Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

The Anemic State of High School Physics in Florida

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Robin Sussingham

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Physics is the most  fundamental of sciences; it’s an essential stepping stone for  careers in engineering or science. But around the country, fewer than 40 percent of high school students take a physics class. In Florida , that number is much lower — only about a quarter of high school students take physics. Experts say that the trend affects the future earning potential of the state’s students.

Alan Kramer is a fifth year graduate student in physics at the University of South Florida. He’s working in his Tampa lab, which is noisy with the sound of a cryo pump.

“It’s an air conditioner,” he explains, “but instead of using refrigerant, we use helium so we can get the contents of this ultra high vacuum chamber down to around 10 Kelvin or so, which is close to the limit of being cold.”

He’s studying what happens at the atomic level on the surface of solid materials. Besides his research, he teaches undergraduates, and says “what they gain by coming out of a physics class is thinking rationally.”


Kramer says he’s very aware of the importance of a high school physics education, because he once taught it. He taught high school physics in New Jersey, but in Florida, could only find openings for teachers for introductory classes in general science.

Instead, he taught high-level math classes briefly in Sarasota County. When he lost his job in a round of teacher layoffs, he says, he took the opportunity to get his doctorate.

High school physics classes in Sarasota County are hard to come by.  According to data collected by Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle, only about 20 percent of students in that county take the class.

In the state overall, that number is about 25 percent.  And Cottle says, in comparison with the rest of the country, “that’s a third fewer students that have the door opened to the kind of opportunity in physics and engineering careers.”

But even these low physics enrollment numbers don’t illustrate the real extent of the problem, because only a fraction of the existing physics classes are being taught by a qualified teacher.

Cottle says Florida does fine in other STEM classes, like math or chemistry.

“It’s physics which is the science course where we really seem to have gotten stuck,” he said. “It’s a course where you really need a teacher that understands a difficult subject and we have difficulty getting teachers.”

Cottle is active in the effort to get more Florida high school students into physics classes, and he keeps track of how many students are taking physics in all of the state’s 67 school districts.

“There are a lot of rural districts that aren’t offering physics at all,” he says. “You can kind of understand that…These are small districts and have had trouble justifying a physics teacher … But then you see counties that are good size,  and you have to wonder that they’re thinking.”

Counties like Citrus, Pasco and Osceola have only around 5 to 10 percent enrollment. He says the education gatekeepers just don’t get it.

“Administrators and principals and parents don’t really understand how important courses like physics are to the future of their students,” he said.

Important, Cottle says, for social mobility, because physics is also required for the lucrative engineering or science careers that have historically provided a way out of poverty.

If students want to take that path, they’ll need college physics.

“About a quarter of the engineering majors who arrive at Florida State (University) have not taken a physics course in high school,” Cottle said. “That’s a real problem for them. That leaves them way behind.”

Cottle says it will continue to be difficult to recruit good high school physics teachers as long as the pay is so much lower than what they can make outside of education.

And as former physics teacher and current grad student Alan Kramer says, ”I don’t think teachers are valued.”

Kramer says he’ll continue to try to educate high school students through outreach programs, but his future is now in research.

Less Federal Power Under New Law

More power is going back to the states and local districts under the law signed today, which replaces No Child Left Behind.


For the past quarter century, federal education policy has been moving in one direction: toward standards-based education redesign, a greater reliance on standardized tests, and bigger role for Washington when it comes to holding schools accountable for student results.

Read more at: blogs.edweek.org

Controversial SAT-Based Teacher Bonuses — Here To Stay?

The House measure would provide “scholarships” up to $10,000 — depending on the annual appropriation — to teachers whose scores were in the 80th percentile of the SAT or higher.


Perhaps it is fitting that in the same week that school districts must tell the Department of Education how many teachers qualified for the state’s very controversial Best and Brightest bonus, the Florida House Education Committee will consider legislation to make the one-time measure permanent.

Read more at: www.tampabay.com

Parents Fight For School Recess

rally for recess

Robin Sussingham

Remember recess? When you knew that if you just sat still for a couple more hours, you and your friends could go racing out to the merry-go-round or the hopscotch court for a daily dose of fun? In many public elementary schools in Florida, recess has become a thing of the past. And parents are not happy.

Five year old Garrett Hoskins goes to Highlands Grove Elementary school in Lakeland. He’s in kindergarten, and he loves recess. He’s kind of an authority on the slides.

“The slide I like is the bumpy one,” Garrett says. “I like the circle one because that one has sides. The other one doesn’t really have sides. Just short sides, to keep you safe.”

Garrettt goes to recess once a week, on Fridays, for 20 minutes. His mom, Stephanie Hoskins, says that’s not enough.

“Not for bustling five year olds, no,” she says.

They were at a community meeting recently, organized by Polk County school Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy. LeRoy  was responding to a growing and increasingly vocal demand by parents to give kids a break during the school day.

At the meeting, the frustration was palpable. Parents were supposed to ask questions by writing them down on a card and turning it in — but one mom, sitting in the audience, couldn’t contain herself. She said her eight-year-old son hates to go to school.  “He loves being outdoors and he gets no time,” she said. “He has to sit in a classroom from 8:30 until 3 o’clock. He goes to lunch and they’re not allowed to  talk at that time either.”

It probably came as no surprise to these parents when LeRoy presented the research showing the recess is important to kids in lots of ways, physically, socially and cognitively. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess crucial to child development.

Superintendent LeRoy told the crowd that she’s all in favor of recess. She said she was forming a county-wide committee to come up with recommendations, and she’d take them to the school board for a vote. But, she said, it’s not as easy as it once was to send the children out onto the playground.

Pointing to the wording of a state education statute that she’d projected up on a screen, LeRoy said, “The reason I am showing this to you is because I want you to get a sense of the magnitude and mandates that are laying on top of us….We are required to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art and music (those are electives), and physical education.”

There’s also a requirement of 90 minutes every day for reading instruction — and more for low performing schools.

The state has made no policies regarding recess, leaving it up to the individual school districts. Some districts have no recess in schools. Others, like Miami Dade, require it for Pre-K through 5th grade. Miami-Dade even has a recess manual, that describes how to teach Double Dutch and hop scotch!

Time for recess has been squeezed out in recent years, but now social media is helping parents, such as Lakeland mother Amanda Lipham, organize recess supporters.
Lipham says she organized the push for recess in Polk when she saw changes in her five year old son.

“He was losing his enthusiasm for school,” Lipham says. “His attitude was changing. I could see his spirit being broken.”

First, Lipham handed out flyers in the car line at her son’s elementary school, and she spoke out at a school board meeting. Then, she formed an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures.

Now parents are creating similar online petitions around the state. More than 2200 people have signed a petition to make recess mandatory in Pinellas County, This fall, Parents in Osceola County also started a petition demanding recess. And a similar effort in Orange County last year led to a school board resolution recommending that schools provide the breaks.

And that’s the way change might happen, says Judy Stockman, who teaches at Sykes Elementary school in Lakeland — when parents get involved.

“Teachers have already voiced their opinions about this and nothing happened,” Stockman says.

The state does require every school to provide PE for 150 minutes a week. But Stockman, like the Superintendent and the parents at the meeting, say that’s not the same as recess.

“PE doesn’t count,” Stockman says. “That is structured. What I’m seeing lacking is time for social skills and social development. and that type of thing. Just to go and explore on your own.”

LeRoy said some school districts, like Orange county, have adopted Resolutions in favor of recess. But LeRoy said she wanted a policy for schools to follow.

The Polk County school board will take up the committee recommendations on recess at its Dec. 8th meeting.

Despite Losing Grant, Choral Group Still Teaching Miami Students To Sing

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

As soon as the fourth and fifth graders at Natural Bridge Elementary were handed the lyrics to Amazing Grace, they were ready to sing out.

But first, they needed a lesson in the four voice types of a choir – bass, tenor, alto and soprano.

One by one members of the group added their part while the students waited to sing the melody. Finally, it was time to add soprano Sara Guttenberg

“I really hope she sings the melody,” tenor Patrick Muehleise kids.

The students are ready. They join in before the conductor gives them their cue.

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Congressmen Agree On Revisions To “No Child Left Behind”

Standardized testing will continue under the new rules, but the onerous sanctions imposed on schools could go away.


Overcoming years of partisan bickering over the federal government’s role in public education, congressional negotiators came to an agreement on Thursday to revise the No Child Left Behind law for the first time since it was signed by President George W. Bush 14 years ago.

Read more at: www.nytimes.com

International Baccalaureate Programs Finding A Home In Florida Middle and Elementary Schools

It’s game day in the 8th grade International Baccalaureate design class at Ada Merritt K-8 Center in Little Havana in Miami.

The games the students are playing are designed by their classmates. And they’re based on books the students read for class.

Four eighth graders prepare to set off on a board game based on the book “Everlost” – set in a fantasy world between life and death inhabited by “afterlights.”

Ada Merritt K-8 Center 8th graders Theo Urquiza and Victoria Fernandez play a role-playing game based on the book "Everlost" that their classmates created.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Ada Merritt K-8 Center 8th graders Theo Urquiza and Victoria Fernandez play a role-playing game based on the book "Everlost" that their classmates created.

Theo Urquiza reads the rules and introduces the characters.

“Every player must choose one character,” Urquiza reads, “and once you have chosen a character go to the table of contents to see what page your player is on.”

“So, who’s Allie?” he asks.

“Ok, Allie,” he continues, and reads the character description. “Although Allie is dead, she’s not really dead. She got stuck in between life and death in a world called Everlost.”

Students were asked to create a role-playing game – where players live in the heads of the characters they’re playing with.

In this game, the players face a series of scenarios as the move along the board. They make a choice, and the outcome is decided by a roll of the dice.

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