School Choice and Competition: Indeed, A Good Thing (A response from Bay Haven Charter Academy)

After my post comparing Lynn Haven’s Mosley High School with North Bay Haven Career Academy was published, I received word that the Bay Haven Charter Academy administration had some concerns with it.  I offered to post a response and to visit North Bay Haven to learn more about their programs.  Here is the response from Bay Haven’s Chief Academic Officer, Larry Bolinger.  I am looking forward to visiting with Mr. Bolinger and others soon. 

I want to thank Dr. Cottle for his offer to allow me to respond to his recent post comparing two high schools in Bay County: Mosley and North Bay Haven. Being the third principal of Mosley High School (1994-96), I can certainly agree with Dr. Cottle’s assessment of Mosley’s many successful academic programs.

I can also say the same of North Bay Haven and respectfully disagree with his view on North Bay Haven, for it offers many equally successful academic programs.

Dr. Cottle has graciously offered to visit North Bay and meet with us, so that we may share with him firsthand our many successes. We look forward to his visit!


Larry R. Bolinger

Chief Education Officer
Bay Haven Charter Academy, Inc.


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School choice and competition: In Bay County’s Lynn Haven, Mosley High School beats the charter competition hands down.

Like it or not, competition between traditional district schools and charter schools is a feature of education life in many Florida communities.

Bay County’s City of Lynn Haven is one of those communities.  The city’s traditional district high school, Mosley High School, is in a duel with North Bay Haven Career Academy, located five miles to the northeast.  North Bay Haven opened its school in 2010 and graduated its first class in 2014.

But when it comes to preparing students for college, there is no competition:  Mosley is a better choice because it prepares its college-bound students to choose any major once they arrive at college.

In contrast, North Bay Haven doesn’t even properly prepare students in its engineering, health science and marine science academies for college majors in those fields.

On Tuesday evening, I met with a group of rising 9th graders (and their parents) who will be attending Mosley High School and entering the school’s MAPPS (Mosley AP Program for Success) program to talk about preparing for college.  Nearly all of these students attended one of the Bay Haven system’s middle schools.  Some chose to attend Mosley instead of North Bay Haven.  Others would have preferred to attend North Bay Haven but “lost” in the lottery that determines which students will attend the charter high school – there are many more 8th graders in the Bay Haven middle schools than there are spots for 9th graders in the North Bay Haven high school.

The irony is that the students I saw on Tuesday evening who “lost” the Bay Haven lottery actually won for their academic futures.

The members of the Mosley community who spoke before me on Tuesday evening are totally dialed into the goal of preparing every college-bound student to choose any major once they arrive in college.  That included not just the Mosley counselors and administrators who spoke, but even the President of the MAPPS parent advisory council, Joanna Taylor.

What does preparing to choose any major mean?   In science and math, it means taking high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and – if possible – calculus.

The American Society for Engineering Education says that proper preparation for a college major in engineering includes all of those courses.

Undergraduate preparation for professional schools in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy includes lots of chemistry and two semesters of physics, as well as “college-level” math.

Requirements for a bachelor of science degree in computer science generally include lots of mathematics and two semesters of physics.

Even a student who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology – including marine science – is required to take calculus, physics and lots of chemistry as an undergraduate.

How is Mosley doing in preparing its students for these majors?  The school’s chemistry enrollment has tripled in the last two years, and it is now one of Northwest Florida’s leaders in chemistry enrollment rate.  Its physics enrollment has increased by a factor of ten in the last two years.  Calculus enrollments are up as well.

And the competition at North Bay Haven?  According to the school’s curriculum guide, physics isn’t even offered.  So the students in the school’s engineering academy aren’t being prepared properly for college majors in engineering.  And the same can be said for students in the school’s health and marine science academies.

In fact, if a North Bay Haven graduate arrives at the University of Florida intending to major in engineering, the student will be told that she or he has not met the high school physics prerequisite for the first introductory physics course required for engineering majors.  As the excerpt from syllabus for that course at UF shown below demonstrates, the student will be directed to take a “liberal studies” physics course first – and the student will lose a semester.


North Bay Haven is not the only school to mislead its students with an engineering-without-physics program.  Last fall, the Superintendent of Schools in a large southwest Florida district stated during a public school board meeting that her district’s engineering academy students don’t have room in their schedules for physics and calculus.  But that is no excuse.  North Bay Haven is harming its students’ futures by its inattention to the challenges its students will face in college.

I need to make a clarification about my own point of view here.  I am not anti-charter school.  I’ve maintained a working relationship with a charter school in Orlando since 2012.  One of the state’s leading school choice advocates once called me a “school choice agnostic” because I really don’t care if a school is a traditional public school, a charter school or even a private school – all I care about is whether a school is preparing its students properly for college.  Mosley is doing an excellent job.  North Bay Haven is not.

There really is no competition here – Mosley wins hands down.




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Why Florida’s physics educators should care when a Silicon Valley high school drops physics

When a Florida high school drops physics, it’s a dog-bites-man story – unlikely to get anyone other than me and perhaps a local teacher or two excited.  After all, physics enrollments in Florida’s public high schools have declined 8% over the last three years.  The last time I checked – Fall 2015 – 24 Florida high schools with more than 1,000 students didn’t offer physics.  Many of the state’s rural districts don’t offer physics, either.

But the news that a Silicon Valley high school, San Jose’s James Lick High School, is dropping physics feels different.  Silicon Valley is the world’s technological capital.  Its empire is built on a foundation of classical electrodynamics, quantum mechanics and materials science.

The fact that James Lick High School is populated largely by low income Hispanic students provides an explanation but not an excuse.  Clearly, school and district leaders decided they had more important things to do with faculty effort than to teach physics to poor kids.

And then there is this:  the person after whom the school is named, James Lick, made a large monetary contribution to the University of California in the late 19th century to establish an astronomy program.  The university’s Lick Observatory is named for him.



Aerial view of Lick Observatory from the observatory’s web site

The Northern California/Nevada section of the American Association of Physics Teachers is putting up the best fight they can to reinstate physics at James Lick High.  They approved a statement (inserted below) arguing that dropping physics would cause educational inequities at James Lick.  Indeed, without physics at James Lick, the 9th graders who walk in the school’s doors for the first time this fall would have little chance of entering the engineering and science professions for which there is so much demand right near their homes.

If high school physics opportunities are being eroded in Silicon Valley, what chance do we have here in Florida to expand such opportunities?  That’s why Florida’s community of physics educators should pay attention to what’s happening at James Lick High School.  If Silicon Valley no longer cares about preparing high school students for college majors in STEM fields, it is a dark day for all of us.




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As many as four FSU Physics grads will be entering high school teaching next year – but they are bypassing the College of Education

As many as four new graduates of the FSU Physics Department will be teaching in Florida high schools next year.  That’s a big number.  In the 2016-2017 academic year, only nine physics departments nationwide placed more new graduates into high school teaching positions, according to the American Physical Society.

There is a twist to this story, though.  None of the new physics teachers from FSU will have graduated from the university’s formal teacher preparation program for math and science, called FSU-Teach.  Instead, all were attracted to the teaching profession by two school districts – Orange County and Bay County – that visited the Physics Department to talk with students directly, bypassing the College of Education altogether.

A delegation of three Orange County Public Schools leaders visited the FSU Physics Department on March 29 and spoke with an audience of about twenty students, almost all of them physics majors.

The chair of the Bay County School Board and the district’s then-HR director visited the Physics Department last spring.

In contrast, FSU-Teach, which is a site for the national UTeach program that originated at the University of Texas-Austin, hasn’t graduated a physics teacher since 2012.  Only two physics teachers have graduated from FSU-Teach since its inception in 2008.

FSU-Teach, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this Saturday with a barbecue, does not presently have an option for students to become physics teachers.  The College of Education administration terminated that option last fall.  Negotiations are underway between FSU-Teach and the Physics Department to restore that option.

Statewide, teacher preparation programs based at colleges and universities supply only a small fraction of the math and science teachers needed by school districts.  Florida’s 2017-18 Critical Teacher Shortage Area Report estimated that the teacher preparation programs were supplying only 13% of the teachers that districts needed in the physical sciences (chemistry and physics) and only 44% of the teachers needed in math.  A broader view of the results from the report is shown below.

Florida has been a leader for years in alternative certification routes, which school districts like Bay and Orange Counties are using to induct new teachers like those they are recruiting from the FSU Physics Department.





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Young Catholics are leaving the Church because they think that Church teaching on cosmology and evolution is in conflict with science, even though it’s not. How can this problem be fixed?

I wrote the piece below on (approximately) the tenth anniversary of the adoption of Florida’s K-12 science standards and the publication of my article about my experience on the standards committee in America Magazine.  I submitted this piece to America, and it was rejected within 48 hours.  I guess lightning wasn’t going to strike twice.  But you might find it interesting, anyway.

Last year, I spoke to a few hundred members of the Catholic Student Union at the university where I am a physics professor about our Church’s relationship with the science of cosmology and evolution. I told them about how our recent popes have embraced science and how evolution and the Big Bang have been recognized in ecclesiastical documents. Indeed, one of the pioneers of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaître, was a Jesuit priest.

But I also talked about how many Catholics have clung to Young Earth Creationism or other unscientific theories like Intelligent Design. My primary mission in talking with the Catholic Student Union was to assure the students that the Catholic Church to which they belong is rock solid on science, despite the unscientific beliefs of some of the church’s members.

Dr. Mark Gray, a Senior Research Associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and Director of the Center’s polling operations, recently explained in an Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly article (August 27, 2016) why this is an urgent message to deliver to young Catholics. He documented that the Catholic Church is losing some of its young members because of their perception that belief in the well-established science of cosmology and evolution is inconsistent with the Catholic faith.

Of course, that perception couldn’t be further from the truth. But it can be difficult for a young Catholic who has heard from older parishioners that the Genesis creation story is a literal account or that the theory of evolution is an atheist weapon against faith to believe that the institutional Catholic Church has at times provided scientific leadership in the development of cosmological and evolutionary theory.

Last fall, Gray and CARA colleague Dr. Jonathon Wiggins published a CARA Special Report in which they reported that 21% of American Catholics believe that the Bible is “to be taken literally, word-for-word” and that “God created the universe, including Earth, most likely within the last 10,000 years, as described in the Book of Genesis in six 24-hour days”. Catholics also seem to be particularly susceptible to a belief in Intelligent Design, which denies the possibility that God could have allowed natural processes to govern the development of life and which involves frequent (or constant) supernatural intervention in this process.

If the many Catholics who have unscientific beliefs are causing some young people to leave the Church, it would seem that correcting those unscientific beliefs would be a priority for the Catholic clergy. Yet, Gray and Wiggins report that only 16% of Catholics have heard scientific beliefs mentioned by a priest or deacon during Mass. Those among the 16% are more likely to have scientific beliefs that match those of our Vatican leaders.

Gray argues in his Our Sunday Visitor article that the solution to the problem of unscientific beliefs among Catholics is to have more children attend Catholic schools. Indeed, he demonstrates that those who have attended Catholic schools are more likely to hold scientific beliefs than those who did not. Nevertheless, that is an expensive and long-term solution to an urgent problem.

A more easily implemented approach would be for more priests and deacons to talk about the position of the Church leadership on evolution and cosmology during Mass. The CARA research suggests this would be effective as well, and might help our Church hold onto more of its young people.

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Why Florida should make math and science a high priority: A response to Billy Townsend

Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend and I are continuing a dialogue about how Florida’s K-12 system would best serve the state’s kids.  This is a response to Billy’s most recent response, “What is Algebra? And is it memorable and useful enough to justify doing lasting harm to kids’ lives over it?”

Hi Billy,

There was a lot in your post that I could (and maybe should) respond to. But instead, I’m going to strategically retreat and open with something on which I’m sure we can both agree:

Our central responsibility as educators is to provide each student with the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential.

As you pointed out, my primary focus as a college physics professor is on providing opportunities to as many students as possible to careers at the bachelor’s degree level (or above) that require math and science skills. Traditionally, we’ve regarded these careers as being reserved for a special few who have – through some mysterious process – become gifted with rare intuitive understandings of math and science. There is now a great deal of research to support the assertion that many more students can be successful in those careers if we provide evidence-based learning environments for them at all educational levels – starting in elementary school and continuing through graduate school – and encourage them (and their parents) to persevere by taking advantage of those high quality math and science learning opportunities.

What kind of career opportunities open up to students who persist in studying math and science? Of course, we all know about careers in fields like engineering, computer science and the natural and health sciences.

But a student who has strong artistic skills and who manages to gain an understanding of introductory physics and calculus has access to a career in architecture.

An attorney with strong number sense and an understanding of the mathematical skills used in finance can have a tremendous impact in a legal proceeding that involves monetary issues or statistics.

During a conversation with an undergraduate majoring in international relations, I talked about my son-in-law’s work in microfinance – work that lifts the poor out of poverty. The undergraduate I was talking with asked how he could get involved in that kind of work, and I explained how the powerful mathematical and statistical tools that my son-in-law had learned as an undergraduate in economics made it possible for him to marshal private-sector resources for microfinance projects. I noticed that the student’s face fell, and I asked what was wrong. He replied that he wasn’t a math person and that his college-level math training had stopped at College Algebra.

Having said all that, I realized after reading your post that if I had been taught math and science the way you talked about the teaching of math – as a nearly infinite series of disconnected factoids and prescriptions – I would have hated those subjects, too, despite the opportunities they open up. I was fortunate to have terrific math and science teachers at South Windsor (Connecticut) High School who taught me to focus on understanding the foundational basics of those disciplines really well.

I try to teach my own students the same way. I ask them – no, plead with them – to first look at a laboratory exercise or problem without any equations. I ask them, “How do you think this works? What do you think is going to happen?” And then maybe to come up with some numerical estimate as a prediction about the outcome. I tell them they should look for the right equation to apply only after they’ve done this conceptual analysis. And sometimes I don’t even ask them to memorize the equation. During our AC circuit lessons last week, I posted an “AC Circuit Cheat Sheet” and told them to use it all week, including on the quiz. I explained that “I never memorize this crap, and neither should you.” But what I want them to take away from the week is how in a general sense components like capacitors and inductors work in an electronic circuit.

In fact, I’ll share a confession with you if you promise to just keep it between you and me: I googled the quadratic equation recently. I wanted to make sure I had the signs right, and that “2” in the denominator. Please don’t tell anyone else.

As for the issue of retention that you raised: Students who are taught in a hands-on learning environment can retain the conceptual foundations of a subject. In my Studio Physics classes, I pre-test and post-test my students using well-validated assessment instruments called conceptual inventories. I want to make sure that my courses are building the deep understanding that professional engineers and scientists need to drive innovation. The conceptual inventories I use don’t involve any equations or calculations – all the questions address foundational concepts. My pre-tests tell me about each student’s high school physics experience. Some of my students took the new AP Physics 1 course in high school. That course is designed to be taught using a hands-on pedagogy similar to what I use in my Studio Physics classes. As a result, most of the AP Physics 1 alumni in my classes pre-test well on the Force Concept Inventory, which is considered the gold standard of conceptual inventories. That isn’t to say that they ace the thing – they still have plenty to learn. But they have a solid foundation from which to begin and they understand the value of the hands-on pedagogy I use (unlike students who have come up through the K-12 system with a steady diet of traditional lecture classes). And they start the course well ahead of many of their peers who took a lecture-based high school physics class – or no high school physics class at all.

So what are our responsibilities as educators and leaders? That is, how can we meet our central responsibility to provide each student with the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential?

We have a responsibility to provide the best possible evidence-based learning environments in math and science for our students.

We have a responsibility to explain to students and parents why they should continue learning math and science even after it becomes uncomfortable and perhaps even unpleasant – because it will open opportunities later on. The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work provided one successful model for doing this – via brochures and the internet. Bay County’s Mosley High School is doing the same thing successfully – but they are focusing on in-person conversations with parents and students.

What happens if we don’t talk with parents and students and simply settle for what we always have – allowing comfort level to determine which students continue learning math and science? For one thing, you’ll lose a lot of girls with strong math skills. FSU Sociology and Education Professor Lara Perez-Felkner found that if you ask a group of 10th grade girls with strong math skills (as measured by a well-validated assessment) if they are good at math, they will mostly say no. An identically selected group of boys mostly says yes. The same thing happens to students from working class homes. We will mostly lose these kids if we don’t intervene.

Which brings us to the issue of priorities. For our state to succeed in giving each student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential in math and science, we will have to make building a uniformly strong math and science teaching corps a high priority along with reaching out to parents and students. If reading is the exclusive number one priority, then math and science will be neglected. We did the “Just Read, Florida!” experiment, and that’s what happened.

Billy, I had to chuckle at your characterization of Florida’s education system as “STEM-based”. High school physics enrollment is down 8% over the last three years – and that’s after the state was already at half the national physics enrollment rate. High school chemistry enrollments are down 9% over the last two years. If this is what victory looks like…

The bottom line is that if we are going to indeed give each student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential in math and science, we have a great deal of work to do.

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2017 NAEP: Florida starts to turn the Titanic in middle school math, but still much work to do.

Florida has started to turn around its student learning in middle school math, according to results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released today (coverage from the Orlando Sentinel here).

The state’s 8th grade math results, which plunged in 2015, began the process of making up ground lost on the 2017 exam.  Florida was one of only two states in which the 8th grade math scale score increased significantly.

The plot below shows the percentages of 8th graders – for both Florida and the nation – who tested proficient or better on the NAEP math exam in 2013, 2015 and 2017.  The plot provides some context for the gains Florida experienced in 2017.

To Florida’s teachers, counselors and educational leaders:  Congratulations for the progress shown on the 2017 NAEP assessment. There is a great deal more work to do, of course. But you give the state more than we deserve. Thank you.


Update (Tuesday afternoon):  The National Center for Teacher Quality reported in a tweet this morning that Commissioner Stewart mentioned that Florida’s teacher certification tests have become more challenging during the last several years.  She said this contributed to the improvement in NAEP scores.  FLDOE toughened the exam for the standard middle grades math teaching certification in 2014, causing the passing rate to drop from 75% in 2013 to 54% in 2014.  The passing rate has stayed just above 50% since then.


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