When Florida’s State Board of Education meets in Orlando on Friday, it will add standards in computer science to the state’s existing K-12 science standards. The arrival of computer science standards will be greeted with a significant amount of publicity and political excitement.
But the new computer science standards – and all of the state’s standards in science and math – matter very little to the quality of education in math, science and computing in Florida. Skilled teachers and educational leaders matter much more, as do gutsy policy-makers. Florida is experiencing a shortage of all of these.
The shortage of strong math and science teachers across the state has been well documented. As more school districts decide to offer courses in computer programming, the scramble for highly qualified teachers in this subject – individuals who could easily find high-paying jobs in other sectors – will intensify.
Given Florida’s focus on reading in its K-12 schools, it is not surprising to find that some school and district administrators have deemphasized math and science. One high school in North Florida that has traditionally been strong in science – Lincoln High School in Tallahassee – just terminated three young science teachers who had earned “highly effective” ratings. High schools throughout Florida have responded to the state’s financial and school grade incentives connected to the Advanced Placement program by directing many more students into AP courses in social sciences than math and science.
Nevertheless, there are principals and superintendents sprinkled around the state who are strong math and science leaders. The Orlando Sentinel reported last summer on the outstanding math and science leadership that Principal Rolando Bailey has provided at Orange County’s Freedom High School. That same Sentinel article documented the math and science success that Seminole County schools have had under Superintendent Walt Griffin.
Florida’s response – or non-response – to the precipitous decline in the performance of the state’s 8th graders on the math section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2015 demonstrated how policy-makers can ignore an important issue. In 2013, NAEP showed that 31% of Florida’s 8th graders were proficient in math. That was already below the national rate of 35%. By the next administration of the NAEP math test in 2015, the percentage of Florida 8th graders proficient in math had declined to 26% (the national rate declined as well, but only to 33%).
Only one member of the State Board of Education – Vice Chair John Padget – demonstrated real concern about this decline in 8th grade math performance. And the Florida Legislature paid no attention to the issue at all during its 2016 session.
So instead of just adding computer science to the state’s science standards, the State Board of Education should be framing concrete proposals for recruiting strong teachers in math, science and computing. The Board should also set incentives for administrators and counselors to steer students into advanced courses in math, science and computing.
Finally, the Board should make a clear statement that improving middle school math achievement – which is necessary for opening opportunities in computing – will be the state’s highest priority for the next several years. Without those steps, the addition of computing to Florida’s science standards will be nearly meaningless.