High school and early college: Are 11th and 12th grades wasted years?

Jeff Solochek’s article on Dayspring Academy’s dual enrollment arrangement with Pasco-Hernando State College in yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times made me reflect again on how 11th and 12th grade fit into the education of Florida’s kids.  As Jeff said in his article, Dayspring founder and former chair of the Florida Senate PreK-12 Committee John Legg “routinely questioned the value of the 11th and 12th grades, suggesting too many students simply were biding time before college or a career.”

After reading Jeff’s article yesterday morning, I asked the students in my own introductory physics class – who are majoring in subjects like biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics – about their experiences in 11th and 12th grades.

Most of my students were caught completely off-guard by the question.  For them, 11th and 12th grades were the most crucial years of their education prior to coming to FSU.  If they had arrived at FSU without the courses in physics, precalculus and calculus that they took in 11th and 12th grades, some of them would have been unable to complete their bachelor’s degree programs in four years since they would have had to – for example – start their math progressions with essentially high school-level courses in trigonometry and precalculus.  And they would have been starting those low-level math courses in college environments that are less personal than the small(er) classes that characterize high schools.

While my calculus-based studio physics class is as effective and friendly as a college learning environment can be, students who arrive without a previous physics course – preferably the new algebra-based AP Physics 1 course – are at significantly greater risk of failure.  In fact, roughly a quarter of my students do just that – show up in a college major that involves physics without having taken a high school physics class.  I have enough experience with such students to know it is a bad idea.

The academic programs in science, engineering and computing disciplines represented in my class are vertical – the course programs consisting of sequences of courses that cannot be shortened because of the importance of prerequisites (see for yourself in FSU’s Academic Guide here).  For nearly all students, there are no shortcuts.  You have to learn the math, science, engineering and computing one step at a time.  You can’t shorten college from four years to two, or shorten high school from four years to two, without endangering a student’s career opportunities in STEM fields.

And by the way, this argument about the vertical nature of STEM majors might be one that those who earned bachelor’s degrees in fields like political science might not understand at all.  Perhaps a decade ago, I worked with an undergraduate physics major who decided near the end of her junior year to add a second major in political science.  She completed all of the political science requirements in a year, running the table in those courses with straight A’s.  A political science major was fast and easy, there were few or no prerequisites, and many high school students could be just as successful in a major like political science even if they skipped 11th and 12th grades.

So what about the student who decides in 10th grade that she or he will not major in a STEM field, and that a degree in political science (or creative writing, or music performance) is her or his career aspiration?  Can’t this student skip 11th and 12th grade and all that nasty math and science?

Lots of students in Florida pretty much do that.  But we as a state should not be allowing them to.  During the last several months, I’ve talked with FSU undergraduates and recent graduates who wish they had stuck out those high school courses in precalculus, chemistry and physics so that they could have had the opportunity to enter science, engineering and health fields in college.  With the right advice and coaxing from parents, teachers and counselors, they would have done so.

Here’s the bottom line:  Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.  It should be the norm in Florida that students entering FSU, or UNF, or New College have at least precalculus (and preferably calculus), chemistry and physics when they arrive on campus.

Any early college scheme that doesn’t recognize that imperative is closing the doors to the best economic opportunities (and satisfying and exciting careers) for its own students.

And yes, I said that to the faculty of Dayspring Academy when I visited them in August.  We’ll see what happens.

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