In her piece “What Nobel Prizes say about national greatness,” columnist Mona Charen uses the awarding of the 2021 Nobel Prizes as an excuse to present a false choice between excellence and inclusiveness in K-12 schools. She argues that changes to the talented and gifted program in New York City public schools and the admissions requirements for Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology show that our nation is in danger of elevating “diversity at the expense of excellence”.
Fortunately, there is a way for the K-12 system to broaden access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields for all students, even those from disadvantaged backgrounds, without sacrificing excellence. And the best example in Florida of such an approach is in Orange County, which is just a short drive up I-4 from Tampa Bay. Orange County Public Schools provide a template that every school district in the Tampa Bay region should emulate.
Despite its name, the magic of Orange County’s Calculus Project actually takes place in middle school algebra classrooms. University faculty and professional societies in engineering and science fields often recommend that high school students who are considering majors in STEM fields take a calculus course in high school. Given the standard high school math sequence (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus and then Calculus), a student must take Algebra 1 in middle school to get into a Calculus class senior year of high school or before.
However, Black students are underrepresented among Florida public middle school students taking Algebra 1. During the 2020-21 school year, 21.5% of the students in Florida’s public K-12 schools were Black. But only 11.8% of the seventh-grade students taking the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course (EOC) exam (indicating they took Algebra 1 during the 2020-21 school year) were Black, and only 14.6% of the eighth-graders taking the Algebra 1 EOC were Black. (34.9% of Florida’s public K-12 students were Hispanic, as were 32.7% of the seventh-graders taking the Algebra 1 EOC and 31.3% of the eighth-graders taking the EOC)
To qualify for a seventh-grade Algebra 1 class, Florida students generally must score 4 or 5 (out of 5) on the state’s sixth-grade math Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). Instead of doing this, Orange County Public Schools recruit sixth-graders from a broad range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds with scores of 3 on the sixth-grade math FSA into seventh-grade Algebra 1 classes and then provides these students with an extraordinary amount of support. This support begins by bringing these students to school during the summer before seventh grade for intensive math preparation. It continues with after-school tutoring and even Saturday sessions. And this extra support continues as Calculus Project students transition to high school.
Orange County’s extraordinary work on improving both diversity and excellence in STEM extends to science as well. Every traditional district high school in Orange County teaches physics, another subject important for preparing for college STEM majors. In fact, the Orange County public high school with the largest percentage of students taking physics is Jones High School, where 89% of the students are Black and 100% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
But excellence is nothing new to Jones High School. The school is regularly visited by Brown University physics professor S. James Gates, Jones Class of 1969, who received the National Medal of Science in 2012 for his work in theoretical physics. Gates visits Jones High School once a year to award scholarships to students.
School districts in the Tampa Bay region can promote both diversity and excellence by adopting the Calculus Project model in their own schools. Furthermore, the region’s public high schools should teach physics so their students have the opportunity to prepare properly for college STEM majors. According to enrollment data posted by the Florida Department of Education, every large (more than 1,000 students) public high school in Hillsborough County taught physics during the 2020-21 school year. But one large public high school in Pinellas County, four large public high schools in Hernando County and five large public high schools in Pasco County did not teach physics in 2020-21.
There is no reason for diversity and excellence to be in conflict in Florida’s K-12 schools. School and district leaders should provide all students with opportunities to excel and invite students and their parents to take advantage of those opportunities. If these leaders do so, Florida will have a great future.
Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State, was on the committee that wrote Florida’s K–12 science standards in 2007–2008 and was chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education in 2013–2014.