Does a school district’s emphasis on teaching high school physics depend on its affluence?

Not nearly as much as you’d think.

A few weeks ago, I posted a study of high school physics course-taking frequency by district in Florida during the 2013-2014 school year.  The differences among districts were remarkable.  I used a parameter I dubbed the District Physics Index (DPI) – the sum of the numbers of students taking Physics, Honors Physics, AP Physics B and AP Physics C divided by the number of 12th graders.  Eleven districts – all rural – didn’t offer physics at all in 2013-2014.  Three districts stood out.  Brevard and Seminole Counties, both with long traditions of excellence in STEM education and large populations of engineers and scientists, had DPI’s near 0.74, suggesting that majorities of their high school graduates have taken physics.  Remarkably, little Jefferson County had the highest DPI (0.95) with 38 students taking physics and only 40 12th graders.

But there were anomalies that stayed with me.  Florida’s most affluent school district by far is St. Johns County.  The standard measure of a school district’s socioeconomic status is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.  Florida’s statewide percentage is 58.5%.  Brevard (44.7%) and Seminole Counties (45.6%) are more affluent than the state as a whole.  Jefferson County is less affluent (64.8%).  St. Johns County’s rate is 22.8%.  But the DPI for St. Johns County (0.28) is only a little more than one-third of the indices for Brevard and Seminole Counties.  And of course, poor rural Jefferson County blows them away.

Why?

Three reasons:  Teachers.  Administrators.  Parents.

In most cases, demographics seems to be less of an issue.

Here is the scatter plot I prepared of District Physics Index vs. Free/Reduced Lunch Percentage.  If you’re looking for an obvious correlation, you’ll be disappointed.

DPI_FRL

You can see Brevard and Seminole with their DPI’s of 0.74, and Jefferson with its 0.95.  And St. John’s with its 22.8% Free/Reduced Lunch Percentage and its DPI of 0.28.  And the eleven rural counties with no physics course offerings and Free/Reduced Lunch Percentages varying from the high 30’s to 100%.

A spreadsheet with the districts ranked by Free/Reduced Lunch Percentage and listed with DPI’s is here:

physics_frlrank

Even I can’t work up a head of steam over the poor rural counties with Free/Reduced Lunch Percentages north of 70% that offer physics to few of their students or none at all.  Those counties are the best reason I can think of to work hard at developing a physics course that takes advantage of the internet or any other available technology to allow a single teacher to work with 100 geographically scattered physics students.  Such a course might look like this.

But then there is everybody else.  The reason St. Johns County has a low physics course-taking rate is because it just isn’t a high priority there.  That’s also true of Alachua County, home of the University of Florida.  (DPI=.117 and FRL=52.8 %  Seriously??!!)  Martin County at DPI=0.073 and FRL=43.5%.  Bay County at DPI=0.044 and FRL=58.0%.  You can look at the spreadsheet linked above yourself and find more such examples.

In Brevard, Seminole and Jefferson Counties, physics is a high priority.  It’s that simple.

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