Here we are again: “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America”

Prompted by an editorial in America Magazine, I took a look at Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech”, given in the summer of 1979 when I was 18 years old.  I didn’t remember the words, but I remember watching and thinking of the President’s honesty, for which he paid dearly a bit more than a year later.  We are at a similar point, where it appears that the generation-over-generation growth in prosperity that we took for granted for so many decades has come to a halt, and many despair over the political polarization that has taken hold.  President Carter’s words are worth meditating on, even for those who did not then and do not now agree with his politics.  Here is an excerpt from that speech, courtesy of

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways.

It is a crisis of confidence.

It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else — public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom; and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.


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Florida should replace its present high school testing program with the ACT. Here’s how Florida’s high school graduating class of 2015 did on the ACT.

It’s a real possibility that Florida could replace at least part of its high school testing program with the SAT or ACT, so yesterday’s release of state-by-state ACT results for the high school graduating class of 2015 is of particular interest.

One of the attractions of using a transparent brand-name national test like the ACT as the official high school standardized test of the State of Florida is that we could easily compare the performance of Florida students to that of students from other states.  In Florida, 79% of the high school graduating class of 2015 took the ACT.  In other states, that number ranges from 100% (13 states used the ACT as their standard high school test and required all graduates to take it) to 10% (that was Maine, but the SAT is the dominant test in the northeast, so in general fewer than one-third of the students in those states took the ACT).

So I can quote how Florida placed among the 50 states plus DC, but it’s probably more meaningful to quote how Florida places among the thirteen states in which the test was required.  Of course, in Florida only 79% took the ACT, so the reader should keep that in mind.  In general, Florida’s placing among the 100% states would drop if all of Florida’s graduates were required to take the ACT.  The thirteen 100% states were Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

That said, let’s go through the ACT exam section by section:

Reading:  Overall, Florida was 34th out of the 51 states+DC with its average score of 21.0 (out of 36).  But no 100% states beat that score, although two of the 100% states (Colorado and Montana) tied it.

English:  Now the news gets worse.  The English section measures writing skills.  Florida’s average score of 18.9 on this section placed 46th overall.  Of the thirteen 100% states, ten beat Florida.  The only three 100% states that had average scores lower than Florida were Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Math:  Florida’s average score of 19.6 placed 44th overall.  Seven of the 100% states beat Florida.  The six 100% states that had math scores lower than Florida’s were North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Science:  There is no surprise here – Florida scored poorly in science.  The state’s average score of 19.5 placed 46th overall.  Four of the 100% states had lower averages – Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi.

Wasn’t that easy?  That is not to say that reading the results isn’t painful – it certainly is painful.  But using the ACT gives transparent state vs. state comparisons.  In general, Florida is doing better than states like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.  And worse than states like Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.  Is that good enough?  I certainly hope my readers would agree that it’s not.

My message to Senators Gaetz and Legg, who seem to be the legislative drivers behind the idea of adopting national brand-name tests in place of Florida’s present exam:  Keep going.  Please keep going.

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Dismantling Florida’s statewide standardized testing program: It could really happen, according to an article in Politico

Travis Pillow from redefinEDonline deserves a hat tip for tweeting about the Politico article quoted here.

When Seminole County Superintendent of Schools Walt Griffin tossed out a suggestion that Florida abandon its present statewide standardized testing program and instead use conventional tests like the SAT and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to monitor students’ progress, it was enthusiastically welcomed by his own school board and several others as a way to cut down on overtesting and eliminate the unsustainable demands being placed on schools’ computer resources during testing season.  But it seemed like a pipe dream.  Surely state-level policy-makers wouldn’t allow all the work that had been invested in building a cutting-edge testing program to be tossed over a cliff.

Then came yesterday’s Politico Florida article reporting that Florida Senate education leaders Don Gaetz and John Legg were thinking about doing exactly that.  It was a bolt from the education policy blue.

I’ve already pointed out how adopting the ACT (which has a science section – the SAT does not) in lieu of Florida’s present suite of high school tests would improve science instruction at the state’s high schools.

Another advantage of adopting the ACT:  The state-by-state results, which are released annually, show clearly how poorly Florida is competing with other states.  The 2015 results are being released today.

One prediction:  I am writing this about 30 minutes before the State Board of Education convenes its August meeting.  The Board doesn’t discuss unpleasant topics, so I don’t expect the Politico article to come up this morning.  Lake Wobegon will continue on undisturbed.

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What do Pinellas County’s “Failure Factories” tell us about the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program?

Pinellas County is preparing to tackle the problems of the five south county elementary schools that have been labeled “Failure Factories” by the Tampa Bay Times by designating several of those schools as magnet schools.  But the magnet school scheme has limits, as documented by a This American Life report on issues in the public schools in Hartford, Connecticut (I grew up in a suburb of Hartford, so the strategies implemented in response to Sheff v. O’Neill have been of interest to me for a long time)

What the kids in those five ailing schools need the most is great teachers – teachers with talent and energy who have the experience and determination to withstand the terrible pressures of working in those places.  But why would any teacher put herself or himself through the trial of working in such an environment?  Sure, some teachers want to take on the toughest challenges.  But most of these teachers have families themselves.  What can we do to help the best teachers decide that the challenge of working at the Failure Factories is worth the effort?

Pay them more.  Pay them $10,000 more per year to work at the Failure Factory schools.  For a teacher making in the $40K’s, $10,000 per year is enough to matter.

Does the State of Florida have a differential pay program for teachers that could be deployed to attract the strongest teachers to the Failure Factories?  Uh, no.  What we have instead is this:  the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which consists of $44 million to pay $10,000 bonuses to teachers who got high SAT or ACT scores when they were in high school (if they are new teachers or earned “highly effective” ratings in their evaluations last year – and the rating system is still, let’s say, unstable).

If the State of Florida had instead earmarked that $44 million for teachers at high needs schools (and teachers in critical needs subjects like math and science), then it could be deployed to rescue the kids at the Pinellas Failure Factories.  There is no more dramatic demonstration of what’s wrong with the new teacher scholarship program than that.

A bit of math:  Let’s say we spend $10,000 per year per teacher for 30 star teachers at each of the five failure factory schools.  That’s $1.5 million per year.  That’s chicken feed compared to the $44 million we are pouring into the Best and Brightest program.

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Former American Physical Society Education Committee Chair blasts hit Big Bang Theory TV show! (And more about the Future Physicists of Florida effort in the Florida Keys)

Of course, that former committee chair is me.

Starting with my comments on the Big Bang Theory TV show and how it perpetuates stereotypes about physicists, Michael Quirk at the Key West Citizen did a really nice job describing what the Future Physicists of Florida effort and other efforts being coordinated by Monroe County’s science coordinator Courtney Oliver are trying to do.

Just in case you hadn’t figured this out, my trip to the Keys last week was one of the most encouraging experiences I’ve had in a long time.

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AIR Vice President says “S” should be dropped from STEM. Is he hatin’ on physics?

Mark Schneider, a Vice President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, argued on the AIR’s InformED blog that bachelors’ degrees in science do not lead to high salaries, and so we need to drop the “S” from STEM and just focus on TEM.

Is he right?

While I was working up an angry head of steam over this earlier in the week, a colleague from the media pointed out that Schneider and I mostly agree on this.  I have often cited the low salaries earned by bachelor’s degree grads in biology as an argument that Florida should stop focusing its high school science program on that field (for example, see this Tallahassee Democrat op-ed).  Florida’s biology addiction extends to the college level – the share of new Florida SUS bachelors’ degrees being awarded in biology has exploded from 3% in the 2003-2004 academic year to 6% in 2012-2013 (while engineering has been flat).  Florida’s state universities are pouring resources into accommodating biology majors who ultimately have trouble finding work that justifies the investment.


Schneider goes farther, pointing out that salaries for bachelor-level chemists aren’t so great, either.  While the recent study of salaries earned by bachelor’s degree grads in different college majors by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce lists an average salary of $56,000 for biology graduates (compared to the average for all fields of $61,000), the chemistry salary cited in the report is $64,000, a salary that Schneider doesn’t find impressive.

What Schneider leaves out is that physics is also a science.  Physics is ranked 15th in the Georgetown CEW Top 25 (shown below) with an average salary of $81,000.


Those who know me will understand that Schneider’s omission left me pretty strongly perturbed.  I became aware of Schneider’s post via a tweet from @EdPolicyAIR.  I quickly fired back a tweet asking why Schneider had skipped physics.  The answer?  “Too small a field. Very little data in the states.”

Baloney.  There are plenty of data, if only one is interested enough to look.  The American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center has tons of it.

Of course, admitting that physics is a great bachelor’s degree field from an economic perspective would have ruined the clever little punch line for Schneider’s piece – that we should change STEM to TEM.  That’s the problem with clever little punch lines – they are almost always wrong.

Schneider’s dissing of physics along with other sciences is not a little thing.  This is a Vice President at the freaking American Institutes for Research.  That matters.  That must be addressed.

I just hope this issue doesn’t die here.  Otherwise we might end up with – as members on a committee I chair like to say – “all computer science and engineering, all the time.”

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Monroe County Schools – poised to go from “good to great” – prepare for a physics push

The Monroe County School District, which placed 8th in the Orlando Sentinel’s math and science rankings and is 11th in Florida in high school physics-taking rate, is preparing a push to improve further, or to go from “good to great” in the words of district superintendent Mark Porter.

On November 10, the district will hold a Physics Field Day for middle school students, an effort that is being organized by district science coordinator Courtney Oliver.  Most of the day will involve hands-on activities, but the day will climax with Monroe County’s first-ever Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony, which will be held at Marathon Middle/High School.  The keynote speaker will be FSU Physics Professor Jorge Piekarewicz, who will talk about neutron stars.

Monroe County is also the first district in Florida to participate in the National Math and Science Initiative’s AP program.  The program held its first professional development program for Monroe County teachers last week.

I visited the Keys earlier this week to talk with teachers about Future Physicists of Florida and more generally the importance of physics and calculus in high school students’ academic programs.  The power point I used is here:


There was wonderful media coverage of my visit – even the Monroe County journalists are on board with the effort to improve the science and engineering pipeline in the Keys.  Here it is:

  • An article titled “FSU professor launches effort in Keys schools to grow young physicists” in Wednesday’s Keynoter (linked here).
  • An interview on Tuesday morning on the US 1 Radio show “Morning Magazine” with Bill Becker.
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