2018: A visual guide to math and science education in Florida’s middle and high schools

The sciences that form the foundation for engineering, meteorology and similar disciplines continued to decline in Florida’s public high schools during the 2017-18 school year.  Physics enrollments declined 8% over three years, while chemistry enrollments declined 9% in just two years.  Teacher shortages and the lack of awareness by parents, students, counselors and administrators about the importance of these subjects for college STEM majors may be contributing to the decline.

The physics and chemistry enrollment data in the two plots below come from the Florida Department of Education web site.

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We hope to have enrollment numbers for Fall 2018 early in the new year.

The number of middle school students passing Florida’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam continued to grow in the Spring of 2018.  Students who pass Algebra 1 in middle school are on track to take at least one year of calculus in high school, giving them strong preparation for college majors like engineering, physics and computer science.

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But the opportunities to learn Algebra 1 in middle school are not the same for all students.  In some school districts, black middle school students took and passed Algebra 1 students at much lower rates than other students.  While Collier and Orange Counties were broadly successful with their middle school Algebra 1 programs and did nearly as well with their black students, some other school districts like Sarasota and St. Johns did a much poorer job with their black students than they did with other students.

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Once again, the Algebra 1 EOC results come from the Florida Department of Education web site – this time the department’s EdStats portal.

Once all of these students who passed the Algebra 1 EOC move on to Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus courses, they’ll need teachers with Florida’s Math 6-12 certification.  The problem is that there are fewer and fewer individuals taking and passing the certification exam – and entering the teaching profession (see graph below).  Solving the shortage of teachers in math and science (and other fields) should be policy-makers’ highest priority.

The FTCE results are from the Florida Department of Education’s report on this subject.

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Florida’s educational leaders love to brag on the success the state’s high school students have on Advanced Placement exams.  And those leaders are right to a point – Florida students are national leaders on AP social science exams and do well on exams in English, arts and world languages.  But on AP math and science exams, Florida is merely average.  And average is a bad place for students to be in 2018.

In the graph below, Florida’s performance on AP exams is compared to national rates and the nation’s leader, Massachusetts.  The data come from the College Board’s AP 2018 Performance and Participation page.

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AP exam results in calculus, computer science and physics also tell us something important about the pipeline to careers in these fields.  The red bars in the graph below shows the percentages of black students, Hispanic students and girls in Florida’s K-12 schools.  The green bars show the percentages of AP exam passers who are in these groups.  Girls are significantly underrepresented in computer science and physics.  Black students are tremendously underrepresented among the AP exam passers in those subjects.

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These AP data have consequences.  In 2015-16, women earned 20% or less of the bachelors’ degrees in computing, engineering and physics awarded in the State University System.  Only 7% of the engineering bachelors’ degrees in the system were earned by black students.  There was a significant shortfall in Hispanic bachelor’s degree grads in math and physics as well.  These data came from the Florida Board of Governors web site.

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Florida’s poor performance in preparing high school students for college STEM majors is reflected in the state’s workforce.  The state ranks 39th among states and DC in the percentage of the employed workforce that are in science and engineering occupations.  In engineering, Florida is ranked 43rd.  Data are from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators.

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Rebuilding the teaching profession in Florida is the K-12 issue that matters most. Will the 2019 session of the Florida Legislature address that?

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The education transition team appointed by Florida’s Governor-elect Ron DeSantis met for the first time this past Thursday and discussed (according to Jeff Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times) choice, accountability, personalization and metrics.

None of that stuff will matter if the state’s schools can’t recruit, develop and retain enough great teachers to educate every child. And Florida is doing a lousy job of that now.

The teacher issue certainly wasn’t featured at Thursday’s meeting. It should have been front and center.

I’ll risk alienating my readers (both of them) by saying this: I want great teachers everywhere, in all educational sectors. I want great teachers in charter schools, Catholic schools and other schools receiving state scholarships. And of course I want more great teachers in our traditional district schools.

From my perch at the postsecondary end of the STEM pipeline, it looks to me like all three sectors – private, charter and traditional district schools – are falling short on making sure every math and science classroom is led by a teacher who is equipped to give each student the best opportunity to fulfill her or his potential.

If every teacher at every charter, private and traditional public school has a deep understanding of her or his subject and the training, personality and physical tools to build a strong educational relationship with each student, then accountability, personalization and metrics will take care of themselves.  That’s why every discussion of educational policy should start by addressing the issue of teacher recruiting and retention instead of backing into the subject of teachers only after all the usual education policy buzzwords have been said by everyone.

What do teachers want? Or…what do our strong students want in order to enter the teaching profession? The American Physical Society’s survey of undergraduates in chemistry, computer science, math and physics and early career teachers in those fields provides a start in answering those questions. It was a national survey and not Florida-specific, but it’s likely the most important issues in our state can still be glimpsed in the results.

According to the survey, the four things that early career teachers of chemistry, computer science, math and physics like least about teaching are hostile or unresponsive administrators, excessive non-teaching obligations, the long hours and the low salaries. Next on the same list are state mandated testing, lack of respect for the teaching profession and disruptive and unruly students.

Among undergraduates who had at least a slight interest in teaching, the survey found that the most effective way to sway them to enter the profession is higher salaries.

None of this should surprise anyone. You’d almost certainly get the same answers by listening to your local teachers – but if you took the time to listen to them you’d learn much more, too.

Let’s be clear about one thing: There are some outstanding individuals in the K-12 teaching profession, despite all the disincentives to enter the profession in the first place and to stay once there. These outstanding educators stay because they know they are making a difference.  We need more individuals just like them to become teachers and stay.  Removing some of those disincentives would help.

I hope the 2019 session of the Florida Legislature is The Teacher Session. Rebuilding the teaching profession in Florida is the K-12 issue that matters most.

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For nearly everybody, earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field is hard. So what should STEM in the K-12 schools look like?

For almost everybody, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering is hard.  So is earning a bachelor’s degree in physics or computer science or chemistry or biology or math or statistics.  Just to be clear:  Students can become really good professional engineers, scientists and mathematicians even if they find undergraduate work in these fields challenging.

Most students who succeed in persisting through the struggles of courses in calculus, physics, programming and engineering fundamentals to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field have two things in common.

First, they come to college well-prepared for their college STEM majors.  They’ve taken a first calculus course like the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course.  They’ve taken a well-taught high school physics course so they can get some traction in their college physics classes.  They’ve had a strong chemistry course as well.  Somehow these students were guided by their parents, counselors or teachers into taking the math and science courses in middle and high school that got them to the point where they had the best possible chance to succeed in their college STEM programs.

Second, they’ve arrived at college excited about becoming engineers or computer scientists or mathematicians or physicists.  Here’s a dirty little secret:  If you are not excited about becoming an engineer or physicist or health professional or computer scientist, you simply aren’t going to stay home on Thursday nights working problems or writing programs while the Interdisciplinary Social Science majors (and many others) are out partying.  And you’re not going to work more problems or debug your program on Saturday afternoon while those same social science majors (and others) are napping to recover from Friday night’s activities so they can repeat the same activities on Saturday night.

Building up the passion for engineering or science or mathematics necessary to persist to a bachelor’s degree in one of those fields doesn’t happen overnight, at least for most students.  It sometimes takes years of getting excited over electric circuits in fifth grade, or learning about weather in middle school, or taking engineering design classes in high school.  That’s one of the reasons why Lainie Clowers’s motor-building activities are so important at Dream Lake Elementary School in Apopka and why launching rockets and running robotics competitions on a Super STEM Saturday at Apopka High School is worth the enormous effort by teachers and administrators necessary to make it happen.

But it’s worth remembering that the fun stuff by itself is not enough to give a student a fighting chance of completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering, physics, biology or computer science.  Without the high school courses in calculus, chemistry and physics needed to prepare for college STEM majors, all of the effort invested in STEM festivals is wasted.

I was prompted to think about all of this today by a tweet from STEM podcaster Chris Woods, who tweeted, “…and who says #STEM has to be all difficult…”  Of course, Chris is right – if it’s ALL difficult and joyless then no one will want to do it.  But for nearly everyone there are no shortcuts to becoming a scientist or engineer and there are going to be some unpleasant times along the way.  Perhaps it is worth looking at it this way, though:  A student had better have a large reservoir of excitement and passion to clear the obstacles she or he will face in high school and college courses in math, science and engineering.

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Florida’s science and engineering workforce lags behind the nation

Florida’s science and engineering workforce is smaller than those of most states when measured as a percentage of the state’s total workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.

Of all those employed in Florida in 2017, 3.49% were employed in science and engineering occupations.  This is lower than the national rate of 4.83% and ranks Florida 39th among the 50 states plus DC.

The National Science Foundation includes engineers and scientists in the computer, mathematical, life, physical and social science fields in their count.  They also include postsecondary teachers in these fields. Science and engineering managers, technicians, elementary and secondary schoolteachers, and medical personnel are not included.

Florida’s standing in the nation for the total science and engineering workforce and in each of the component fields are shown below.

The fields included in the Foundation’s count of science and engineering occupations are among the best paid and most economically robust, and the low number of individuals in these fields is a negative for Florida’s economy.

The relatively small role played by science and engineering in Florida’s economy might explain in part the lack of interest by policy-makers in improving the preparation of the state’s students for careers in these fields.  The state does a poor job of preparing K-12 students for college STEM majors.

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USF to hold “STEM Engaged Teaching” workshop featuring Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman

The University of South Florida will hold a workshop on February 15 to promote the improvement of college-level science teaching.  The workshop will feature Physics Nobel Laureate and college science teaching reform advocate Carl Wieman.

The workshop will begin at 9:00 am in the ballroom of the Marshall Student Center and will end with a “Meet and Greet Dinner” at 4:00 pm.

Two talks by Wieman on improving college science teaching – one at the opening of the workshop and one at the conclusion – will bookend the workshop.  The workshop will also feature several panels of USF science, engineering and math faculty who have already implemented evidence-based teaching improvements in their classes.

Wieman is on the faculty of Stanford University and holds appointments in the Department of Physics, the Graduate School of Education and the School of Engineering.  In 2001, he jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics with Eric Cornell and Wolfgang Ketterle for fundamental studies of the Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Since then, Wieman has focused on improving science teaching through the implementation of evidence-based classroom strategies.  He also founded the PhET program for instructional simulations.

Wieman’s visit to USF will follow a day-long visit on February 14th to FSU, where he is scheduled for a series of meetings with administrators and select faculty members.

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The PhET electric field simulation.

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How to fix Florida’s teacher certification system: Let the state decide whether a candidate knows the subject, but let the districts decide whether a candidate can teach. And get rid of the General Knowledge Exam.

As teacher shortages continue in the Florida, it makes sense to reevaluate and perhaps revise the state’s process for certifying teachers.  It’s worth seriously considering a significant restructuring of the process.

According to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), to earn Florida’s higher level certification, the “professional” certificate, a candidate must hold a bachelor’s degree and qualify in three areas:

  1. Demonstrate Mastery of Subject Area Knowledge,
  2. Demonstrate Mastery of General Knowledge; and,
  3. Demonstrate Mastery of Professional Preparation and Education Competence

The “Mastery of Subject Area Knowledge” is demonstrated by passing an exam that is administered by the FLDOE.  For example, to become certified as a physics teacher in Florida a candidate must pass the Physics 6-12 (signifying the subject and grades) teacher certification (FTCE) exam that is developed in consultation with physics educators from both the high school and college levels.  The passing rate for the physics exam is just over 50%, as it has been for many years.  Most of the exams in other subjects have much higher passing rates than physics.

The second area, “Mastery of General Knowledge”, has become a flash point of controversy since the state’s FTCE General Knowledge exam was revised in 2015 to reflect higher expectations for candidate knowledge in language arts and math – thus causing a much higher percentage of candidates to fail the exam.  In 2014, the passing rates among first-time examinees for the four General Knowledge exam sections were 93% for the essay, 90% for English language skills, 85% for reading, and 80% for math.  With the higher expectations for competency in 2015, those passing rates dropped to 63% for the essay, 67% for English language skills, 56% for reading, and 57% for math.

How high are the expectations for the General Knowledge exam?  The “Competencies and Skills” for which the exam is written are given here.  The math competencies are those that a good math student should have mastered in high school.

Nevertheless, it is valid to ask whether a drama teacher (yes, Florida certifies Drama 6-12 teachers) really needs to have strong skills in algebra and geometry.  Is it worth the expense and effort required to maintain a statewide General Knowledge exam that requires drama teachers to have these math skills?  Is it worth the drama?

Finally, the FLDOE has authority to decide whether a teaching candidate has the “Professional Preparation and Education Competence” to be granted professional certification.  The department regulates this by requiring that nearly all candidates for professional certification pass through teacher preparation programs that the department reviews and approves.  The department approves traditional teacher education programs at colleges and universities in which students earn professional certification while earning degrees.  Other organizations such as school districts operate “alternative certification” programs that allow individuals with bachelors’ degrees who have not passed through the traditional teacher education programs to earn professional certificates.

Many of the teachers and district officials I’ve talked with during the last several years have serious doubts about the value of some of the elements that the FLDOE requires teacher education programs to have.  In addition, many of these same people have told me that the most important skill that teachers must have is classroom management, and that the FLDOE neglects this aspect of teacher education.

Districts often make significant investments of effort in helping teachers with “temporary certification” earn professional certificates.  An individual who holds a bachelor’s degree and who can demonstrate competence in a particular subject area either through academic work or by passing the certification test in that subject can be granted a temporary teaching certificate, which is good for three years.  To continue teaching after those three years, the individual must complete the requirements for a professional certificate, including completing a teacher education program approved by the FLDOE.  Often that is done by an alternative certification program run by the school district or a local community college.

There is a specific exception to that rule.  A teacher who has been teaching on a temporary certificate can skip the teacher preparation program if or he has:

Documentation of a master’s or higher degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field, certification in a grades 6-12 STEM area, a highly effective performance evaluation rating based on student performance on a state or national assessment for an approved STEM high school course and a passing score on the Florida Professional Education Test earned no more than ten (10) years from the date of application.

But it’s worth restating this:  What the school districts want from their teachers and what the FLDOE requires in teacher education programs don’t completely overlap.  There are elements that FLDOE requires in teacher education programs that at least some district officials and teachers believe are not helpful.  And there are things that teachers and district officials would like their teachers to master that are not required for teacher education programs by the FLDOE.

So how should Florida’s teacher certification process be restructured?

Let’s start with this question:  Should we allow school districts to make their own decisions about who they want teaching in their classrooms?

Given the complaints I have heard over the years from teachers and district officials about FLDOE-approved teacher education programs, it may be time to end the FLDOE’s involvement in “Professional Preparation and Educator Competence”.  Let the districts decide who is a good teacher and who isn’t.

We should also allow the districts to decide whether they are willing to employ a drama teacher who can’t solve a system of linear equations.  The General Knowledge exam should be terminated.

What the FLDOE does well and should continue to do is certify the subject area knowledge of teaching candidates.  How much math should an elementary school teacher know?  Put it in the FTCE Elementary Education exam.  Should art teachers know some geometry?  Put it in the certification exam for art teachers.

Would simplifying the teacher certification process like this improve the supply of teachers?  Probably not – at least not very much.  The concerns that many teachers have with the academic accountability system, frustrations with school leadership and financial hardship imposed by Florida’s low-balled teacher salaries would still remain.

But at least the state’s K-12 schools would have one or two fewer distractions from their core mission of helping all students reach their full potential.

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What should FSU do to give students in underrepresented groups a better chance to succeed in mathematically intensive majors?

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A Studio Physics Program class at FSU.  The Studio Physics Program uses the SCALE-UP instructional model, which dramatically improves learning gains for all students but in particular gives students from underrepresented groups a better chance to gain traction.

My university’s leaders are genuinely concerned about the particular difficulties that women, black students and low-income students face in mathematically-intensive STEM programs and their rates of success. And they want to do something about those difficulties.

If you (dear readers – both of you) were in a position of leadership at my university, which of the following three options would you choose?

a) Provide serious incentives for faculty to adopt teaching strategies that research says promote success among women, black students and low-income students, and celebrate the work of those faculty who have already invested the effort to implement those strategies;

b) Work with high schools to better prepare their women, black students and low-income students for college STEM majors by coaxing them (and their parents) into taking courses in precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics, as organizations like the American Society for Engineering Education recommend; or,

c) Discourage faculty and academic departments from giving students failing grades, regardless of the students’ performance level in their classes.

If you picked “c”, you are ready to start working in my university’s administration. That’s what they picked.

If you are here at FSU, you might be shouting at your computer screen something like, “Paul! That’s not fair! Improving science teaching is a high priority for the university! That’s why we have a (fairly) new Center for the Advancement of Teaching!” Indeed, we have a (fairly) new Center for the Advancement of Teaching. It runs reading groups for faculty and a program of hiring and deploying undergraduate learning assistants. And it distributes teaching advice to faculty via e-mail.

Is the center’s program working? As far as I am aware, our decade-old hands-on SCALE-UP introductory physics program, which serves about 250 students each semester, hasn’t been replicated in any other academic department on campus. The research on how SCALE-UP improves the performance of women and students from underrepresented minorities was recently featured in Physics Today – and the article included a picture from one of our own SCALE-UP classes (see bottom of this post). In addition, our SCALE-UP program implemented a learning assistant program years before the center was established.

My Physics Department’s SCALE-UP program hasn’t grown in years in part because few of my colleagues want to teach in a way that is so uncomfortably different from the lectures courses they cut their teeth on as students. A senior colleague from another science department told me recently that he had no interest in teaching a studio-style course (like our SCALE-UP classes). But he assured me that he is a member of one of the center’s reading groups, and he was surprised that didn’t impress me.

You can hardly blame my colleagues in Physics and in other science departments for their lack of interest in implementing their own SCALE-UP classes. During the decade our SCALE-UP program in the Physics Department has been in existence, the university’s media relations office has not written one word about it. None of the professors working in the program has even been nominated for a teaching award. I’ve even spoken with academic advisors in other departments who have advised students not to take the SCALE-UP version of an introductory physics course and to choose the still-available lecture version instead. Why? One of these advisors told me that students were more accustomed to taking lecture classes and that she couldn’t justify advising these students to “take a chance” on a different type of class.

And now, if you ask one of my colleagues what the university administration wants her or him to do about improving teaching, the answer you get will probably be, “Our administration wants us to stop giving D’s and F’s for course grades. If I do that, my bosses will be happy.” Under these circumstances, why “take a chance” on teaching a SCALE-UP class?

That isn’t to say that the university leadership hasn’t taken our SCALE-UP program seriously. Between the costs of renovating two obsolete learning spaces into SCALE-UP classrooms and the cost of lab equipment, FSU has probably spent a million dollars on the program during the last ten years. But to maximize the return on its investment, university leaders should have provided recognition for the successes of the program and incentives for other faculty to join the program or to replicate it in other departments. These leaders are continuing to fail to do so.

Meanwhile, a decade after the SCALE-UP program was established in my Physics Department, a new round of debate has broken out over the program’s merits. I am a natural pessimist, so you should probably take my worries over the continued survival of the program with a grain of salt. But there is plenty of irony in the fact that while the university crows about its emphasis on improving undergraduate science teaching those of us who have gone the farthest in our teaching reform journey are more uncomfortable with our standing on campus now than we have been in years.

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A page from the article on gender issues in the March 2018 issue of Physics Today that includes a picture from FSU’s Studio Physics Program (above left).

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