What does it take to improve high school math and science in a school, district or state? And what does it take to sustain that improvement?

Seminole County is one of Florida’s K-12 math and science superpowers.  The school district came out on top in last summer’s Orlando Sentinel math and science rankings, and it comes out near the top of the state in physics.  When I had the opportunity last year to get to know three of the physics teachers from Seminole’s Lake Mary High, I thought they would tell me how great it is to be able to ride the wave of a STEM-centered school culture without the constant friction that physics and calculus teachers and science education advocates constantly face in many other Florida school districts.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Lake Mary teachers told me how hard they constantly work to promote and maintain their school’s physics program and its high enrollment.  Promoting physics at the school’s football games on Friday evenings in the fall.  Working with chemistry teachers to make sure students are advised into physics.  Teaching a very popular astronomy class that has physics as a prerequisite, so that taking astronomy is a reward for the hard work of learning physics.  Updating pedagogy to keep up with the new AP physics courses.

Lake Mary High School and the rest of the Seminole County school district continue to succeed in giving a large number of their students the opportunity to choose careers in science and engineering.

But it doesn’t always work out so well.  Consider the State of Texas, which for several years required all students to complete courses in both Algebra 2 and physics to graduate from high school as part of their “4 by 4” plan.  From a distance, Texas was an education reformer’s nirvana (OK, I understand there were some issues with evolution education, but hang with me here).  What happened next is described in Michael Marder’s chapter “High School Mathematics in Texas: Freedom and Shackles” in the 2015 book Education Policy Perils:  Tackling the Tough Issues (ed. Chris Tienken):

In the spring of 2013 the Texas legislature passed House Bill 5 (HB5) and in the summer Governor Rick Perry signed it into law. The bill eliminated 10 of the 15 high-stakes end of course standardized tests that previously had been required for high school graduation. It also introduced major changes into high school graduation plans. The previous Recommended High School Graduation Plan was called the “4 by 4”: four years each of science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies. In the new plans, the numbers of required courses in each subject area dropped, particularly for mathematics and science. Chemistry and Physics were no longer mandatory parts of the science requirement and Algebra II was no longer a mandatory part of the mathematics requirement.

From one point of view, HB 5 was an inexplicable development.  According to Marder,

The changes brought on by HB5 happened although Texas high school graduation rates were among the highest in the nation, and career-readiness in mathematics of low-income students had nearly doubled in the last eight years.

So 4 by 4 was a success.  What happened?  HB 5 was driven in part by the anti-standardized testing wave sweeping the nation.  But I stumbled across my own clue in the summer of 2015, when I had dinner with a group of physics educators that happened to include an outstanding high school physics teacher from Texas.  I asked her how the repeal of 4 by 4 had changed high school physics in Texas.  “Not at all” she replied, with naked contempt in her voice.  She obviously had never been a fan of 4 by 4, even though it had given many more students the opportunity to learn physics.

That exchange made me doubt whether teachers in Texas had ever bought into 4 by 4.  Top-down reforms can seem attractive, but it’s clear from the Texas experience that the latent opposition to 4 by 4 at lower levels – parents and teachers – had never been fully addressed.  Even after 4 by 4 had been successfully implemented and was benefiting Texas students, opposition from parents and teachers continued to fester.  Once the anti-testing wave arrived, the 4 by 4 opposition surfed the wave and gutted the state’s exemplary graduation requirements.

Of course, Florida had its own graduation requirements repeal episode.  In 2010, the state’s legislature approved (and Governor Crist signed) SB 4, which would have raised the science requirement for graduation to include Biology 1, “Chemistry 1 or Physics 1”, and “a course equal in rigor to Chemistry 1 and Physics 1”.  But these requirements were repealed by the 2013 legislature, shortly before they would have been fully implemented.

While the Florida Legislature was first considering SB 4 in 2010, the charismatic principal from Tallahassee’s Leon High School objected vehemently to SB 4 during a legislative committee meeting, saying that if chemistry had been required for high school graduation when he was in high school that he would not have graduated.  When Governor Crist signed SB 4 in to law, I smugly thought that the Leon High principal had lost.  But in the long run he and like-minded teachers, parents and administrators won the fight against SB 4, and he is now running for Leon County Superintendent of Schools with a serious chance of winning.

So what are the lessons from Seminole County, the Texas 4 by 4 plan and Florida’s SB 4 experience?  I’ve been thinking about this recently because I am now working with a school district that is trying to dramatically improve its students’ preparation for college science and engineering majors.  As a colleague from FSU’s education policy program told me a few years ago, there is always a backlash to such an effort.  The Texas 4 by 4 plan and Florida’s SB 4 demonstrate the truth in that statement.

But Lake Mary High School and Seminole County show what it takes to maintain a culture of excellence in math and science – leadership from teachers, guidance counselors and administrators and buy-in from parents.  Public education is political, and the effort to sell higher expectations in math and science must be approached like a political campaign.  Advocates for these higher expectations must listen sympathetically to constituents (teachers, guidance counselors and parents), make adjustments to plans when made necessary by the sentiment of these constituents, and constantly sell to parents, teachers and administrators the importance of higher math and science expectations for the future of students.  As Texas demonstrates, the political effort cannot end when the plan is implemented – even if it is implemented successfully.  The campaign for strong math and science preparation must continue as long as there are students in schools – forever.


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