly. (Source:  Florida Department of Education)

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Parents: Student engagement is one reason why you should choose FSU over UF for science, engineering and health fields.

During the next few months, a few thousand fortunate high school seniors and their parents will be deciding whether to attend Florida State University or the University of Florida to prepare for careers in science, engineering or health professions.

While making those decisions, they should pay careful attention to the starkly different visions the two universities have for the future of science instruction.

For a decade, FSU’s administration has supported the development of their Physics Department’s Studio Physics Program, in which students build relationships with each other and with instructors in a physical classroom designed especially to encourage engagement. Many years of research on how students learn show that leveraging social interactions in this way dramatically improves student learning and opens career opportunities to students who might not be able to learn with understanding in a traditional lecture course.

In contrast, UF is staking its future on online instruction. In fact, UF’s Physics Department is now featuring its online laboratories – apparently intended to allow its students to avoid the inconvenience of coming to physical laboratory classes and talking face-to-face with other students or instructors.

While FSU’s Studio Physics initiative focuses on improving student learning using an approach proven by research, UF’s online approach will magnify the shortcomings of the traditional lecture course by further isolating students and narrowing the population that can succeed in earning bachelors’ degrees in engineering, science and health fields.

Students and parents should pay close attention to these developments. Most Florida parents and students reflexively believe that students get a better education in science, engineering and health fields at UF. But FSU has made tremendous strides in STEM education recently. In 2016, a national task force recognized FSU’s Physics Department as one of five model undergraduate programs in the nation – and one of only two at major research universities. That distinction was based in large part on the department’s focus on personally engaging students.

FSU is also making important strides in improving the education of students in other engineering, science and health fields.

Students – and particularly parents – should take a careful look at what each institution is emphasizing. Don’t just settle for generic admissions tours. Ask about the classroom environments in which students learn science. Ask about how to access undergraduate research opportunities.

Even in science, engineering and health fields, student engagement matters. Students and parents should keep that in mind as they decide on their next steps.

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Us:  A Studio Physics class at FSU

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Them:  UF Physics faculty in the opening scene of their online algebra-based introductory course.  It was featured in Politico Florida last year and in a Florida Board of Governors meeting last week.

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