If you want to identify the most reliable routes to economic security in the modern economy, look at a list of the twenty-five highest ranked college majors by salary for ages 25-59 as compiled by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) in 2015. As shown below, sixteen of the top twenty-five have the word “engineering” in them. Computer Science is ranked 11th. Physics is ranked 15th.
The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that high school students who might choose to major in engineering take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in high school. That high school formula works for physics and computer science as well. These are also important high school courses for students who might pursue careers in medicine, dentistry, physical therapy and (ahem) architecture.
Florida’s leaders profess to care about the economic opportunities that the state’s K-12 students will have when they go out into the big world. So enrollments in courses in chemistry and physics at the state’s public high schools should be shooting up, right? Well, they’re not. Physics enrollments in the Fall of 2018 were 12% lower than four years before. Chemistry enrollments were 14% lower than only three years before. Four years ago, a survey of state departments of education showed that Florida’s rate for high school physics enrollments was only about half the national rate, and clearly things have gotten worse since then.
In math, there is a different problem. To be on track to take a calculus course in high school, a student must take Algebra 1 in middle school. More than a third of Florida’s students now do so. But the access those students will have to calculus classes when they arrive in their junior or senior years of high school is being threatened by the intensifying shortage of teachers with the state’s Math 6-12 certification. The number of candidates taking the Math 6-12 exam for the first time in 2018 was 42% lower than it was in 2013.
The situation is much worse for black students. The underrepresentation of black students among those taking and passing Advanced Placement exams in calculus, physics and computer science is staggering – and there is no sign of signficant improvement. The underrepresentation of women among AP exam passers in physics and computer science is significant as well, as is the underrepresentation of Hispanic students.
For Florida to turn this situation around will require contributions from parents, teachers, school and district leaders and state policy-makers – all of them.
Parents will have to decide that they want their children to have the option of choosing careers in engineering, the physical sciences, computing, math, life and health sciences and architecture – and then they will have to become informed about how best to prepare their children for these careers. A small number of parents already know what courses to take in high school and insist that their children do so (and raise heck with administrators if they don’t offer these courses). But to provide access to these careers for students from homes where the parents are not STEM professionals – and especially those from lower income families – will require that we reach out to these parents to let them know about why these careers are attractive and how to prepare for them. Research by the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work showed that such outreach can be remarkably effective. And my own experience with parents at Bay County’s Mosley High School was extraordinary.
The biggest problem with parent outreach is that the cooperation of school and district leaders is necessary to have access to parents. And in my experience, many school and district leaders are reluctant to cooperate. The incentive system that Florida’s leaders have set up for the public schools certainly contributes to this reluctance. The state wants high school graduation rate maximized (whatever it takes). Schools and districts get credit when a student gets a college credit. But it doesn’t matter if that credit comes from passing an AP Physics exam or passing the low-level College Algebra course via dual enrollment – in the eyes of the state they are equivalent. In this system of incentives, taking a chance of ruffling the feathers of parents by suggesting that their kids would have more career opportunities open to them if they take calculus, chemistry and physics classes that the parents themselves refused to take in high school just doesn’t seem attractive to many school and district leaders.
Nevertheless, there are school and district leaders who summon the courage to challenge their parents and students. Bay County’s extraordinary rise (a factor of five increase in the high school physics enrollment, among other things) sets a high bar for that sort of courage. Orange County has already implemented the exemplary Calculus Project to broaden access to the STEM pipeline, and they are taking on the difficult task of rebuilding physics and chemistry enrollments as well.
Florida’s shortage of math and science teachers is part of a larger crisis in the state’s K-12 teaching corps that is driven by low salaries, a statewide testing program that is seen by many as all stick and no carrot, and sometimes problematic local leadership. K-12 budgets in Florida are so tight that no significant improvement in the teacher salary situation can take place without a major infusion of funds by the state’s Legislature. In addition, modifications to the state’s testing/accountability system can only be implemented by the Legislature. If the state makes changes to the salary and testing situations, school districts that are motivated to improve their students’ readiness for college STEM majors would have a greater opportunity to do so.
Meanwhile, the best we can do as advocates for improving the readiness of Florida’s high school students for college STEM majors is to make the strongest case we can whenever we are given the opportunity to do so. Even when we have such opportunities, we often fail to persuade our audiences. But once in a while, we succeed – and we have the satisfaction of knowing with certainty that there are students who benefit from those few successes.