Should we prioritize one group of students over another? A reflection on Commissioner Stewart’s presentation to the House Education Committee

The presentation that Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart gave to the House Education Committee yesterday transparently described the course she is setting for the future of the state’s K-12 schools.  She made her priorities clear and outlined some of the actions she is recommending to policy-making bodies to address those priorities.  Commissioner Stewart is a passionate and earnest advocate and leader for the state’s schools, and she has calmed the turbulent sea of education policy as much as anyone could have.

So why did her presentation leave me terribly frustrated?

As a physics professor at Florida State University, my primary job is to help students that Sheila Tobias would have called “second tier” become professional scientists and engineers – to enter the most lucrative careers available (according to PayScale.com).  These are students with math SAT scores in the 600’s, which the College Board says are in the 75th to 92nd percentiles.  In their high schools they are top quartile students – the high fliers.  In my classroom, they have to work hard to build their understanding of basic concepts like conservation of momentum and electric fields so that they can go on to be engineers, meteorologists, chemists or even physicists.  We even built a program – our studio physics program – around the needs of these students.

One of FSU's SCALE-UP classrooms - just like MIT!

On the average, these students have to work harder than their high-scoring (in the 700’s on the Math SAT) competitors if they are to succeed.  A few weeks ago, I visited a highly ranked liberal arts school in Minnesota and learned that while their physics majors take about half the physics courses that ours do, they attend many of the nation’s strongest graduate schools.  Our physics major requirements include a larger number of courses because our students need to spend more time learning the ins and outs of quantum mechanics and electromagnetic fields to be well-prepared for strong graduate programs.

But the success of our second tier students in engineering and the physical sciences depends strongly on their preparation in high school.  They need to have passed the first Advanced Placement course in calculus – AP Calculus AB – to be on track for an engineering or physics major when they arrive at FSU.  But only about 5% of Florida high school grads have credit for Calculus AB or the equivalent IB or dual enrollment course.  They need to have taken a physics course in high school, but one-third of the students in my classes – all engineering and science majors – have not.

So, if we are going to be successful in giving more students – students from the entire top quartile – access to careers in engineering and the physical sciences then we need more help from Florida’s K-12 schools than we are getting now.

And here we run into the problem I have with Commissioner Stewart’s priorities.

The commissioner has made it quite clear that her highest priority is concentrating resources on “struggling students”.  In a talk to Governor Scott and some of the state’s district school superintendents earlier this week, she specifically singled out the lowest quartile of K-12 students as being her highest priority.  Getting these students up to the floor set by the Common Core is her goal.  No one could possibly argue with the importance of this work.

But still.  If we do not improve our capacity for educating our top quartile students in math and science, then students who might otherwise have become engineers and the physical scientists will not.  About one-third of our middle school students pass the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam, setting them on course to have access to engineering and physical science careers.  Yet only a tiny fraction of those students earn the calculus credit they need to prepare for these careers by the time they graduate from high school.  Commissioner Stewart is saying she is willing to let that situation continue, as long as the state addresses the needs of those who struggle to learn to read and calculate at the Common Core level.

And that’s not right.

Every student in Florida’s schools deserves the opportunity to achieve to the best of their abilities.   It should not matter whether that student is in the top quartile, the bottom quartile, or in between.

Commissioner Stewart has set her course.  Those of us on the ground in Florida’s educational institutions have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of those decisions and do the best we can with the students who appear in our classrooms.  But because of those decisions, I will lose students that could have made it had different decisions been made.  Even though I will not meet these students, I will think of them often.

Small additional thought:  This is all really good news for Maclay School and other private schools like it.

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  1. Pingback: Florida Citizens for Science » Blog Archive » What’s being done?

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