Florida’s Legislature strikes out again on improving K-12 math and science. But will it ever be any different?

Several years ago, an individual with a great deal more access to influential policy-makers than I have told me that we would never make progress in improving the preparation of high school students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers in Florida’s Legislature, and that the only way to make progress would be to appeal directly to parents.  That was the genesis of Future Physicists of Florida, which inducted almost 500 middle school students from around the state last fall.  The idea is to honor students who have shown some mathematical ability (usually through success in Algebra 1) and to encourage them – but mostly their parents – to persist in the high school math and science courses that prepare them for careers in engineering and the physical sciences.  Last week, I met with parents and students at Orlando Science School to provide an extra dose of that encouragement, and next week I’ll be doing the same at Panama City’s Mosley High School.  In between, I’ll be telling participants at the annual meeting of the national PhysTEC physics teacher education program in Baltimore about my experiences talking with these students and parents.

Of course, it would be much more (let’s say) efficient to have the legislature require with one fell swoop that precalculus and physics be required for Bright Futures, or that we adopt common-sense strategies (Differential pay?  Student loan forgiveness?) to recruit more strong math and physics teachers so that calculus and physics courses are available to more Florida students.  But only one of those (student loan forgiveness) was even proposed in this year’s legislative session, and that strategy – supported by research – didn’t even get a hearing in the House (it made plenty of progress in the Senate).

And the single greatest obstacle to improving the preparation of Florida’s students for STEM careers – the collapse in the state’s middle school math performance on the 2015 NAEP exam – wasn’t even mentioned in public by a single legislator.  There were certainly no actions taken to address it.

Occasionally, the idea of improving the preparation of Florida’s students for bachelor’s-level STEM careers gets some traction in the legislature.  This year’s proposal in the Senate to nudge foreign language aside for the sake of improving computer programming education – as ill-advised as it was – was successful in a floor vote although the House never really gave that proposal a serious sniff.  In 2010, SB 4 raised high school graduation requirements to include Algebra 2 and some physical science.  But those new requirements were rolled back before they even took effect.

The pushback against higher expectations in math and science is not just a Florida thing.  For example, the 4 x 4 program in Texas – which required Algebra 2 and physics for high school graduation – was recently repealed.

For now, the only option for advocates like me is small-scale evangelization like I am pursuing in Orlando, Panama City and the Florida Keys.  Get to the students (and more importantly their parents) and make the case for persistence in challenging high school math and science courses like calculus, chemistry and physics.  Those encounters always involve individual conversations with parents, students and teachers.  That – and not the State Capitol – is the ground on which I am working to make progress.  It seems unlikely that will change anytime soon.

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