Coercion is no substitute for persuasion: As difficult and slow as it is, persuading parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and policy-makers to improve the preparation of high school students for college STEM majors is the only way to make lasting change

I used to believe in policy solutions for Florida’s poor performance in preparing high school students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. But I gave up on that years ago.

Florida’s SB 4, passed by the Legislature in 2010 and signed into law by Governor Crist, was a blunt instrument that would have required Algebra 2 and either chemistry or physics for high school graduation. Unfortunately, it would have done little to improve the preparation of the top third of the state’s students for college STEM majors and it would have required workarounds for much of the high school population. It was repealed before the graduation requirements became effective.

A similar but much more dramatic thing happened in Texas. That state’s 4×4 high school graduation plan required Algebra 2 and physics. It raised the math achievement of the state’s high school students for a decade. But it was repealed anyway because even though 4×4 was successful it never really had the support of parents and the business community.

In contrast, I have two examples of the power of persuading parents to improve the preparation of high school students for college STEM careers. One is an experiment performed by the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work in which parents of early high school students were told through brochures and a web site that their children would have opportunities to pursue lucrative careers in STEM fields if they took courses in chemistry, physics and calculus while in high school. This parent outreach succeeded in dramatically increasing course-taking in these subjects in high school, but that wasn’t the most important outcome. The most important outcome was that this effect persisted so that students ended up in bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers at a rate much higher than would have been expected without the outreach to high school parents.

The second example is more personal – the impact of a parent outreach effort at Bay County’s Mosley High School in which I was personally involved during the last several years. The hard work was done by the school’s counselors who had many difficult conversations with parents and students about upping their games. My modest contribution was to meet with groups of parents during evening and lunchtime meetings. The result was that the physics enrollment at Mosley rose from six in 2015-16 to 180 this past fall (before Hurricane Michael). Enrollments in chemistry and calculus increased dramatically as well.

The downside of the Mosley model is this: Despite the fact that I have made offers to meet with parents in Mosley-style meetings to several dozen high schools in several school districts, no principal or counselor has taken me up on those offers. Nobody wants me messing with their students’ parents. So the Mosley model worked at Mosley, but nobody wants to replicate it.

Those readers who were wondering why I am gleefully displaying a recruiting poster for the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering below might be figuring that out by now. When I saw the poster for the first time during a meeting at the engineering college in December, it seemed like a great opportunity – a way to have the engineers argue for improving preparation for college STEM majors instead of just me. It’s early days, but so far my little effort has been well-received.

The logical next step might be a Wisconsin-style website for parents to consult about how best to prepare their children for college majors in engineering and the physical, computing and mathematical sciences.

There is one thing for certain: With chemistry and physics in decline in Florida’s public high schools, and with no sign that the state’s charter and private school sectors are making things better in this regard, there is urgency in getting the word out to K-12 stakeholders about the importance of proper STEM preparation in high school. There is no policy fix for this problem, and even if there were there would be no will among leaders to implement it. Instead, people who care about the future of Florida’s children and who understand the economics of the workforce are going to have to just keep looking for opportunities to persuade parents and stakeholders to improve their students’ preparation for the best economic opportunities in the 21st century economy.

Pay no attention to the man behind the poster.

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