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Here’s why it’s time for Florida teachers, parents and students to focus on math.

Here’s why it’s time for Florida teachers, parents and students to focus on math.

Ever since Jeb Bush was governor, Florida has been the ‘Just Read!’ stands. The Legislature enshrined reading as a “core value” into law, and the Florida Department of Education still maintains a “Just Read, Florida!” office.

Paul Cotel
Paul Cotel (Courtesy of Bill Lax)

The result of this focus on reading is evident in the SAT scores earned by our state’s graduating class of 2023. While these graduates performed well on the English reading and writing section of the SAT, their performance on the math section was dismal.

It’s time for Florida’s educational leaders, teachers, parents and students to focus on math.

I’ll start by substantiating my claims about Florida’s SAT results. Of students graduating from Florida high schools in 2023, 90% took the SAT. Only ten other states and the District of Columbia had participation rates as high or higher than Florida’s. Comparing Florida’s SAT scores to those of states with much lower participation rates would make no sense because we would be comparing the scores of almost all of our students to those of only the stronger students in those states with lower participation. So we will limit our comparison of Florida to those ten other high-participation states (Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) plus the District of Columbia.

Of these twelve high-participation jurisdictions, Florida’s graduating class of 2023 had the third-highest average score (503) on the SAT reading and writing section, behind only Connecticut and Colorado. That’s pretty good, and “Read it, Florida!” seems to work.

But now the bad news. Of the 12 jurisdictions with high participation, Florida’s average score on the SAT math section (463) was third from the bottom, ahead of only West Virginia and New Mexico. That’s bad news for the future of Florida students in an economy where many of the most financially attractive career options are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and health care.

The SAT scores earned by Florida’s graduating class of 2023 are significantly lower than those earned by the class of 2017, but the drop in math section scores far outweighs the drop in reading and writing scores. Florida’s high school class of 2017 earned an average SAT reading/writing score of 520, so the average score of 503 in 2023 represents a drop of 17 points. Another way to look at this is to look at the percentage of candidates who achieved what the College Board calls a “college-ready” score, namely 480 on the reading/writing section. Of Florida’s graduating class of 2017, 64% achieved that college score. Among 2023 graduates, 58% did so – a decline of 6 percentage points.

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But on the math part, the negative trend is steeper. For Florida’s graduating class of 2017, the average math section score was 497, and 38% of these applicants achieved the college-ready score of 530. The average math section score of 463 for the high school class of 2023 represents a drop of 34 points. And among 2023 students, only 28% were college ready in math, a decline of 10 percentage points since 2017.

Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature did not even consider proposals to improve high school math education during the 2024 session. What they should do is figure out how to attract more people with strong math skills into the teaching profession. According to the High Demand Teacher Needs Areas Report 2024-25 adopted earlier this year by the State Board of Education, Florida’s teacher preparation programs are producing less than a fifth of the number of new math teachers the state’s public schools want to hire.

It is possible that some people with strong math skills, who would otherwise consider a career in teaching, are discouraged by Florida teacher salaries. Although the average starting salary for public school teachers in the state is relatively high ($47,178 in 2023, according to the National Education Association), experienced teachers do not earn much more than novice teachers. According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in Florida in 2022-2023 was $53,098, which ranked 50th in the nation among the states and the District of Columbia. Only West Virginia was lower, and even Mississippi was higher (though only $255).

However, pay is not the only issue that math teachers emphasize. Some math teachers I’ve talked to have told me that when students struggle with math, the students’ parents often blame the teacher and file a complaint with the school board. Instead of complaining about math teachers, parents should make sure their students do their math homework and then work with teachers to find the help their students need to be more successful at learning math.

After all, mathematics offers opportunities for students. Of course, students who want to pursue high-powered STEM careers in college, such as engineering, computer science, or physical sciences, will benefit greatly from taking a math course while in high school—which can only happen if those students succeed in Algebra 1. In high school.

But it’s not just students in the most math-intensive careers who need math skills. Nursing students need mathematical skills, and the lack of mathematical skills among these students has created challenges for nurse educators. Many of the engineering career paths accessible with a two-year college degree and promoted by Florida leaders require significant college-level math skills.

“Do the math, Florida!” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “Just Read, Florida!” do. But perhaps a smart marketing professional can come up with a better slogan to promote the improvement of math education in the state. Because that’s what Florida students desperately need to have a bright future in our technological economy: better opportunities to learn math.

Paul Cottle, professor of physics at Florida State University, served on the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards in 2007-2008 and chaired the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education from 2013 to 2014.