Putting Education Reform To The Test

Florida Education Coverage Heading To New Home


For more than four years, StateImpact Florida has put the state’s education policies to the test by reporting on the impact the decisions are having on the lives of students, parents, and educators.

Our staff has changed over the years, but our public media reporters in Miami and Tampa never wavered in sharing stories that matter to you and to our communities.

Today, we’re making a small move. Our online stories will be moving to a new location. You’ll now be able to find our education coverage on our local websites: WUSFNews.org and WLRN.org.

And as always, you can find our continued in-depth coverage on WUSF 89.7 FM in the Tampa Bay area and in South Florida at WLRN 91.3 FM.


Head Gear For Florida High School Girls Lacrosse: Worth It?


Two years ago the Florida High School Athletic Association, or FHSAA, passed a wildly unpopular mandate, requiring girls lacrosse players to wear head gear. The organization said it was responding to concussion risks — but critics say policy and public perception of risk are getting ahead of the actual data.

For the past two seasons, girls lacrosse players in Florida have had to wear a kind of a thick headband. The FHSAA had required it — against the recommendations of the national lacrosse organization , US Lacrosse, and before performance standards had been created for the gear.

Other states don’t require any head gear — including states such as Virginia, which have well established programs.  The sport is a relative newcomer in Florida, and some coaches and  athletes say the FHSAA’s head gear decision indicates an unfamiliarity with the sport.

“I’m not trying to be petty about it, but they’re definitely unattractive,” said Delaney Turton, a junior at Plant High School in Tampa who plays attack on the girls varsity lacrosse team.  “So, I know for a lot of girls looking to try a new sport, it might turn some people away just out of embarrassment, and it does slow down the growth of the game, which is sad.”

Plant senior midfielder Madi McGonnigal agrees.

“We were already trying to gain respect as a sport. We just became varsity three years ago. The boys were just starting to respect us, and other states were starting to respect us, and the headband thing put a damper on it,” she said.

McGonnigal added that in her experience, girls tended to play more aggressively, and come closer to hitting with their stick, when they relied on the headgear to protect themselves and other players.

FHSAA officials say the implementation was approved as an additional safety measure to reduce head injuries, not necessarily concussions. That’s good, because they won’t, says Dr. Gillian Hotz, director of the University of Miami’s concussion program in sports medicine.

“No helmet prevents concussion,” Hotz said. “It’s acceleration-deceleration. It’s a back and forth [motion]. So  these cap-like helmet covers, that they’re thinking of for the women’s lacrosse,  I just don’t think they’ll be effective at all.”

Hotz said policy decisions such as the FHSAA decision on girls lacrosse are a knee-jerk reaction to public anxiety, before the scientific evidence has come in. Scientists  say without good studies, it’s impossible to judge the risk of concussion or of long term health problems, and know whether it’s worth changing the culture of an established girls sport.

Dave Cassidy is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto in Canada, and has studied the existing scientific literature on concussion. He said data are lacking, and that any calculation of concussion risk had to be balanced with the benefits of youth sports in an age of rampant obesity and inactivity.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in this now,” Cassidy said, “and hopefully we’re going to see more and more studies –  hopefully, good quality studies –  because right now we don’t know the risk. But it’s been publicized a lot.”

Hotz said all the publicity may be causing some over-reaction.  Problems with professional athletes and concussion, such as highlighted in the recent movie “Concussion,” she said, can not be applied to youth sports.

“We’ve got to bring the pendulum back,” she said. “There has been some hysteria with the movie and other things, but I think we have to bring the pendulum back.”

Hotz said it is known that multiple hits to the head can cause problems, especially to a young person with a developing brain. But the best way to prevent those concussive hits, she says, is by educating everyone — players, parents, coaches and refs — about how to play more safely.

Plant High School girls lacrosse Coach Jayne Chapman said US Lacrosse has been working hard to educate everyone involved about concussion prevention and treatment.

“If your players are  hacking away and consistently coming close to people’s heads,  that’s where the education process is more important than the gear part of it,” Chapman said.

Girls lacrosse, she said, is a completely different sport than the boys, who wear hard helmets and pads. It is about finesse and precision, not physical contact.

“The concern is if you start equipping the girls with the same protective gear as the boys, then you are giving them license to play a sport that is not girls lacrosse,” she said.

US Lacrosse has issued new performance standards, and the new headgear will have to cover the head like a cap. It will be optional for other states, but Florida’s girls lacrosse teams will start wearing them next spring.

Parlez-Vous Java? Computer Science Proponents Look For Ways To Attract Students

Tom Rompella leads the Introduction to Information Technology class at Keys Collegiate Academy

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

Tom Rompella leads the Introduction to Information Technology class at Keys Collegiate Academy

Computer coding is the language that tells a computer what to do, but is it a foreign language? The Florida Senate has approved a bill saying yes; if it passes into law, high school students could substitute computer coding for required foreign language credits. It’s an attempt to get more of the state’s students into computer science classes.

But while that effort is being debated, a computer science advocate in the Keys isn’t waiting for the state to pass a law. He’s putting his own money into the push for computer literacy.

The coding/foreign language bill is not without opposition. State Senator Jeff Clemens summed it up this way:

“We’ve removed so many opportunities for culture in our public schools. We’re not requiring anybody to take art. We’re not requiring anybody to take music. Basically all we have left, that teaches culture, that teaches us more about what other cultures are like, that teaches more about what the world is like, is the requirement to take a foreign language.”

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent  Alberto Carvalho is also an outspoken critic, telling the Miami Herald that, in his view, coding and foreign language are not interchangeable.

Carvalho says the bill would put college applicants at a disadvantage. While the bill requires state colleges to accept the coding credits in lieu of foreign language, most other colleges would still be expecting to see that students had taken a foreign language.

Several civil rights groups have also released a statement denouncing the measure, calling it “misleading and mischievous.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate, says computer science is a basic skill that every student must have. “You can not do a job in this world — construction, media, politics, law, medicine — whatever it is, unless you have an understanding of technology, or you will be left behind,” Ring said.

John Padget of Key West agrees. Padget is the Vice Chair of the state Board of Education and founded a program called Monroe Computes, in which he pays kids in Monroe County to take computer classes.

Padget says Florida lags the rest of the country when it comes to computer science,  and Monroe county, he says, in behind the rest of the state. He says he felt he had to do something.

“We saw a real opportunity to jumpstart computer science and coding learning in Monroe County, and we’re doing it,” Padget says.

Padget and his  partner Jacob Dekker put $100,000 towards the program. They’re paying students up to $500 to finish a Microsoft Office specialist certification. He concedes that Microsoft Word or Excel are not really coding courses — but says it’s a place to start, and are sparking interest in going further.

Keys Collegiate Academy Senior Ryan Sziko took Padget up on his offer, and lists the reasons why.

“A, I get three college credits,” Sziko says. “B, it’s a great skill to learn,
and C, they were paying 500 bucks. “

Sziko says now he’s teaching himself coding at home.

Padget  says coding is a crucial skill and he encourages any initiative to develop computer science learning in Florida. But when asked about the  lawmakers current proposal, and whether coding could be considered a substitute for a foreign language, Padget says ‘no.’ It can’t replace foreign language, he says, which is a window to the wider world.

The New SAT Is Coming Soon

SAT pic

Like many parents of high school juniors, I’m getting anxious about upcoming college applications and what it’ll take to get in, such as doing well on the SAT. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the College Board, creator of the SAT,  is debuting a new test in March and these are the first changes in more than a decade.

But I’m not sure my son Daniel is worried about it enough!  He’s a student at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland, and he was doing homework in front of the television when I decided to speak to him about what he’s doing to prepare for the entrance exams.

Me:  “Alright, I think you should turn the football off.”
Daniel: “I think I can just do both, because it’s the pro bowl….I’ll mute it!”
Me: “But don’t you think you should get serious about studying for the SAT?”
Daniel: “I AM serious about studying for the SAT.”
Me: “How?”
Daniel: “I have an app.”

His app is called “Daily Practice for the new SAT.”  It’s put out by the College Board, and a company called Khan Academy. The College Board has contracted with Khan Academy to provide SAT test preparation to anyone, online, free of charge. That’s something new, and it’s an attempt to level the playing field between families that can afford to hire expensive testing tutors — and those who can’t.

I’ve heard several counselors say the Khan Academy prep is very good. But wouldn’t face to face coaching be even better? I thought I needed to talk to a highly regarded testing tutor in St. Petersburg, and see what he said about the revamped SAT.

Richard Estren has been preparing students for these tests for around 25 years. Among the many postcards tacked on his wall, I saw a graduation announcement for Stanford, one of  several of his students that he said was admitted to that elite school.

One reason that the College Board is making changes to the SAT, said Estren and others I’ve talked to, is because the other college entrance test, the ACT, has been taking over the market share in the past few years. In response,the new SAT is taking its cue from the ACT in its changes, and becoming more aligned with what kids should be learning in class, including common core standards.

One of those big changes on the way is those esoteric SAT words, like “lachrymose” or  “raconteur,” going away in favor of more commonly used words. There’s no penalty for guessing now. Also, the essay is becoming optional.

Reading passages — not just math sections — will include charts and graphs to interpret.

“I’m guarded about the new SAT,” Estren said. “I think it will be harder for many students. It’s going a little more analytical in its approach. They’re raising the bar, they’re raising the bar. And that’s okay, I just don’t think a lot of students are quite ready for that yet.”

Estren said he’s advising kids to skip the March SAT and wait for later sittings,or just stick with the ACT. But he said the College Board did a “great thing” by providing free Khan Academy training to any students that want it.

The key, he said, is what he calls “P3.”  Practice, practice practice.

I asked my son Daniel about that. He said so far he’s just been trying to keep up with his schoolwork, sports and extra-curricular activities.

Me: “So you mean you feel like there’s not a lot of time to  study for these tests, is that what you’re saying?”
Daniel:  “I pay a lot of attention to my classes. So I guess I haven’t paid attention a lot to the SAT or ACT. I try not to be overwhelmed about it.”

Oh, well. Maybe Daniel is right not too stress over the tests so much. He’s a good student, and he’ll be fine. Estren said he has faith that most  students wind up where they belong. And anyway, at last count, almost 900 colleges are making the tests optional for admission.

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

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