Senate report on STEM education

An interim report was completed by the Florida Senate Committee on Education Pre-K – 12  (pdf document)recently. Its purpose is to examine math and science education in our state. As reflected in the report, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a major concern. Our own state exams (FCATs) and comparisons with other states and countries point to the fact that there are serious deficiencies in this area. The report correctly explains how STEM skills are incredibly valuable to the state; that’s were the jobs are. If decision-makers want to prepare Florida for any type of solid economic future, there has to be an emphasis on preparing tomorrow’s workforce for those jobs. Being able to read and write are, of course, high priority, but STEM skills are just as vital. And beside the report’s emphasis on money and jobs, STEM skills are also increasingly needed by each and every individual student working their way through school and into adulthood. The world is obviously full of technology and the science behind it. Students need to know how to make the most of it all.

The report outlines how Florida is way behind when it comes to math, and especially science. For example, the report provides the cold numbers from the most recent science FCATs: 56% of 3rd graders are below grade level in science understanding, 60% of 8th graders are below grade level in science understanding, and 63% of 10th graders are below grade level in science understanding. What the report doesn’t mention is that these figures are pretty much the same as the previous year; there was no real improvement. Those figures are certainly ugly, but are they accurate? I’ll discuss that a little later.

So, the report tries to briefly explain how important STEM skills are, and goes on to show how bad things are in Florida. So, what do we do? It seems to me that the education committee didn’t do much homework. I don’t see any proposed solutions here.

An entire page of this report is devoted to efforts to produce better teachers. I can’t help but wonder if this is a backhanded slap at current teachers. Teachers are taking a lion’s share of the blame for low student achievement and failing school grades, and it looks like this report is going along with that trend. No, the report doesn’t come right out and say “the teachers are the reason our kids are failing science,” but the report also doesn’t offer any justification for why there is so much focus on Florida teacher quality in the report. The report cites two Internet resources that are general in nature and don’t offer any statistical information specific to Florida. The Senate report writers seem to have just latched onto these sources as “great ideas” and didn’t bother to go the extra step of connecting the sources’ information to what is going on in Florida. If they did take that step, they didn’t include it in the report. Don’t get me wrong. Teacher quality is an important element of an improved STEM program, and anything done to bolster that quality is a good thing. But this report is holding up teacher improvement as a major slice of their solution to Florida’s STEM woes without first proving that it’s even a problem. The attention is welcome, but the emphasis as it is presented in this Senate report falls flat without much more concrete Florida-specific information.

As an aside, I noticed that the cited sources suggested better pay for teachers, especially since the recommendations for more rigorous preparation puts an extra burden on aspiring teachers, and yet this Senate report neglects any mention of compensating teachers for their extra effort and time. Additionally, what will Florida do to make teaching STEM subjects here attractive to highly-qualified teachers? Keep in mind that an oft-used anecdote is that college graduates with all of their new science training are likely to go into other science-related fields other than teaching because the pay is higher and the stress is lower. This is not addressed anywhere in the Senate report.

The Senate report does focus quite a bit of attention on general literacy, which is good. As the report points out, science and math have a unique vocabulary. Struggling with that vocabulary will definitely result in struggling in STEM subjects overall. There is also discussion of making science and math education relevant to students, connecting that education to real-world applications. The report states that students disengage when the subject matter has no meaning to them. Then there is mention of Florida’s new FCR-STEM, which is a statewide research project headquartered at Florida State University. FCR-STEM is an effort to coordinate communities, businesses and the education system and use that network to improve STEM education. And the report also praises our new state science and math standards. Yea us!

Finally, there is an options/recommendations section of the Senate report that leaves me feeling empty. Essentially, instruction should be more relevant to students, instruction needs to be more rigorous, teacher training needs to be better, reading skills need to be emphasized, and make sure STEM-related funding is being spent wisely.

I’m guessing that this report is not meant to be comprehensive or detailed. The recommendations are vague, which probably means that it’s up to individual lawmakers to come up with the specifics. A bill of this nature has already been filed in advance of the next legislative session: HB 61. It’s meant to strengthen graduation requirement in math and science among other things. However, Paul Cottle at his Bridge to Tomorrow blog argues that the proposal doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. I love how the Senate report writers went nuts including tons of footnotes. It made me think of a student trying to impress a teacher by dazzling the teacher with tons of links and references. But a closer look at all those report footnotes turns up either just an unnecessary listing of existing Florida programs, or general national reports and papers that have little specific to Florida. Where’s the real research homework, folks?

I think that the Senate report utterly missed out on at least one element that would possibly help properly assess Florida science education: kill the high school science FCAT. I’ve explained on this blog several times just how irrelevant that test is. It doesn’t affect students at all, so they have little incentive to take it or treat it seriously. The test covers multiple science subjects that students may have long forgotten, forcing teachers to stop their own instruction to spend time reviewing other science subjects in preparation for the FCAT. Does the dismal pass rate of the science FCATs, especially the high school one, accurately reflect students’ actual science knowledge? Not likely. End of course exams are the sensible way to go in order to provide a real sense of what students know in the upper grades. Only when we have a reliable information foundation can any meaningful reform take place. (The Senate report briefly mentions end of course exams, but only in one sentence at the end of the document. It’s not supported by any discussion anywhere else in the report.)

Bottom line: I’m not impressed with the Senate report. Where’s the beef?

(Paul Cottle isn’t impressed with the Senate report either. “Their conclusion:  Don’t do anything for now – it’s too hard.”)

5 Responses to “Senate report on STEM education”

  1. Jason R Says:

    Nice summary. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Ivorygirl Says:

    Brandon,could you or Paul Cottle explain what has happened to PROMISE?
    It seems they have not lived up to expectations, is it because of lack of funding, lack of interest or what?

  3. PDC Says:

    The most obvious problem with PROMiSE was the scale. It was a $5 million budget to do a fifty or hundred million dollar job.

    I also have my doubts about the management of the project, but of course one must be careful to back up such claims. I have one personal story regarding PROMiSE that I can share. I was asked at one point to participate in a workshop for school principals. The idea was that science instruction cannot be effective without the buy-in of school leadership. This is self-evident, of course. The idea was to have the school principals do an inquiry-based physics lesson.

    When I was asked to participate, I pointed out that the best first lesson for physics novices (like the principals were) was the first lesson in the curriculum “Physics by Inquiry”, which was developed by the renowned University of Washington Physics Education Research Group and its founder, Lillian McDermott. It is considered the gold standard for research-based physics curriculum. The first lesson is a discovery exercise in torques. I had done this lesson several times with my class of pre-service elementary education majors, and the FSU Physics Department machine shop had carefully machined 24 very nice setups for this lesson. We were ready to teach the very best research-based lesson to 72 principals for free in the Physics Department’s state-of-the-art SCALE-UP classroom.

    But that wasn’t the plan. I was told that somebody in the Florida Department of Education had already decided that a lesson on kinematics – which McDermott often called the very worst first lesson – would be developed and taught for the principals’ workshop. The lesson plan was developed at some cost (I don’t know how much, but it was certainly more than the cost of “free” that I had proposed) and delivered. By the way, I refused to participate when I realized what was happening.

    It was a classic example of the consequences of locking science faculty out of the decision-making process involved in science teacher education. And it was bad management. Perhaps it was the only instance of bad management in the PROMiSE program. We can only hope.

  4. Kmlisle Says:

    Some of the writers have been teaching the Promise modules at districts in my area. I just finished doing modules 2-3 of the middle school modules and will go back and do 4-5 in January. I have also taught these 4 in my own district and some other writers were there teaching elementary modules.

    I can say that there are essential elements of the modules that are very effective. However we all did a lot of revising, added more interactivity and made some corrections of errors to make them effective. They have stimulated good discussion in all 5 sessions I have done so far and I see buy in of the standards themselves and of the premise that teaching needs to be done in depth using approaches such as inquiry.

  5. D Says:

    RE PDC comment:
    Would a lesson for elementary school principals about torque be relevant given that torque is not in Florida’s standards specifically? And, would it make sense to model a lesson that schools would need to buy and that might require equipment that a physics department had to carefully craft? Teachers want lessons that they can take back to their classrooms and try with their students.

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