Tennessee’s Math and Science Failings
According to a compilation by the state Department of Education, only in 10 of Tennessee’s 95 counties do any high schools offer advanced placement courses in any of the sciences. In the case of math, the number of counties where an AP course is offered rises to 27—still a small minority.
Predictably, most of these offerings are in the state’s larger metropolitan areas, including the Tri-cities, Clarksville and Jackson, as well as the big four. That leaves talented students in the rest of the state without access to the challenge, stimulus, and college credits that AP courses can provide. (Though five-week summer programs provided by the Tennessee Governor’s Schools to a select group of high schoolers are somewhat compensatory.)
A dearth of AP course offerings in small towns and rural areas is by no means unique to Tennessee. Smaller, often poorer school systems just can’t afford to offer AP courses to the typically low number of students who would benefit from them. And especially in the sciences, many don’t have teachers who are qualified to teach them.
In nearly every state that borders Tennessee, however, state-funded residential schools for math and science make enriched curriculums accessible to selected high-school juniors and seniors from throughout the state. In most cases, those schools cover not only the tuition expense but also the room and board of their students on campuses that also include athletic facilities and other amenities of student life.
The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics is prototypical. Founded in 1980, it now has about 600 students on a 27-acre campus in Durham that was converted from a hospital and nursing school but has since been extensively renovated. According to its web site, “Our diverse student body consists of 11th and 12th graders who represent more than 90 of North Carolina’s 100 counties” and “our mission is to provide a haven for students who are motivated to excel.” The school also fields teams in just about every sport except football. Its $14 million annual budget is funded directly by the state legislature.
South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas all provide similar residential schools, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Their annual budgets are typically on the order of $5 million, and the South Carolina and Alabama schools do charge a $1,000 fee that’s reduced or waived for lower-income families. Virginia has taken a different tack, with 16 regional day schools spread throughout the state.
Disturbingly, Tennessee education officials aren’t even aware of what these other states are offering, let alone considering a counterpart. “I stay so busy I haven’t had time to look at that,” says Linda Jordan, sciences consultant for the state Department of Education. Nor has Gary Nixon, executive director of the state Board of Education.
The closest Tennessee comes to offering enriched curriculum to high school students for whom AP courses are not available is through the Governor’s School and via dual enrollment programs under which high schools have collaborated with nearby community colleges on course offerings.
The Governor’s School, which was launched by Lamar Alexander in the early 1980s, isn’t really a school but rather a variety of five-week summer programs conducted on college campuses. This summer, 502 select high school students partook of college credit courses at a cost to the state of $2 million. UT-Knoxville hosted the science component of the school, with 80 students who were offered the choice of a biology, chemistry, physics, or math course; UT-Chattanooga, a school for prospective teachers; UT-Martin, a humanities school and a school for agricultural sciences; and the list goes on at several Board of Regents universities.
Dual enrollment courses are mostly offered in collaboration with the state’s two year community colleges, which charge regular tuition to students who can get both college and high-school credit for taking them. Close to 3,000 students participated this past school year, but mostly in English, history, and technical training courses with only a smattering of math and hardly any science.
Another avenue for extending the reach of AP courses is distance learning via the Internet. In North Carolina, 1,800 students are projected to take such online courses this coming school year, up from 1,000 last year, but they are not being pushed in Tennessee. “Distance learning works with some folks but not with most,” observes the state department’s Jordan.
A big reason Tennessee lags behind its neighboring states is in the budgetary constraints imposed by a regressive tax structure. Gov. Phil Bredesen has spared K-12 funding from the severe budget cuts he’s imposed on higher education. But the funding formula, known as the BEP, is expected to add $60 million or more to state costs in the fiscal year ahead just to cover enrollment growth and inflationary factors. Formula revisions are under consideration that would add another $70 million to its cost. And while Bredesen has been supportive of the Governor’s School, his primary educational initiative has been to extend the state’s pre-school program. So the chances of any incremental funding to build and staff a math and science high school are nil.
But readers of this column two weeks ago will recall that the state already has a very suitable campus with facilities that are grossly underutilized. It’s the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, many of whose 30 faculty members are considered obsolescent and are being targeted for early retirement. Yet those math, science, and engineering instructors would appear to be prime candidates for Bredesen’s Teach Tennessee program to retread professionals in these fields as public school teachers. So if UTSI’s $7.5 million in state funding is bound to be kept in the Tullahoma area for political reasons anyhow, much of it could go for an advanced high school at no additional cost to the state.