Bridge to Tomorrow is a tool to advocate for strong programs in the physical, Earth and space sciences in the K-12 schools in Florida and the nation. The primary author of this blog (PDC) became involved in this issue after new science standards were adopted by Florida’s State Board of Education in February 2008. The author, a physicist, was a member of the committee that drafted the standards during 2007-2008. He was joined on the committee by several professional scientists from the fields of physics, chemistry and the Earth and space sciences.
The standards written for the high school level in these fields were exemplary. If they are someday fully implemeted with the resources necessary for effective instruction, Florida will have the most scientifically literate high school graduates in the nation. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Florida Department of Education and some members of the Florida Legislature decided to set priorities among the sciences and chose to focus on biology, a move that would have further deemphasized the physical and Earth/space sciences in a state where high school science instruction is already weak. Bills were filed in the 2009 Florida Legislature that would have specified that the only science subject required for high school graduation be biology. In addition, the state’s high stakes high school science test, which presently includes material from all science fields in the state’s standards, would have been replaced by an end-of-course test in biology. If this legislative effort had been successful, cash-strapped school districts would have focused their high school science effort on biology and the fraction of Florida high school graduates having a physics course, at 16% already half the national average, would have declined further. A similar decline would have occured in the Earth and space sciences.
Without backgrounds in the physical and Earth/space sciences, graduates would not have the tools to understand the challenges facing our society in the areas of energy and global climate change. They would also not have the tools to pursue challenging college programs in engineering and the physical sciences, and capacity for innovation in Florida and the nation would decline further.
A group of 106 science professors from Florida’s colleges and universities responded to the legislative effort in the spring of 2009 with a letter to Governor Crist. The biology-only bills did not pass during that session, and a slightly smaller group of faculty (90, from 13 institutions and representing a range of disciplines from particle physics to occupational therapy) signed onto a proposal for high school graduation requirements in science during the summer.
The lack of emphasis on the physical sciences in the K-12 schools has had a particularly strong impact on the career choices of members of underrepresented minorities who might have pursued the engineering or scientific professions. Nationwide, only 10-15 African-Americans earn Ph.D.’s in physics each year (About 500 American citizens do so). An enormous national effort has been invested in achieving this level, which represents a doubling over the number from the late 1980’s. However, there can be little doubt that this effort has been handicapped by the tremendous achievement gap in science and math in the K-12 system. St. Petersburg Times education reporter Ron Matus reported in August 2009 that not a single African-American student in Florida earned the highest level (5) on Florida’s high stakes science tests at any of the three grade levels at which the test is given (5, 8 and 11) in 2009. However, as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) makes clear, this is not just a Florida problem – it is a national problem.
Bridge to Tomorrow will provide updates and reports on developments at the local, state and national levels.