Strong Schools v. Florida State Board of Education: Court decision whiffs on an important point.

Early in its opinion upholding a lower court ruling to dismiss the “adequacy suit” in which the plaintiffs claimed that Florida was not meeting its constitutional obligation to educate the state’s students properly, the First District Court of Appeals said this:

The most effective manner in which to teach students science, mathematics,
history, language, culture, classics, economics, trade skills, poetry, literature and
civic virtue have been debated since at least the time of ancient Greece. Brilliant
philosophers, thinkers, writers, poets and teachers over the past twenty-five
centuries have dedicated their talents to identifying the best means of providing a
proper education to help each child reach his or her highest potential in a just society.

Educators argue about the details, but we’ve known – certainly back to Socrates – how students learn best.  It’s why we still use the phrase “Socratic method” across disciplines to describe best teaching practices.

Students learn best when they interactively engage their peers and, ultimately, an expert in the subject they are trying to learn.  Passively watching a lecturer – whether that lecturer is in the same room (even if there are only a dozen students in the room) or on a computer or TV screen – is a recipe for “fluency illusion”.  Planting an isolated student in front of a workbook, or the equivalent on a computer screen, is equally ineffective.

The real point is this:  We know how students learn best.  What we have disagreed about is whether to provide students the opportunities to do so.  The problem is that providing students with optimum learning environments is expensive – in terms of both money and energy.

There have been plenty of failures to provide optimum learning environments at all levels and in all sectors.  We never seem to start from the basic question about how to provide the best learning environment for each child and then work up from there to the organizational and budget level.  Instead, we start from non-negotiable assertions like “We already spend enough money on schools”, or “Parents always know best”, or a determination to resist change in the public schools.  Educators and leaders who are willing to fight through normal human inertia to better prepare students for the world in which they are growing up are much too rare.

I will hope that the end of 2017 and the dawn of 2018 gives everyone who wants to do the right thing for Florida’s children a time to take a deep breath and reflect on the best way forward, even if the pause is brief.

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2017: A visual guide to the year in math and science education in Florida’s high schools

In 2017, Florida continued to be below average in preparing its students for college majors in STEM fields.  A dramatic increase in the numbers of 8th and 9th graders passing the spring administration of the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam provided a spark of hope for the future, but there were storm clouds approaching, too – a dramatic decline in the supply of new high school math teachers.

Florida compared poorly on the math and science sections of the ACT college entrance exam with other states in which more than 70% of high school graduates had taken the test.



Florida’s incentives for success on Advanced Placement exams continued to drive the state to a national leadership position in AP social science and arts exams.  But Florida is still below average – and far behind nation-leading Massachusetts – in AP math and science exams.


Not surprisingly, these math and science education deficits at the high school level propagate to the college level, too.  Florida lags the nation in the rate at which bachelors’ degrees in science, engineering and technology are conferred.


There was good news.  The number of 8th and 9th graders passing Florida’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam in the spring jumped dramatically.


But it’s not clear who will teach these students when they want to sign up for Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus classes.  The supply of new teachers qualified to teach these higher level math courses has been declining sharply since 2013.


The supply of new physics and chemistry teachers is down as well, but those subjects were taken off the state’s list of critical teacher shortage areas for 2017-18.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Florida high school physics enrollments in Spring 2017 were 5% lower than they were two years before.



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The toughest sort of accountability for high school teachers: I see what your students can do.

In a studio physics classroom, I get to know students relatively well.  I know where they went to high school.  I often know who their physics teachers are.  And of course I can see with a high degree of precision how well their high schools – and their high school teachers – prepared them for college.

You would think that when I congratulate a high school teacher in person for doing a great job with a student I’ve had that the reaction would be positive.  But I learned years ago (and many of these conversations ago) that even when the news is good that it makes the high school teacher quite uncomfortable.  You’d think I’d have learned by now to stop sharing this kind of news with high school teachers, but occasionally I forget and have to relearn the lesson that I should keep this good news to myself.

Comments from a college professor about a student that a high school teacher has had are a particularly personal sort of accountability – apparently too uncomfortably personal.  Of course, students come with baggage that their high school teachers had nothing to do with.  But after 31 years here, I’ve learned to sort the effects of schooling from everything else that a student brings to college.

In many cases, the students I see have problems that could not possibly have had anything to do with a high school physics teacher – because the student never took high school physics.  The blame for the failures of the one-third of engineering, physical science and computer science majors I see who did not have a high school physics class goes to their high schools’ guidance counselors and administrators.

But the bottom line is that no one – and no high school – should brag about how many students it sends to college or even how many start as engineering majors at the beginning of the first year.  That is irrelevant.  What a strong high school should brag about is how well its graduates do once they are in college, and particularly in the toughest and most rewarding majors available like engineering, the physical sciences and computer science.


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Exodus from Florida public schools predicted before 2008 science standards adoption never materialized

Nearly a decade ago – on February 19, 2008 – Florida’s State Board of Education adopted new science standards for the K-12 schools that explicitly included biological evolution by a narrow 4-3 vote.

Just before the vote, ten individuals opposing the proposed standards and ten supporting them spoke to the board.  The final speaker opposing the proposed standards was John Stemberger, who was then and continues to be the President of the Florida Family Policy Council.  During his remarks, Stemberger warned that thousands of parents who were members of evangelical churches would withdraw their children from the public schools if the proposed standards were adopted.

While some evangelical parents (and parents from other faith traditions) have chosen to have their children educated in schools tied to their churches, there hasn’t been a mass exodus from the public schools since the 2007-2008 school year, during which the SBOE meeting was held.


The plot compares the numbers of students in three K-12 sectors – public, private and homeschooled – as percentages of the total of the three sectors for the 2007-2008 and 2016-2017 school years.  The numbers come from the Florida Department of Education website.

The market shares held by the three sectors have changed only slightly in the decade since the SBOE science standards vote.  The public school share (which includes charters) has edged down from 87.1% to 86.1%.  Private schools have risen only slightly from 11.0% to 11.3%, despite the rapid growth in state-supported scholarships for private school students.  The number of homeschooled students has risen substantially from 56,650 to 87,462, but as a percentage of the total the increase is small (1.9% to 2.7%).



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Legislative committee hosts discussion of tax credit scholarship program: Prospects for safety and financial oversight reform, but not for academic issues

Panelists at yesterday’s meeting of the PreK-12 Innovation Committee of the Florida House of Representatives suggested that the state should invest in improving oversight of safety and financial issues in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  However, they resisted academic reforms, arguing that the wide variation in the effectiveness of instructional practices and the qualifications of instructional staff was a feature of the program and not a bug.

Both the Orlando Sentinel and the Step Up For Students website carried accounts of the meeting.  Remarkably, both agreed that the suggestions made about improving oversight of safety and financial issues would be significant if legislation including them is passed and signed into law.

There was little discussion about academic issues during the meeting.  Adam Peshek of the advocacy organization ExelinEd argued that improving the exchange of information among parents on social media sites similar to Yelp would adequately address the academic quality issue (see his slide below).


A slide illustrating the use of parent views to regulate school options from a presentation by ExcelinEd’s Adam Peshek to the PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee of the Florida House on December 6.

Reporting by the Orlando Sentinel about schools accepting tax credit scholarships revealed instructional practices in which students spent much of their time in physical partitions doing workbook exercises and individuals hired as teachers and administrators who had not earned college degrees.

The Florida Catholic Conference was represented by Associate Director for Education James Herzog.  He highlighted the academic strengths of the state’s Catholic schools, but limited his suggestions for improving the program to safety and financial issues.  During the 2016-17 school year, 28% of the state’s 86,000 Catholic school students were supported by state scholarships.

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Why the “graduate student tax” being considered by Congress is an awful idea

FSU graduate student Brittany Fuzia decided while she was still in high school that she wanted to be a research physicist.

Brittany’s family had moved from school to school in different parts of the nation. Finally she graduated from East Islip High School on Long Island and became the first in her family to attend college by attending Valdosta State University, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in physics. Then Brittany joined FSU’s world-class astrophysics program to perform her dissertation research and complete the pursuit of her dream.

Now it appears there may be a new and unexpected obstacle for Brittany and other aspiring researchers like her – a tripling of her tax bill resulting from the mammoth tax package now being considered by Congress.

To pay her rent and buy groceries, Brittany receives an assistantship from FSU. This semester, she served as a teaching assistant in the university’s studio physics program, teaching undergraduates who aspire to be engineers, scientists and computer professionals.

If all of the hours that Brittany spends working on her teaching and research are accounted for, she makes only about a dollar per hour more than minimum wage. She already pays the same federal income tax that any other individual making the same wage pays. That is not the problem.

The problem is that a proposal being considered by Congress would tax Brittany for money she never sees – the “tuition waiver” that the university uses to account for Brittany’s research work.

Brittany is a graduate student, so FSU must process a tuition payment for her academic credits – even though she takes no classes. But because she is a teaching assistant, Brittany’s tuition “payment” is simply a transfer from one university account to another – the so-called “tuition waiver”.

The proposal being considered by Congress would require Brittany to pay income tax on that tuition waiver.

Other graduate students who serve as full-time researchers – and whose tuition is paid by federal grants – are in the same predicament.

Like everybody else, graduate students need food and a warm, dry place to sleep. Their assistantships provide just enough to cover that. Taxing Brittany several thousand more dollars per year for income she doesn’t even receive might make it impossible for her to meet living expenses and might force her out of her doctoral program just short of her dream of earning a Ph.D.

The nation’s economy is a big winner when Brittany and other students like her earn Ph.D.’s in fields like physics. About one-third of new Ph.D. graduates in physics join the private sector economy as powerful innovators in fields like computing and materials science. Others pursue research careers at universities and national laboratories, developing technological tools that spin off into the broader economy.

The bottom line is that allowing Brittany to achieve her dream of a Ph.D. in physics is good for Florida and good for the nation. Making it impossible for her to continue through an inexplicable change to the tax code makes no sense for anyone.

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I am bracing for heartbreak at this morning’s legislative committee meeting on the tax credit scholarship program

Update (Wednesday evening):  I’m still trying to digest today’s committee meeting.  I found it predictably disappointing.  But the Orlando Sentinel saw some progress.  Here is their article on the meeting.

In a few hours, the PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives will be meeting to discuss the status of the tax credit scholarship program.  This meeting is being held partly (at least) in response to the Orlando Sentinel’s reporting on the harm being done to some students in the program through the lack of qualified educators and exposure to outright physical peril.

In principle, the meeting is an opportunity to announce a reform effort that would address the situations revealed in the Sentinel’s series on the issues.  But a scan through the materials made available in advance of the meeting suggests that the two-hour discussion will simply provide a defense of the program’s status quo and will even warn against the implementation of any significant reforms.

I am bracing myself against the near-certainty that my heart will be broken by what is said this morning.  There are individuals involved in the tax credit scholarship program who I have respected and even liked for years.  I don’t understand how they can participate in what we are seeing.

My own Catholic Church has taken advantage of the tax credit scholarship program to grow its schools and reach out to disadvantaged populations.  Yet for the last few months, the church’s Florida leaders have declined to address the tragic situations described by the Sentinel.  I am predisposed to respect my church’s leadership on issues such as the ones that will be discussed this morning.  But I simply will be unable to accept inaction on their part, if that is all they offer.

Several people close to me have been astonished at my reaction to the events of the last few months.  It’s likely that whatever emotional energy I’ve invested in this has been wasted.

But we are talking about children whose life opportunities have been robbed from them by savvy con artists who are able to coax their parents into poor decisions.  What we have seen should be enough to debunk the endlessly repeated mantra that parents are always right.  I made (or was prevented from making by my very wise spouse) a very long list of really poor decisions about the education of my children.  Why should we expect that anybody can ever get all of those decisions right?

Everything I’ve typed here will be outdated in a few hours.  When I hit “Publish” in a few moments it will be yet another bad decision – to clog up my already-challenged blog with emotional rubbish.  But there it is.  I am bracing myself for a deeply discouraging morning.


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