Response to an Orlando Sentinel letter-writer: Yes, high schools should offer a balanced education – arts, humanities, social science, math, natural sciences. But they don’t yet.

On the Wednesday after the Orlando Sentinel published its Math and Science Rankings, and the day after the same paper published a strongly worded editorial arguing for the improvement of math and science education, the paper published a letter from a retired teacher complaining that high schools were becoming unbalanced – that opportunities for students to study arts and humanities were being sacrificed on the STEM altar.  On Thursday of that week, I submitted a rebuttal, but the editors understandably declined to publish it – they were likely suffering from a bout of Cottle Fatigue. 

Here is the piece I submitted that Thursday:

In response to the Sentinel’s publication of math and science rankings last Sunday, retired teacher Beth Brewer wrote to express her concern that high schools might be reducing the opportunities their students have to prepare for careers as authors, historians, designers or performers because of an overemphasis on STEM subjects (Letters, Wednesday, July 29, 2015).

I am the FSU Physics Professor who calculated the math and science rankings for Sentinel reporter Leslie Postal. Nevertheless, I agree with Ms. Brewer that our high schools should make sure that every student who attends a university is prepared to major in the arts, social sciences or humanities. I also believe that every student who goes on to a university should be prepared to major in the STEM fields, including the natural sciences, engineering, math and computer science.

The problem for Florida at present is that the state is doing a much better job preparing high school students for college majors in the arts, social sciences and humanities than it is preparing them for college majors in STEM fields.

Florida is among the nation’s leaders in the percentages of high school graduates who have earned Advanced Placement credits in the social sciences, English, the arts and world languages. But in Advanced Placement math, natural science and computer science courses, Florida is only average.

During the May 2014 Advanced Placement testing period, 18,200 Florida students passed the exam for AP English Language and Composition, which earns a student credit for the first English course at Florida’s colleges and universities. About the same number passed the AP Psychology exam. Yet only 8,500 Florida students passed the exam for AP Calculus AB, which earns credit for the first calculus course – the mathematics starting point for students majoring in engineering and physics.

So I agree completely with Ms. Brewer – our high schools should provide a strong education in which humanities, arts, social science, natural science and math are carefully balanced. But at present, we don’t have that.

I am not arguing for STEM-centered education in our K-12 schools. Instead, I’m saying that we need to build up the state’s instructional program in math and science so that our students go to college ready to succeed in any field – even STEM fields.

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