Along with other members of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education, I met with about half a dozen physics teachers from charter, magnet and traditional schools in Chicago on Friday afternoon. We were supposed to be there to listen to their stories, but I got a little carried away.
What got me going was what they told me about the status of physics in their high schools. In several of the schools, every 9th grader takes physics in a program called Physics First that has gotten a bit of traction in several parts of the nation. In a few other schools, students don’t take physics until their junior years, but every student takes the course.
The teachers came from a variety of backgrounds – career changers from engineering fields, traditional teacher education programs and even Teach for America. But they were all smart, enthusiastic and energetic. They talked about a city-wide overhaul in high school science that took place several years ago and that elevated the status of physics in the schools.
But the bottom line was this: Their high schools – and most high schools in Chicago – take science (and physics in particular) very seriously. It is a core part of the curriculum, along with math and English language arts. The Common Core has arrived, and the PARCC exams will arrive soon. But all of the teachers we met with are completely plugged into the Next Generation Science Standards (it almost doesn’t seem to matter if Illinois ever officially adopts them) and inquiry-based teaching.
We had only an hour scheduled with the group. So after 20 minutes of me saying “Oh, this is so much better than Florida!” in various ways, one of my colleagues on the committee (another Floridian, actually) finally cut me off so that he could ask some important questions about the teachers’ motivations and work.
During our business meeting yesterday, the Committee on Education decided that during the next year we will come up with a short list of the most urgent issues facing the community of physics educators, from kindergarten to graduate school. At the K-12 level the items on the list will probably all be about teachers – maybe expanding high quality pre-service education for high school teachers, or supplying more science specialists for elementary schools, or advocating for effective professional development for physics teachers (rather than the ineffective feel-good programs that are so pervasive). But the bottom line is this: K-12 policy-makers have to care about science, like they do in Chicago.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario in Florida. Despite the presumed commitment to STEM (which sometimes seems like an excuse for not doing science) and the evidence that high school physics speeds students on their way to the most attractive careers, leaders always seem to have a reason for avoiding science in general, and physics in particular. There aren’t enough science/physics teachers (then create employment conditions that would attract them!); Common Core will improve reading skills and therefore students’ science literacy (as if all there is to science is reading well); college admissions officers say that physics isn’t important (it turns out they do think physics is important, actually); physics isn’t important for all students (every reasonable set of K-12 science standards I’ve seen – or worked on – says it is).
All of these excuses seem to cover a deep and widespread antipathy against physics in Florida’s K-12 community that rolls over every bit of evidence of the subject’s importance.
Fortunately, it’s not like that everywhere. Certainly not in Chicago.