The Florida Department of Education reported in September that in its annual Quality Counts report Education Week ranked Florida fourth in the nation for K-12 student achievement.
And earlier this year, US News and World Report ranked our state number one in the nation for higher education.
So why is Florida doing such a lousy job educating scientists and engineers?
The plot above shows the National Science Foundation’s measurement of the number of science and engineering bachelors’ degrees awarded per 1,000 18-24 year olds for 2017. Florida is ranked quite low for this. I’ve used the K-12 free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate for 2016-17 (from the National Center for Education Statistics) to sort the states by the economic status of the student population. The bottom line is that Florida is average for states in which there is a high degree of economic disadvantage among students.
For a state in which education leaders regularly crow about how the state’s education system overachieves, the result on bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields should be sobering. But in general it’s not. This issue never seems to get on the radar screen of any of the state’s educational leaders. Even education thought leaders like redefinedonline’s Matthew Ladner just never acknowledge that the issue exists. In fact, Ladner is a manic producer of graphs like I suppose I am – but he is much more hip than I am.
Of course, this issue is personal to me. I teach about 70 science and engineering majors in my calculus-based studio physics classes each semester. While those of us at universities bear some responsibility for making undergraduate engineering and science programs more accessible to students from a broad range of backgrounds, high school preparation is a problem. About 1/3 of the new students I have each fall haven’t had a high school physics course. Even in my hands-on studio-style course – which is designed around the evidence on how students learn so that every student has the best chance to succeed – the students without a high school class in the subject are at a disadvantage. I am told by my engineering colleagues that problems with students’ math preparation in high school often extends the time required to earn an engineering degree by a year – and those problems probably also cause some students to give up.
Black students are severely underrepresented among students who earn degrees in engineering, physics and computer science in the State University System institutions (although the situation for Hispanic students in this regard is significantly better in Florida than in the nation as a whole).
But outside my little bubble, there is little concern about this issue. As Ladner said in a recent post, “Florida’s NAEP scores up, high school graduation rates up, college graduation higher than the national average overall and across subgroups.”
To be fair, Ladner always says there is more work to do in Florida. But one thing I think I’ve learned during the last decade is that every K-12 education reform we implement hurts how we prepare students for college science and engineering majors – unless we make it an explicit priority to improve upper level math and science in the high schools. If you’re not focusing on making high school preparation for college STEM majors better, you’re making it worse.
One common objection to what I’m saying arises from the widely held perception that only a few elite (and mostly white and Asian-American) students have the innate intellectual ability to enter science and engineering professions. The objection is that it would be bad to waste effort and resources on these few privileged students. Instead, we should only focus our effort and resources on initiatives that benefit all students. But the impression that only a few elite students can be successful scientists and engineers is entirely wrong. Here in Florida, about 40% of our public school students succeed in Algebra 1 in middle school. Every one of those students could be a strong candidate for a career in science and engineering if they learn the math and science in high school that they need to succeed in college. Is there a long list of science and math courses this population of students should take in high school? Not really. Taking well-taught high school courses in chemistry and physics is important. For a middle school student who has succeeded in Algebra 1, taking well-taught courses in Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus is equally important. This isn’t a secret. It’s what the American Society for Engineering Education has been promoting forever.
But students of color – particularly black students – and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are still having trouble accessing these fields. What do we do about that? Orange County Public Schools has been showing the way for several years with its Calculus Project that recruits sixth graders who earned scores of 3 or above into 7th grade Algebra 1 and then provides intensive support for their learning. It’s not cheap, but it has had some success. And Orange County’s teachers and district staff are pursuing other activities to get kids from disadvantaged backgrounds excited about science and engineering careers and then to make sure they have the math and science skills to succeed when they arrive in university science and engineering programs.
What can we learn from Orange County and other districts that are successful in preparing high school students for college engineering and science majors like Bay, Brevard and Seminole Counties? All of those districts intentionally decided that opening the doors to these careers for students from all backgrounds should be a high priority, and they are willing to make policies and investments to back that priority up.
Unfortunately, at the state level the preparation of high school students for college engineering and science majors is not a priority, and the districts that do care are not getting any love or support from the state for their work in this effort. So enrollments in high school chemistry and physics courses continue to decline, and the shortage of teachers who can teach precalculus and calculus effectively continues to intensify. Given all that, there is little we can do at the college level to boost Florida’s production of scientists and engineers, and that little orange dot in the lower right part of the plot at the beginning of this post will not be moving anytime soon.