In its recently released report “Project Sunrise”, the Florida Council of 100 identified several factors limiting Florida’s economic growth – including the state’s sluggish pipeline for educating STEM professionals – and recommended actions to address some of them. But they failed to even mention the importance of rebuilding Florida’s math and science high school teaching corps, which is arguably the most impactful step that can be taken to improve the state’s STEM pipeline.
One of the factors limiting economic growth listed in the Council’s report (which can be downloaded at the bottom of this post) was this: “Florida is not producing enough STEM graduates, ranking 38th in the US.” Of course, those are STEM graduates from the state’s colleges and universities. So what does that have to do with high schools? Everything. Because how well a student prepares for college STEM majors in high school has a tremendous impact on the chances that student has to succeed in college and earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. And in that respect, Florida is doing poorly. A national survey of states in 2015 showed that the rate at which Florida high school students take physics – a requirement for college programs in fields like engineering, life sciences, computer science, physical sciences and even architecture – was only half the national rate. Since then, the number of students enrolled in physics in Florida’s public high schools has declined 12%. Chemistry enrollments in the public high schools have declined 14% in only three years. Despite Florida’s aggressive program of financial incentives for student success in Advanced Placement courses, the state is only at the national average for the fraction of its high school population that takes and passes AP courses in math and science – including calculus.
The intensifying shortage of math and science teachers is playing a tragically large role in this worsening STEM pipeline situation. The number of teaching candidates taking Florida’s high school math certification exam (Math 6-12) for the first time dropped by 42% from 2013 to 2018. The number of candidates taking the chemistry certification exam dropped by 39% during the same period. In physics, the decline was 35% – and in fact only 78 candidates took the physics exam for the first time in 2018. And 36 public high schools in Florida with 1,000 or more students didn’t offer physics at all during the 2018-19 school year.
The teacher bonus program passed by the 2019 Florida Legislature and signed into law by Governor DeSantis might make the math and science teacher shortage worse. Nearly all the new graduates of FSU and UF who started teaching math and science at the high school level in the fall of 2018 will receive “signing bonuses” of about $7,000 from the state’s Best and Brightest teacher scholarship program, which required high ACT or SAT scores. The new teacher bonus program will not require that a new math or science teacher starting in the fall of 2019 have a high ACT or SAT score to receive a signing bonus, but the bonus will be only $4,000. The $7,000 signing bonuses were clearly not solving the math and science teacher recruiting problem, and it’s obvious that the $4,000 bonuses will not do any better.
Why did the Council fail to acknowledge the shortage of math and science teachers in its report? Perhaps the Council’s business DNA doesn’t allow the organization to advocate for the health of the teaching profession, which is largely unionized. Maybe the Council just isn’t very good at connecting dots. It’s really hard to say.
But it’s certain that having Florida’s business community arguing that the state’s teacher shortage should be addressed would be helpful in the 2020 legislative cycle, which begins (gulp!) in only four months. It’s frustrating that the Council of 100 missed an opportunity to do so.
The “Project Sunrise” report can be downloaded from the link below the figures.