High school physics and other important subjects in Missouri and Florida: An open letter to Mike McShane

Dear Mike,

It’s been great to see high school physics become a subject of public debate in Missouri, with the mention by Governor Greitens in his State of the State address last month, Grace Hase’s fact-check of the governor’s speech in the Columbia Missourian over the weekend and your response on Monday.  Physics is the gateway high school science course for bachelor-level STEM careers, and according to the American Institute of Physics it was taken by 39% of the nation’s high school graduating class of 2013.

There are several things I want to put out there that I’m sure we agree on.  First of all, the work that the University of Missouri-Columbia and its 37 “Core Partner” school districts have done on Physics First – the initiative to teach physics to 9th graders – has been brilliant.  The physics learning of the 9th graders as measured by well-validated assessment instruments was strong.

In fact, the 9th graders in the Missouri Physics First project are probably better prepared for a college physics class than many students who take traditional lecture-based Honors Physics courses.  I say that because I pretest every one of the students in my own college-level physics class, and I know the shortcomings of many traditional high school physics classrooms.  And while I’m not an education researcher (sorry – just an old nuclear physicist) I was chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education in 2013-14, so I’ve spent plenty of time with the experts.  So I’m glad I counted Physics First in my little survey of state physics enrollment rates, and I wish there was an equivalent Physics First program in Florida.  Many Florida students would benefit if there were.

But as you probably already know, if we took Physics First out of Missouri’s enrollment numbers, the physics enrollment rates in our two states – Florida and Missouri – would be approximately equal and about 1/3 below the national rate.

And it would obviously be best if the Physics First alumni could continue on to an AP Physics 1 course later on in their high school careers.  Much better.  In fact, every Missouri (and Florida) student bound for a four-year college should take a physics course (and AP Physics 1 is now the gold standard in this) so that every student can choose any major in college – even the ones like engineering and computer science that result in the highest salaries.

Which brings me to the suggestion you made about using access to online courses to allow students in districts that do not offer high school physics to take it anyway.  To address this question, we need to start with acknowledging that there are two pedagogical tiers in teaching physics (and probably other sciences and math, but there are data on physics).  The lower tier is the traditional lecture-based course.  Years of research on many thousands of students showed that in mechanics college students in traditional lecture classes learned 23% of what they didn’t know at the beginning of the course.  However, when a hands-on collaborative “interactive engagement” pedagogy was adopted (my classroom is shown below) that “normalized learning gain” jumped to 48%.


A group at MIT took a look at the learning gains that students experience in high quality online lecture classes in physics (probably equivalent to the online physics classes you are suggesting) and found that students learned somewhat more than in a traditional in-person lecture class but less than in an interactive engagement class.


Why does the online course outperform the traditional lecture class?  I can speculate that as far as lectures go, the lecturer chosen for the recordings is much more polished than the average lecturer who shows up in a classroom.  One more reason:  The rewind button.

Of course, this study looked at 19-year-olds learning physics and not the 16-year-olds you are concerned with.  But I suspect that the lessons are at least somewhat transferable.

So what bothers me about online physics courses?  I’d like every student in every high school to have access to a physics teacher who uses highly effective interactive engagement pedagogies.  If we want to broaden access to lucrative careers like engineering to many more students, this is what we have to aim for.  I don’t like settling for an online physics course when I know we can do better.  But I will concede that an online physics course is better than no physics course.  And the online course may also be better than some of the traditional in-person courses being offered in high schools.

(By the way, the Physics First teachers professionally developed at Columbia are probably quite hands-on, resulting in the strong learning gains that have been measured)

But enough about physics.  Governor Greitens also said in his State of the State address that Missouri has “an education system that ranks near last in every measure that matters.”  I’m sure you already knew better, and my regular readers already saw enough statistics from NAEP and the ACT to know that in general Missouri is at least better than Florida in many measures.

But there is one distressing measurement that shows both our states are in serious trouble, and that is our results on the 2015 NAEP 8th grade math test.  In both states, too few 8th graders measured at the proficient level.  Only 25% of Florida 8th graders tested at proficient or better, compared to the national rate of 33%.  Missouri did a little better at 31%.  Experts can argue about whether the definition of “proficient” is perfect or not, but given the demands of our modern economy being below the national average in middle school math is just not acceptable for any educational system.  It’s not just students bound for four-year colleges who need strong math skills.  Even students bound for the two-year colleges must have strong algebra skills to succeed in associate degree programs in technological fields.

I don’t think there is an online shortcut to solving this problem.  I’m convinced we must do whatever it takes to get more individuals who are strong in math to commit to teaching careers at the middle and high school levels.  We both live in states where teacher salaries are abnormally low.  What can we do to address the shortage of strong math teachers?

One thing to keep in mind if you choose to answer that question:  Florida already has many alternative certification routes to enter the teaching profession.

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