A colleague who focuses much of his effort on recruiting minority students into physics and engineering took a look at my recent analysis of the achievement gap in Florida’s high school science and engineering pipeline and asked me for a different look at the data. His reaction when I showed him what he asked for? He had no idea how bad the leakage from the pipeline is from middle school to high school – for everyone, not just for black students. But of course it’s worst for black students.
Here is what my colleague was looking at. The first plot shows the numbers of Florida middle school students from four ethnic groups who passed the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam in 2012-2013, the number of students who took the AP Calculus AB exam in May, 2013, and the number of students who passed at that time. The graph doesn’t give an actual longitudinal look at a particular group of students, but the snapshot at a particular time (basically spring of 2013) gives a good look at the leakage from the science and engineering pipeline. To be ready to go in a college engineering program, a student should earn a Calculus 1 credit in high school, and AP Calculus AB is by far the most common way to do so. To get to AP Calculus AB by the senior year of high school, a student has to complete Algebra 1 by the end of middle school – by the completion of 8th grade.
This graph demonstrates that the pipeline is so leaky – for all ethnic groups – that the word “pipeline” almost doesn’t apply. What this particular graph doesn’t show so well is the differences in the leakage rates between ethnic groups.
To see the differences in the leakage rates between different ethnic groups, I also produced a graph that shows the rate of persistence to calculus after Algebra 1, so that each ethnic group starts at 100%.
Once again, the persistence rates for all ethnic groups are inexcusably poor. The worst rate is for black students.
What would it take to raise these persistence rates so that 30% of middle school Algebra 1 passers also pass the AP Calculus AB exam (as Asian-American students do now)? Answer number one is this: More great math teachers. Lots more.
Could technology and online classes help? Sure – to help great teachers reach students in schools that are separated by geography or other obstacles. But it’s not as simple as having a “superstar” math teacher lecture to 2,000 students. Fordham Institute’s Michael Brickman seemed to imply that it would be this easy in a comment he made during a redefinedonline.org chat this week when he said “We have the technology to scale great teachers, now it’s about finding the political will.” A great teacher can do a great job with 200 students per year – and probably not any more than that. Teaching math well is an intense personal experience – whether the interactions between teachers and students take place in a physical or virtual space. What we need to find is the political will to recruit and train more great math teachers – way more great math teachers – and get them to the students who need them most. In Florida, the political will to pay strong math graduates what they can make in the private sector or find other comparable incentives for choosing the exhausting if rewarding career of teaching doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.