A reply to Opt Out Florida co-founder Sandy Stenoff on middle school Algebra 1: Here’s why I think it’s important – but yes, these decisions are difficult.

Sandy Stenoff, a Central Florida parent of two children in the public schools and a co-founder of the Opt Out Florida Network, tweeted to me in response to a tweet in which I mentioned the rising number of Florida middle school students who are taking Algebra 1. She said, “Middle school math teachers tell me that we are doing children a disservice by pushing them too hard and too fast into Advanced Math. Most don’t fare as well nor continue pursuing more Advanced Math later on, compared to students who start in high school.” Sandy’s comment deserved a thoughtful response, so here I try to provide one. You can follow Sandy on twitter at @1BatMom (which is a very cool handle).

Among Sandy’s achievements is this column in the Washington Post from 2015 on high-stakes testing and young children – in particular, her young children.

Hi Sandy,

To start with, I want to share with you where I’m coming from on this issue. You mostly know already, but I think it’s useful to lay it out.

My goal in most things I do professionally (and with my education advocacy hobby) is to broaden access to careers in fields like engineering and the physical sciences.  We tend to think of these careers as being only for a few elite students, but we’ve learned in recent decades that many more students can succeed in these fields than we thought previously.  I think that every student bound for a four-year college is capable of succeeding in these fields, and I want these students to be prepared so they have the option of making such a choice.

It is very, very helpful for a student who declares a college major in engineering (and pretty much required for a student who declares a major in physics) to have completed a first semester calculus course before starting college. Why? College engineering programs are accredited by an organization whose acronym is ABET – they pretty much define what the professional community of engineers expects a new bachelor’s degree grad in engineering to have done and to know. The physics community doesn’t have such a formal accreditation structure, but we are a smaller community and have a fairly well-defined expectation of what a new bachelor’s degree grad in physics knows. It is difficult (in the case of engineering) or pretty much impossible (in the case of physics) to complete a bachelor’s degree meeting these accreditation requirements or expectations in four years without completing a first calculus course in high school.

For a student to take a first calculus course during the senior year of high school, she or he has to take Algebra 1 no later than 8th grade (the standard math sequence is Algebra 1-Geometry-Algebra 2-Precalculus).

So that’s why I get excited when students take Algebra 1 in middle school.

Now onto the next question: Is it constructive for middle school students to take Algebra 1? The answer is the same as for every other education question: For some students, yes. For other students, no.

I think we all know middle school students who have thrived in Algebra 1 classes. But clearly not all students should take Algebra 1 in middle school. How many should?

Three Duke University researchers examined this question by looking at the experience that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had when they “initiated a broad program of accelerating entry into algebra coursework. The proportion of moderately-performing students taking 8th grade algebra increased from less than half to nearly 90%, then reverted to baseline levels, in the span of just six age cohorts.” In retrospect, we can be horrified at the way that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district handled this, but we can also learn from it.

The conclusion reached by the Duke researchers was remarkable for its simplicity:
“The optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking is undoubtedly greater than zero. Indeed, our results indicate that the increase in Algebra 1 taking among 7th graders in CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] has had no significant adverse long-term effects. Our evidence also suggests that the optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking, in a population equivalent to that in CMS, is at or below the observed baseline rate around 50%.”
In seven Florida school districts, 50% or more of the students take Algebra 1 in middle school, according to the recently released results for the 2018 Algebra 1 EOC. Of course, there is nothing magic about that 50% number. Some districts are probably too conservative in steering middle school kids into Algebra 1. For example, in Okeechobee County every one of the 98 7th and 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it, and only about 20% of their students take Algebra 1 in middle school. Some districts may push too many kids into Algebra 1. In Putnam County, only 55% of the 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it.

There are other important aspects to this problem, of course. We have a terrible time attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Orange County has tackled this problem head-on through its “Calculus Project”, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds who would not otherwise have been selected for middle school Algebra 1 into taking that course in 7th grade. Does the program doom these kids for failure? Nope. These kids succeed at a high rate because the school district has made the commitment to provide the support these kids needs to succeed, including a math boot camp the summer before 7th grade and after-school sessions during the school year (you can see an Orlando Sentinel article on the program here). The Calculus Project is the most important initiative for getting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into the STEM pipeline in Florida, and maybe in the southeastern US.

The problem of the severe underrepresentation of women in engineering, computer science and physics is frustratingly stubborn. Only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields are awarded to women. Why? There are plenty of factors driving this problem. But here is one that was documented only recently: Middle and high school girls who are good at math often don’t think they are. Boys don’t often have that problem. It’s called the confidence gap, and I am fortunate to have an FSU colleague named Lara Perez-Felkner who is the authority on this.

How should we bring this research to bear on our middle and high school classrooms to open the doors to these careers? We are just starting to explore that question. At the high school in Bay County where I’ve been most involved, Mosley High School, I simply shared about that research with counselors and parents. Those conversations seem to have made deep impressions.

Of course, I can quote statistics and research all day. But if that’s all I did, I’d be failing to acknowledge the deeply personal nature of the decisions that parents, students and educators make about what courses students should take and when. A conversation I had within the last year with our oldest child, a 29-year-old daughter who is a very successful attorney, reminded me about how difficult these conversations can be. This daughter is a wonderful human being as well as a sometimes fearsome lawyer. Her math skills were very strong in high school and college (she was 3rd place in the state Mu Alpha Theta meet in multivariable calculus her senior year of high school), and in meetings populated with high priced attorneys and powerful clients, she is generally the only one who can calculate things. We were talking about the workload she took on in high school, including a full load of AP courses (with a heavy emphasis on science and math) and two swimming workouts per day. Then she said something that caught me completely off-guard: “You mean I had a choice?” I never knew she felt that way – like we were pushing her forward. We always thought she was completely self-motivated. It made me think about how difficult it can be to get academic decisions – and all kinds of other personal decisions – really right.

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Collier County #1 Florida district for middle school Algebra 1, according to newly released results

Collier County blew by Florida’s usual STEM leaders to establish itself as the state’s number one district for middle school Algebra 1, according to my analysis of the Algebra 1 end-of-course (EOC) exam results released yesterday by the Florida Department of Education.

Taking Algebra 1 in middle school puts a student on track to take a calculus course in high school – placing the student in the pipeline for engineering, physics and other STEM careers.

The present analysis calculates the number of 7th graders in a district who passed the Algebra 1 EOC as a percentage of the total number of 7th graders in the district, and does the same for 8th graders.  The districts are then ranked according to the sum of the 7th grade and 8th grade percentages.  The sum provides an estimate of the percentage of middle school students who pass the Algebra 1 EOC before moving on to high school.

Collier and the second-ranked district, Orange County, achieved their high standings in entirely different ways.  Few Collier County 7th graders took and passed the Algebra 1 exam, but more than half the district’s 8th graders took and passed the exam.

In contrast, nearly one-quarter of Orange County’s 7th graders took and passed the Algebra 1 EOC.  The district’s “Calculus Project”, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds into Algebra 1 and provides a summer pre-algebra boot camp for these students, contributes to this success.  (An Orlando Sentinel article on the Calculus Project is linked here)  The Calculus Project is the state’s most important initiative for preparing students from disadvantaged backgrounds for STEM careers.


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Number of Florida middle school students passing state’s Algebra 1 end of course exam continues to surge

The numbers of middle school students passing Florida’s Algebra 1 end of course exam continued to surge this year, according to testing results released by the Florida Department of Education today.

Students who pass Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before are on schedule to take a calculus course in high school, placing them in the pipeline for engineering careers.

The number of 7th graders passing the spring administration of the test was 16% higher this year than last year.  The two-year increase from 2016 to 2018 was 26%.

The number of 8th graders passing the test increased 8% this year and 28% in over the last two years.

The overall passing rate for all grades and all three administrations of the exam in 2017-18 increased to 61% from 56% three years ago, according to the Orlando Sentinel.



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Did the Orlando Sentinel article on voucher school curriculum just “blast Christian-school texts for being Christian”? No.

In a letter to the editor published in Wednesday’s Orlando Sentinel, Colleen Berry criticized the Sentinel’s Sunday article “Private schools’ curriculum downplays slavery, says humans and dinosaurs lived together” by saying “The article blasted Christian-school texts for being, well, Christian.”

I’m a Christian, too – a Catholic Christian – and it seems that Ms. Berry and I have different ideas about what Christian values are.

By minimizing the horrors of slavery and denying the oppression of Jim Crow, the textbooks reviewed by the Sentinel’s reporters attempt to strip African-Americans of the dignity with which God created them. That doesn’t match my understanding of Christian values.

The texts also ignore the mistreatment of Native Americans – who were also created with the dignity of all of God’s children. That doesn’t seem to me to be particularly Christian, either.

One of the books reviewed by Sentinel reporters said that the Endangered Species Act is a “radical social agenda”. In 2015, Pope Francis released an encyclical on protecting the environment titled “Laudato si”. So for at least some Christians, protecting the environment is an important part of their spiritual mission.

And then there is the issue of whether Christians should agree with the findings of the scientific community on evolution and cosmology. Just to be clear – the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) and the development of life through the processes of evolution are not controversial in the scientific community.

But the theological issue of whether to accept those results is controversial.

Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine warned against the hazards of Biblical literalism.

Today, Christians still disagree about whether to heed St. Augustine’s warning.

The Catholic Church has not only welcomed the results of modern science during the last hundred years, but has occasionally provided leadership in this area. One of the pioneers of Big Bang cosmology was Jesuit priest Georges Lemaître, who published his first paper on this topic in 1931.

Many Protestant denominations also embrace the results of modern science.

This isn’t to say that Ms. Berry is alone in her beliefs, or that she should be denigrated for her views. Indeed, the 2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Survey showed that 31% of Florida adults are Biblical literalists – and therefore believe that the universe and everything in it was created in six literal days about 10,000 years ago.

We should all be willing to admit that the challenges that arise in trying to teach science in pluralistic public schools under these circumstances are profound.

And everyone should deal with those challenges with the Christian values of compassion and civility – even if they aren’t Christians.

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Florida’s Catholic leaders have an urgent moral problem with the state’s tax credit scholarship program.


A banner promoting the Florida Catholic Conference of Bishops at Good Shepherd Catholic Church on Sunday, June 3.  The conference signed up parishioners for a political action e-mail list on that day.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and the state’s other private school scholarship programs have provided Catholic schools with financial security and the opportunity to reach out to low income families in a way that would not otherwise have been possible.

During the 2017-18 school year, 31% of the 86,691 students enrolled in Florida’s Catholic schools were supported by a state scholarship.

That appears to be a good thing.  A study performed by the Urban Institute showed that Catholic school students led the way in achievement among students using tax credit scholarships.

What’s morally troubling is this:  The same program that has provided this tremendous support for Catholic schools is allowing some of the state’s neediest students to be placed in terrible non-Catholic learning environments where they don’t have access to the highly qualified teachers they desperately need.

That’s an urgent moral problem for Florida’s Catholic leaders.

The solution?  The Catholic leaders should argue that schools participating in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and other state scholarship programs be regulated by an accreditation scheme similar to that which has helped make the state’s Catholic schools so successful.

Here are some details:

One of the selling points of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is its lack of formal academic accountability.  Instead, the program’s advocates say that schools that participate in the program have the ultimate accountability – accountability to parents.  It is up to the parents of students supported by the program to judge whether their students are getting a strong education or not.  If not, then the parents can move their students to other schools.

Nevertheless, as a recent Orlando Sentinel article describes, there are many things about curricula used at some of Florida’s tax credit scholarship schools (although not at Catholic schools) that some would consider objectionable.  Many observers would find the Young Earth Creationism taught in science classes troubling, although many parents of students attending those schools would consider that a feature rather than a bug.

Teaching the predominantly minority students using tax credit scholarships that – as the Sentinel described – “slaves who ‘knew Christ’ were better off than free men who did not” seems repugnant.

But that is not what I want to focus on here.  Instead, I want to focus on basics:  Are there private schools accepting state scholarships that don’t even give their students a fighting chance to learn to read and calculate properly?  It appears that the answer is yes.

Some of the schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program use a curriculum called “Accelerated Christian Education” (ACE).   The organization’s own promotional materials describe them this way:

A.C.E. stands out from other curriculum providers with its individualized, self-instructional, mastery-based approach. With minimal assistance, PACEs allow students to absorb subject material according to their own learning ability rather than being pushed forward or held back by their age.

That is, students are pretty much on their own.  They are placed in individual cubicles (eliminating collaborative learning with other students) with workbooks and minimal (or no) access to strong teachers.

A leader of the “Esther’s School” chain of tax credit scholarship schools was quoted in the Sentinel article saying about the ACE curriculum they use:  “Honestly, with our curriculum … a certified teacher is not required.”  According to the Sentinel, at the Esther’s School site in Kissimmee “11 of 18 teachers lacked college degrees last year….For two of them, 11th grade was their highest educational level.”

This educational isolation is the last thing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need.

ACE is the sort of thing that could be eliminated if a reasonable accreditation scheme – like the one governing Florida’s Catholic schools – were used to provide oversight for private schools accepting state scholarships.

So why should Florida’s Catholic leaders take responsibility for this situation?  Isn’t it good enough for them to provide strong Catholic schools to those who are informed enough to choose them?

No.  Catholic teaching instructs us to care for all the poor – not just those who happen to be Catholic or those who happen to choose Catholic schools.  By taking advantage of Florida’s private school scholarship programs to build up the Catholic school system, our Church takes on an obligation to all students who participate in the scholarship programs.  Allowing some of the vulnerable students in the program to be deprived of the only opportunity they will ever have to be educated – and therefore to be condemned to a life of poverty – is morally unacceptable.

Florida’s Catholic leaders should argue strongly for the creation of an academic accreditation system to regulate the private schools that accept state scholarships.  And that system should be modeled on their own successful system.

It’s the moral thing to do.

This past weekend, the Florida Catholic Conference of Bishops made an effort to sign parishioners up for an e-mail list that will be used to mobilize the state’s Catholics for political causes (you can see the banner that was placed in our parish’s foyer at the beginning of this post).  It’s likely one of those causes will be support of Florida’s private school scholarship programs.  I’ll be waiting to see if our leaders decide to wash their hands of the fate of students who are enrolled in academically deficient schools like those that have adopted ACE, or whether they do the right thing and push for reform of the scholarship programs.



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The information in the Florida Department of Education’s Tax Credit Scholarship Accountability Document: How can it be made more accessible?

If you haven’t yet read the Orlando Sentinel article “Private schools’ curriculum downplays slavery, says humans and dinosaurs lived together”, you should.  You should read it especially if you are a school choice supporter or (like me) a school choice agnostic – because you really need to think about the challenging questions the article raises and whether there should be academic boundaries on tax credit scholarship schools.  This post is an (admittedly technical) exploration one of the many questions raised by the Sentinel article.  I will be exploring other such questions in future posts.

When it comes to academic accountability, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program relies entirely on parent choice.  (Although if someone would like to correct me on that, please do.)  That means that the parents whose students are in that program or who are considering entering the program need easy access to information about content of the curriculum and the academic achievement of students.

The information about academic achievement comes from nationally norm-referenced tests given to every tax credit scholarship student.  (Tax credit scholarship students do not take the state’s homegrown tests that are taken by students in all public schools – traditional and charter)  When a particular tax credit scholarship student takes a test at a school two years in a row, the measurement of a learning gain is possible.

As far as I am aware, the FLDOE report titled “Evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program Participation, Compliance and Test Scores in 2015-16” is the best source for academic achievement information on individual schools.  The 2015-16 report was released in June 2017 (which means a 2016-17 version is coming out soon) and was composed by five researchers from Florida State University’s Learning Systems Institute.  One of the authors, Carolyn Herrington, is one of my heroes.  I have confidence that the report was written with integrity.  You can trust what it says.

Information on learning gains in math and reading for the 283 tax credit scholarship schools that provided both 2014-15 and 2015-16 testing data for 30 or more students (that is, information on testing data for both years for the same 30 or more students so that learning gains could be determined) is located in the appendix of the report.  In total, there were (according to the report) “1,330 private schools that had participating students in grades 3 through 10 during the 2015-16 school year”.  Most had too few students who had attended in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to provide 30 measured learning gains.

Is the present report format the best way to provide this information to parents?  I don’t think so.  I have little or no creativity, but even I can imagine a web site in which a parent can key in the name of a tax credit scholarship school and come up with the learning gain information (or the fact that there is no learning gain information available) and information about the curriculum (or curricula) used at the school.  Or key in a zip code and get a list of tax credit scholarship schools within 20 miles.  Or something like that.

Perhaps there was something in this spring’s school choice legislation (HB 7055) that addresses this information accessibility issue.  If so, I haven’t been able to track it down.  If you know of such, please let me know.

The report is linked here:


A page from the report’s appendix showing learning gains for ten schools (the names of which all start with the word “Saint”) is shown below.  The explanation of the table from the report is here:

Appendix Table: Average gain scores in 2015-16 and three-year moving average of gain scores from 2013-14 to 2015-16 for schools with 30 or more students with gain scores in 2015-16.  Notes: Cells report average gain scores. We shade cells where the difference between an individual school’s three year moving average gain score is statistically significant from the national average (at the 95 percent confidence interval).

Example:  In the table section below, three schools have learning gains (averaged over three school years – 13-14, 14-15 and 15-16) that differ significantly from the national rate.  The school listed on the top line of the page, Saint Agatha School in Miami, has learning gains in both reading and math that are significantly below the national average gains.  Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, which was visited by President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos last year, has a math learning gain that is significantly above the national average gain.  The reading gain is not different from the national rate by a statistically significant amount.  Saint Bartholomew School in Miramar has an average learning gain in math that is below the national average gain by a statistically significant amount.


In general, the ability of the analysis to discern learning gains with statistical precision is hindered by the small number of students for which learning gains are available, as can be seen in the table section above.

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New York Fed: For post-recession college graduates “likelihood of being underemployed was lower for those with more quantitatively oriented and occupation-specific majors”

Here is the abstract of a New York Fed report released in 2016 on underemployment of post-recession college graduates.  Two figures ranking college majors by underemployment probability are shown below.  [Hat tip to Inside Higher Ed]

Though labor market conditions steadily improved following the Great Recession,
underemployment among recent college graduates continued to climb, reaching highs not seen since the early 1990s. In this paper, we take a closer look at the jobs held by underemployed college graduates in the early stages of their careers during the first few years after the Great Recession. Contrary to popular perception, we show that relatively few recent graduates were working in low-skilled service jobs, and that many of the underemployed worked in fairly well paid non-college jobs requiring some degree of knowledge and skill. We also find that the likelihood of being underemployed was lower for those with more quantitatively oriented and occupation-specific majors than it was for those with degrees in general fields. Moreover, our analysis suggests that underemployment is a temporary phase for many recent college graduates as they transition to better jobs after spending some time in the labor market, particularly those
who start their careers in low-skilled service jobs.



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