Florida is doing a lousy job preparing its high school students for college majors in STEM fields, especially those like engineering and the physical and computing sciences that require strong mathematical skills and provide technological leadership.
And as a state we haven’t made a dent in the problem of providing equitable access to these careers for black students and women.
The low priority that Florida education leaders have assigned to providing access to such careers can make the issue disappear into the background of the broader gains that the state’s students have made. Ron Matus from Step Up for Students properly pointed out that the overall proficiency level of the state’s elementary and middle school students in reading has improved over time, and that our elementary students’ math performance has improved as well. (Sorry, Ron – I’m just not happy with the NAEP middle school math results)
Nevertheless, it’s important to provide Florida’s students with the best possible opportunity to enter the technological leadership careers in engineering and the physical and computing sciences. It’s true that not all of the state’s students would be able to take advantage of those opportunities. But schools exist to give every student the chance to completely fulfill her or his potential. Maybe one-third of the state’s students could enter these careers if given access to strong high school-level educators in math and science.
When it comes to preparing students for college STEM majors, Florida seems to be going in reverse. High school physics enrollments are down 8% over the last three school years – and that in a state where a 2015 survey showed that high school students enroll in physics at only half the national rate. High school chemistry enrollments are down 9% in only two years. Students take and pass Advanced Placement math courses only at about the national average rate despite our state’s financial incentives for schools. (These are results from 2017. Results from 2018 will be available shortly.)
The Advanced Placement results for math, the physical sciences and computing tell another story as well – that the severe underrepresentation of black students among State University System STEM bachelor’s degree grads in engineering, computing and physics has its origins in the K-12 system. The situation for women in these fields is also awful – only 20% of bachelors’ degrees in these fields (both statewide and nationally) are awarded to women. Advanced Placement results show that situation begins to take hold in high school as well.
To make things even worse, the supply of new high school math teachers (Math 6-12) in Florida continues to fall.
All of those observations are based on solid data.
Now I’m going to make an assertion that I am basing only on my experience with students in my own introductory physics classes at FSU, where one-third of my students (majors in engineering, physical and computing sciences) didn’t take a high school physics class. While the state’s traditional high schools are, as a group, doing a poor job preparing students for these college majors, the state’s charter and tax credit scholarship schools are not making things better. There are exceptions of course – the Orlando Science School cranks out highly qualified students (although I’ve never had a single one in my classroom despite my years of visits there). But my Catholic high school graduates are generally underprepared, having had either no high school physics class or poorly taught classes with weak teachers.
If my anecdote-level observation is correct (and Ron is welcome to demonstrate that it is not – and that would actually make me happy), then perhaps it is because the charter and private schools are generally small compared to the public schools and teaching courses like calculus and physics is easier to justify budget-wise with larger pools of students.
The other hypothesis that seems reasonable is that most charter and private schools intrinsically set a lower priority on math and science. I have no way of testing that hypothesis, though – and as I noted above I know of a few such schools that emphasize math and science.
But to address the problem of poor STEM preparation, Florida’s education policy-makers would first have to acknowledge that we have that problem and then decide that it should be a priority to remedy it. I don’t see any sign of either happening in any of the state’s education sectors.