Why is Seminole County so much better at preparing high school students for STEM careers than nearly every other district in Florida?

In an op-ed in the July 29 issue of the Keynoter, one of the newspapers that serves the Florida Keys, Monroe County school activist Sue Woltanski, a mother of two public school students, expressed relief that the county’s school district “has intentionally pulled back on the number of students advanced into high school algebra during middle school”.  She said that the district had been placing too many middle school students in Algebra 1 and blamed this on the district’s pursuit of higher school and district grades under Florida’s education accountability system.

In the spring of 2016, 9% of Monroe County’s 7th graders and 18% of the district’s 8th graders were taking Algebra 1.  While Monroe County’s students are more affluent than students in the state as a whole (49% of Monroe’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, while the state rate is 60%), the percentage of Monroe’s 8th graders taking Algebra 1 was well below the state average (26%), while the percentage of 7th graders taking the course was very close to the state average of 8%.

Meanwhile, 400 miles north of the Keys in Seminole County, the school district is happy to feature its state-leading middle school Algebra 1 enrollment rates of 12% for 7th graders and 39% for 8th graders.  Parents commenting on the district’s Facebook page say things like “Love being in a ‘superpower’ STEM district!” and “This is the reason why the cost of living in Seminole County is much higher. It is worth it.”  Nobody is complaining that the state’s school and district grading scheme is “forcing” middle schoolers into Algebra 1.

Seminole County is no more affluent than Monroe County, at least according to the district’s free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate, which is 49% – just like Monroe’s.

And what about Woltanski’s claim that middle school students who are not ready for Algebra 1 are being placed in it just to feed the state’s accountability scheme?  In Monroe County, 90% of the 8th graders in Algebra 1 passed Florida’s statewide standardized end-of-course exam, ahead of the state rate of 86%.  Among Monroe’s 7th graders, 93% passed – right at the state average.  It seems that the district’s middle school Algebra 1 students are doing just fine.

As for Seminole County, 87% of 8th graders and 98% of 7th graders are passing the end-of-course exam.  Things are fine there as well, except that the percentage of middle schoolers taking Algebra 1 in Seminole is nearly double what it is in Monroe.

How did the two districts get so far apart?

Perhaps kids in Seminole County are just innately way smarter than kids in Monroe County.  But I don’t believe that.

It’s much more likely to come down to what parents, students, teachers and counselors think is normal, and what they think the students will need to compete in the big world.

Take high school physics.  About a quarter of Monroe County’s high school grads have taken a physics course in high school.  In Seminole County, the rate is nearly triple that – about 70%.  Most students in Seminole County take physics.

The calculus enrollment rate in Seminole County is double what it is in Monroe County – not surprising because to get to a calculus course in high school a student needs to have taken Algebra 1 in middle school.

Seminole County has a rule requiring every student to take a math course during every high school year.  No breaks from math courses in Seminole County high schools.  It’s a rule that every district should adopt.

To be fair, I agree with Sue Woltanski’s main point – that the primary goal of schools should be to do what is best for the students, and not to manipulate students into doing what will make the schools look good.

But for many students – probably more than Monroe County allows – middle school algebra is a good thing because it opens opportunities.  You know that high school calculus course I mentioned above?  A student can’t take calculus in high school unless she or he has taken Algebra 1 in middle school (that’s with the standard Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus sequence).

And why is calculus important?  The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that students take calculus in high school so that they have the option of choosing an engineering major in college.  It’s worth noting here – for Sue and everybody else – that of the top 25 college majors ranked by salary by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seventeen have the word “engineering” in them.  Among the other eight are physics, computer science, applied math, statistics, and two economics subjects, all of which are calculus-intensive.  In fact, if you show up at my university saying you want to be a physics major but you don’t have a calculus credit from high school, you are sort of screwed.  And imagine declaring a math major in college without a high school calculus credit.  Good luck with that.

Twice as many students in Seminole County are getting those high-paying opportunities as in Monroe County, probably because of the decisions that adults – including parents, teachers and counselors – are making for them.  That’s not a school accountability problem.  That’s a cultural problem.

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