Phillip Ellis: I love my teaching job, but Florida should raise pay and lower barriers for entering the profession

Phillip Ellis graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2015, and has been teaching chemistry and physics at Zephyrhills High School in Pasco County since then.  Phillip took a studio physics class with Susan Blessing while at FSU.  

I’ve been teaching High School science, specifically chemistry and physics, for the past year. I earned my B.S. in chemistry in 2015 and after graduation decided to take the plunge into education, a path that is undervalued by many STEM majors.

I’d like to make a disclaimer before I start: I love my job. Teaching is single-handedly the most rewarding choice I’ve ever made in my lifetime. While I can’t speak for other science teachers about their work dynamics, mine have been stellar. I’m given a large amount of latitude over how I conduct my class and construct my lessons and consistently receive good feedback from my co-workers as well as the school administration. But similar to anything else, there is room for improvement. Education has low monetary incentives and a high barrier to entry. These two factors must be mitigated for Florida to overcome its science teacher shortage.

Lets start with the elephant in the room, the pay. While I certainly make enough to support my fiancé and myself while she attends graduate school, I do suffer a pay cut relative to college graduates with a similar degree and experience. It’s difficult to get someone in the profession when they have to take a pay cut. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the inner workings of a state/county budget committee. However, if the state of Florida wants to employ more high quality science teachers, getting competitive with the pay of a B.S. level science job seems like a good place to start.

A problem more specific to science teachers who do not have their degree in education is the alternative-certification programs. These are required by the state in order to get your professional teaching certificate. Although I don’t believe that these programs are in need of a repeal; they should be streamlined in order to reduce the amount of paperwork needed to become a science teacher. The first change should be to the FTCE testing requirements for topic tests. I personally find it odd that I have to pay for a certification exam for chemistry despite holding a bachelors degree in the topic. To me this feels as if the state does not value my previous education or my knowledge of the topic area. Either the test should be free to take or not required for degree holders in the subject area.

The second warranted change to the alternative-certification programs would be to reduce the amount of explicit assignments needed to complete the program. Many of the tasks required can be learned on the job and do not require an evaluation from an assessor. For example, tasks concerning lesson plans or parent teacher conferences feel redundant considering the frequency of their occurrence and their natural tendency for feedback from the administration staff.

I strongly believe that these two changes will both lower the barrier to entry and increase the amount of incentives for high quality science teachers, in particular STEM majors, to begin teaching in Florida.

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From Mary Bahr: Treat teachers with respect and allow them to collaborate and succeed

Early this morning, I posted a request to math and science teachers to tell me how to attract more strong colleagues to their profession.  I received this essay from Mary Bahr before 11:00 am.

Mary and I served on Florida’s science standards committee together in 2007-2008.  She most recently taught at Fort McCoy School in Marion County.

I taught High School and Middle School Science, with my last 18 years in a Title One K-8 School. My background includes a Biology/Chemistry degree, and National Board Certification in Early Adolescent Science.

My school provides an excellent example of how to attract and keep math and science teachers. Teacher turnover during my career was very low. Most teachers moved because of the long commutes.

Incentives that work address how teachers are treated in the school community. In our school collaboration was encouraged and teachers took leadership roles. The administration of our school did both large and small things to encourage this. Small things included scheduling lunch so departments could eat and plan together and Principals asking teacher opinion about changes. A large example was sending groups of teachers to yearly conferences. We are not talking about $10,000 bonuses here but a few thousand dollars a year that builds outstanding curriculum and, just as important, builds teams that work together and share resources. Our science teachers attended the State Science convention for at least 15 years. We carpooled, roomed together, ate together, but usually went to different presentations , and talked on the way home about what to do next. New teachers accompanied us and the process of mentoring and supporting each other began every Fall.

But what about bonuses? My experiences varied a great deal. Our school often earned an A grade in the Florida State grading system. Sounds great for morale, doesn’t it? But, in reality, the legislature mandated that staff decide how the bonuses were distributed. This lead to conflict, not only at my school but at around the district and State. Who and what programs got how much money divided school communities and made them less effective and destroyed trust. This does not encourage an environment that recruits and keeps our most needed teachers. The same thing happened with a bonus based on test scores where excellent teachers with our most vulnerable children and lower test scores were left out. If you want to encourage science and math recruitment in public schools, you need to pay them fairly with both a fair wage and a fair distribution of bonuses.

So bonuses are a bad idea? No! In fact, I participated for many years in a bonus program that both rewarded teachers fairly and provided mentoring and support for new teachers. The State of Florida paid teachers who qualified to participate in National Board Certification and then offered them a bonus, starting at $10,000 the first year, to mentor new teachers and teach skills to their colleagues. This program or a model of it is an ideal way to offer bonuses to Florida Teachers.

In conclusion, if you want high quality teachers just start treating us with respect and let us use our skills to improve our schools alongside our all-important administrators and support staff. Do this and you will have people lining up to teach in the public schools.

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If you are a Florida math or science teacher, share your ideas about how to attract more strong teachers into your profession here.

As you may have seen in this blog earlier, I think it’s time to ask strong math and science teachers for their ideas about how to attract more people like them into the teaching profession.  I’d like to see the legislature form task forces of math and science teachers to make recommendations, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.  (And in fact the math and science teacher shortage seems to have been lost in the debate over the shortage of elementary school teachers – for example see Senator Montford’s comments here)

So I am going to do what I can by offering this space to teachers who have ideas about how to address the math and science teacher shortage.  If you have an idea and are willing to share, please send a 500-word post to my FSU e-mail address, which you can find at the FSU Physics Department’s web site.

This blog is certainly not as visible as, say, the Orlando Sentinel or the Tampa Bay Times.  But in the blog’s eight year history it has had more than 100,000 page views.  And it has a few prominent readers.

So if you are a math or science teacher with an idea about how to find you more strong colleagues, let me know.  Let’s do what we can to get the conversation started.

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Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook Future Physicists of Florida FSU Panama City Chapter: A big boost for STEM career preparation in Bay County

FSU’s Panama City campus today issued a press release on the $100,000 gift by Jim and Jana Cook that resulted in a boost to the campus’ STEM outreach efforts and the naming of the Bay County Future Physicists of Florida chapter.  I wanted to share my own story about the Cooks and the gift, so here it is:

I met retired Panama City cardiologist Jim Cook last fall over a lunch arranged by Randy Hanna, who was then the new Interim Dean at FSU’s Panama City campus (he is now the “permanent” Dean). As I have since learned, Randy is one of those folks who has some supernatural capacity to know what’s going to happen in any situation long, long before anyone else involved has figured it out. But at the time of the lunch, I had only recently met Randy and I thought that the lunch was a somewhat hastily arranged random event.
I had ordered a salad with shrimp, but by the time the salad was served Jim had dived into the conversation with tremendous gusto. I recall Jim starting the conversation on the topic of thorium reactors, and I was so quickly focused and engaged with the conversation that I didn’t notice that the tails of the shrimp in the salad hadn’t been peeled. I think I somehow got through two shrimp (and accumulated a considerable amount of shell in my mouth) before I figured out that I was going to have to deal with that.

As my dear, patient family knows, I tend to steer most social conversations toward the educational demands of the 21st century – specifically, how important it is for college-bound high school students to persevere in upper level math and science courses so that they have the full range of career choices (creative writing, art, economics, engineering, physics) when they arrive on a college campus. I probably mentioned to Jim that half of the students who arrive on FSU’s Tallahassee campus intending to go to medical school neglected to take high school physics, and that the collision for these underprepared students with college physics is often fatal to their medical school hopes.

Jim was astonished that any high school student who had given any thought at all to a health or scientific profession would skip physics in high school. By the end of the meal, Jim said he was sold on my cause and wanted to know what he could do. Randy had already left the restaurant (I’m sure knowing full well what was going to happen) so the best response I could muster was something like “I’ll have to give this some thought” and “I’ll bet Randy will have some ideas.”

It didn’t take long before I knew what I wanted to ask Jim for. The previous spring, I had visited with groups of Mosley High School parents twice and talked with them about the importance of their college-bound kids taking upper level math and science in high school, regardless of their present career plans (because they can change). Part of my pitch is the importance of physics and even calculus for high school students considering health careers.

Of course, there is a big hole in that argument when I make it – I’m just an old nuclear physicist. And while I’ve taught many future physicians over the years (and many more who wanted to be physicians but weren’t successful with their undergraduate programs), the argument would be much more powerful coming from someone like Jim. So I asked him to accompany me on my next visit with Mosley parents. Jim accepted, and he accompanied me on my visit to Mosley the evening of January 24th – several weeks ago. Jim connected with the audience instantly, and his talk about the importance of physics in medicine was powerful. I hope Jim is willing to do it again.

Of course, I’m just a physics professor and perhaps sometimes I’m guilty of thinking small. Randy has neither handicap. Randy and Jim – and Jim’s wife Jana – worked out an arrangement that culminated in an announcement last Saturday during the Future Physicists of Florida STEM Expo at FSU-PC. The FSU-PC Future Physicists of Florida Chapter is being named the Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook Chapter of the FPF in recognition of a donation to the campus of $100,000 to support K-12 STEM activities.

As some of those close to me know, I’m a sentimental old physics professor. And last Saturday’s event made me reflect on what has happened during the last several years. In 2012, I started the Future Physicists of Florida with then-FAMU Physics Department Chair Charles Weatherford at the urging of Frank Fuller, a former school principal who was then the education advisor to Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. It cruised along for several years with the participation of the Orlando Science School and a few middle schools in Tallahassee.

Then in the fall of 2015, FPF was invited to hold district-wide induction ceremonies in Bay and Monroe Counties with the support of the school districts themselves and, in the case of Bay County, with the collaboration of FSU-PC. Those district-wide induction ceremonies were held again last fall in the Keys and in Panama City, along with the customary smaller ceremonies on FSU’s Tallahassee campus.

In Bay County, I’ve gotten even more involved with Mosley’s parents and with physics teachers from Bay, Mosley and Rutherford High Schools. At my request, FSU President John Thrasher provided $40,000 of university funds to purchase physics lab equipment for loan to those three schools.

And now comes the gift from Jim and Jan Cook, which was a deeply humbling experience for me. If you doubt that I’m capable of being humble (and many who know me will be skeptical), see the goofy look on my face in the photograph with Jim, Jana, Randy and Bay County School Board Chair Ginger Littleton that FSU-PC included with their press release about the gift. I was humbled.

This fall, there were twice as many high school physics students in Bay County high schools as there were last spring. At Mosley, there were 58% more students enrolled in chemistry, and six times as many physics students as last spring. But there is so much farther to go to make sure that every Bay County student has the math and science needed to have the full range of college and career options. The gift from Jim and Jana Cook is an important step in pushing that project forward.


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Florida should terminate its math and science end-of-course exam program

Florida is the “Just Read!” state, and has been since Governor Bush first installed the “A+ Plan” in 1998.

The state’s emphasis on reading has had considerable success at the elementary level. And as NAEP and the ACT show, Florida has had some success in reading at the middle and high school levels as well.

However, the state’s performance on middle and high school level national math and science exams range from about average (8th grade NAEP science) to tragic (8th grade NAEP math).  The state’s regulation of math and science education at the secondary level has been unsuccessful.  As far as I can tell, there is little or no interest among policy-makers in the legislature and in the executive branch in improving secondary math and science achievement.  What would it take to demonstrate such interest?  A concentrated effort to recruit more strong math and science teachers, almost certainly including a differential pay program like Georgia has.  District teacher unions would never approve such a thing, so the initiative would have to come from the state.  And it’s not going to.

After 19 years of reform efforts, we can be pretty sure that not much will change in this regard.

So perhaps it is time to adopt a scheme in which the regulation of reading education is a state responsibility and the responsibility for regulating math and science education is devolved to the school districts.

What does this mean from a practical point of view?  It would have important consequences for the state’s accountability system.  As much as allowed by the new federal education law, ESSA, Florida should get out of the math and science testing business.

ESSA still requires annual statewide reading and math testing for grades 3-8 and a single reading and math test in high school.  In addition, there must be one science test in elementary grades, one in middle grades, and one in high school.

So here is a scheme that meets the minimum ESSA requirements and acknowledges the fact that Florida’s state education leaders don’t have any real interest in secondary math and science:

  • Maintain the FSA reading and math tests in grades 3-8.
  • Maintain the state’s grade 5 and 8 science tests.
  • Adopt the ACT (which has reading, English, math, and science sections) as the state’s high school test for federal accountability purposes, and require every 11th grader to take it in the spring.
  • Terminate the end-of-course exams for Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 and Biology.

A caveat:  It is still not clear that the ACT will be approved for federal accountability purposes in Wisconsin and Wyoming, two states that have already asked the US Department of Education for permission.  (Sixteen states require all 11th graders to take the ACT, but don’t presently use the exams to meet federal accountability requirements)  But one would think that federal regulations will be relaxed – and not tightened – under the new administration.

Adoption of the ACT would provide this advantage – a transparent way of comparing the performance of Florida’s students with those in other states that require the ACT. (See below)

Ditching the EOC’s would also have advantages.  The Algebra 2 exam, with its 40% passing rate and its inclusion in the high school grading formula, incentivizes schools to keep average students out of the course – precisely the wrong thing to do in an economy where an Associate in Applied Science is necessary to get a job on an assembly line.  Getting rid of the Algebra 1 and Geometry EOC’s would allow all 7th and 8th graders to take the FSA 7th and 8th grade math tests (middle schoolers in Algebra or Geometry courses are presently prohibited from taking the FSA math test because they must take the EOC’s and are not allowed to take two state exams).  That would give school districts a nice clean look at how their middle school students are competing with those in other districts, and would eliminate the gamesmanship decisions that might presently creep into middle school math placement.

And eliminating the Biology EOC would also eliminate the subliminal message to high schoolers and their parents that biology is the only important science subject.

The state’s educational leaders have no interest in providing a carrot for middle and high school math and science achievement.  They should give up the stick as well.





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The Jeff Solochek Podcast: I get a chance to shout out to Bay County physics teachers, Mosley High School, Lake Mary High School’s physics teachers, and UCF’s Adam LaMee

A big thank you to the Tampa Bay Times’ Jeff Solochek for hosting me on his new podcast.  Our discussion about math and science education in Florida, which ranged all the way up to the college level, gave me an opportunity to shout out to the physics teachers in Bay County (Nancy Browne, Rachel Morris and Sean O’Donnell) who have been willing to lift me up through the time they spend with me and who are doing some great physics teaching, the folks at Mosley High School who are engineering the Mosley Miracle with their parent outreach, the physics team at Seminole County’s Lake Mary High School (which includes this year’s Lake Mary Teacher of the Year, Steve DeSanto and their Presidential Awardee Luther Davis) and UCF’s Physics Teacher-in-Residence, Adam LaMee, who is the new President of the Florida Chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

We also talked about FSU’s studio physics program and I mentioned our Physics Department’s recent recognition as a model undergraduate program by the national J-TUPP task force.

We covered a lot of ground in 10 minutes!

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This week’s FSU Physics Colloquium: “Breaking the Myth of the ‘Non-Traditional’ Physicist: The Real Story About Employment for Physics Graduates”


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