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.


  • Jim Bennett

    Sorry, but this is just a slice that reflects overall the inability of the FL higher education establishment at the Tallahassee level, and its appointees, to understand education. FL needs help by people with brains fast.

    • Paul Cottle

      The K-12 system is just as challenged on policy as the postsecondary system is.

  • Russ Soule

    I am always amazed at the journalist’s refrain that teachers don’t get paid enough compared to private enterprise. Do journalists get such high wages that they can afford to sit back and comment on others? No? Then why is it that the lack of education professionals is almost always because “the pay isn’t high enough.”? There are many reasons why a person might go into any profession beyond the monetary one and it seems to be an insult to the education profession to assume their ONLY motivation is money. If we all were motivated simply by money, wouldn’t we all be neurosurgeons? Or perhaps real estate moguls? Can we stop assuming that the education profession is the ONLY profession that is motivated by income? I am sure there are many physics-qualified educators in the country that would be willing to work in Florida if the school systems thought the class was important enough to provide. But when the national average is a mere 40% of students taking the class, maybe the school boards just don’t believe the class is as important as Robin Sussingham does!

    • Paul Cottle

      Hi Russ, My physics majors can go out into the world with a bachelor’s degree at start at $50K per year. Some would like to teach but are unwilling to take less than $40K to do so because they would like to pay off their student loans or start families. At that income level, $10K matters a lot. I am constantly told by school and district administrators that they would like to expand their physics offerings, but they fail in their searches for physics teachers (and math, and chemistry). They ask me what they should do, and I respond, “Pay them more.” But it never happens.

      • Russ Soule

        Paul, I understand the desire to make “more” no matter what the profession might be. However, in the case of an educator, the only “more” that is available is the “more” that we property tax payers are willing to pay. So an educator who plans to work in the K-12 schools must be willing to take whatever the paying public is willing to offer. It really isn’t a question of “are they worth it?” but more a question of “Do we wwant to pay for it?” Mercedes may be the best cars on the road, but how many of us are willing to forego eating and house payments in order to own one? So once again the point of view determines whether Physics is of so much importance that the consumer (tax payer) is willing to pay more for it than to have 3 English classes. If your majors can make $50K to start versus $40K as a teacher, GREAT! Obviously their expertise is more valued in the marketplace than in the school-yard. My question to you would then be “Would your majors have bothered to take the physics classes if they knew the top salary would be the $40K?”

        • Paul Cottle

          I agree with you that it’s a political question (in the best sense). If parents in Pasco County become convinced that their kids need better access to physics classes, then they need to pressure their high school administrators and the Pasco School Board, who then would have a responsibility to find a way to recruit more physics teachers (by paying them more or by whatever scheme they come up with). If Pasco parents aren’t convinced this matters, then nothing will change. And it shouldn’t. So if I think this is important, I need to convince parents this is important. That’s the task.

          • Russ Soule

            Paul, ABSOLUTELY! The ONLY legitimate way to make changes that affect everyone is to convince “the people” that those changes need to be made. The bad thing is, most groups and agitators do not feel capable of that convincing and therefore require a legislative enforcement of the change or a judicial enforcement of that change. If everyone with a political ax to grind believed as you and tried to change minds via logic and financial analysis, there would be a lot less of the I hate you!” speech in this world. BTW: i am NOT convinced that i should pay more in property taxes so the five students who will eventually become physicists from my county can have a place to learn. Make physics part of the Senior Year curriculum and maybe i would be willing to pay for it. THAT is my logic as an answer. Later.

        • Heath Schur

          i want to be a physics teacher in highschool but it is because of my love and an additional penision from my previous employer

          • Russ Soule

            Heath, that is where you differ from the graduates that Paul is speaking of. You have an income to support your desire and are therefore capable of contributing at the current rate of pay. Paul says his graduates need to be paid more BECAUSE they have no other source of income. Or it is his position, I believe, that a Physics Major should be paid more just because they ARE a Physics Major. That belief might hold water if one is speaking of limited licensed professions such as MDs or DDS or JD or any of the other professions that are limited in practice. But Physics Majors are NOT licensed by the state and there is not an artificial limitation on how many can perform their profession. Again and again, it is up to the CONSUMER of the service to decide what the service is worth, not the PROVIDER of the service.

  • johnson435245632@mail.ru

    High school science is very effect able for us in the education. It give the platform to established the base of our science education. I like it so much for the prosper in technology.

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