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Grace  Hase
By Grace Hase February 24, 2017

Greitens overstates number of students not enrolled in physics

At this year’s State of the State Address, newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens discussed problems with the Missouri education system and why he believes Missouri schools rank last in almost every area.

Greitens, a Republican, offered some interesting statistics about how so few students are enrolled in certain math and science courses. His statement about physics enrollment stood out.

"What we need to do is make sure that the money we spend finds its way into the classroom," Greitens said. "Over half of Missouri school districts do not offer a single Advanced Placement class. Over 200 of our 520 school districts did not have a single student in physics. Over 100 did not have a single student enrolled in chemistry.

"We need to expand course access programs, so that every child in Missouri can use technology to get the education they need."

The governor’s claim about enrollment numbers for Missouri high school students in physics courses seemed a bit low. So we wondered, is this really the case? And if so, why do so few Missouri school districts offer physics?

What the numbers show

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden said the office pulled data from a report compiled by a think tank called the Show-Me Institute. The report, which focused on course access in Missouri, requested information from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on enrollment of various courses offered in public schools.

The report said that, "During the 2014-2015 school year, of the 507 school districts that offer high school in the state ... 213 districts had no students enrolled in physics." However, PolitiFact Missouri called into question these numbers, and on Feb. 8, the Show-Me Institute issued a correction to its  data.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are 448 school districts offering high school courses in Missouri — not the 507 that the Show-Me Institute had previously stated, or the 520 that Greitens claimed.

With the new calculations, the Show-Me Institute found that 154 of those districts — not 213 — had no students enrolled in physics.

Why are so few students enrolled?

Even after the Show-Me Institute’s correction, the data still showed that a large number of students in Missouri weren’t enrolled in physics during the 2014-2015 school year. However, when the Show-Me Institute crunched its numbers, it only included higher-level courses for each subject. It didn’t take into account the ninth grade course, "Physics First."

A TIME for Physics First , a program that was created as part of a grant in 2009, takes a different approach to teaching high school science. Meera Chandrasekhar, a leader of the program team and physics professor at MU, said that Physics First reverses the high school science sequence and allows students to apply the algebra skills they are just learning.

"It gets students in ninth grade started off in a really good footing for upper-level science courses because physics is a fundamental science," Chandrasekhar said. 

Featured Fact-check

How many students really are studying physics?

In order to find out how many students are in any physics course in Missouri, we decided to crunch our own numbers independently from the Show-Me Institute. Turns out there was a bit of a difference.

When the Show-Me Institute compiled and published its report, it didn’t use finalized numbers for the 2014-2015 school year. The most recent numbers from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed that of the 448 school districts offering high school in Missouri, 178 districts did not offer upper-level physics courses. When adding in Physics First, 156 school districts did not offer any physics course.

Even though there isn’t a large difference between the two sets of data, 22 of these school districts actually offer Physics First only. Chandrasekhar said that this has to do with requirements for high school teachers.

To be able to teach physics at the high school level, a teacher must have the equivalent of a bachelor's degree  in physics. Physics First, however, is taught as more of an introductory science course and the program offers training for high school science teachers who are qualified in other areas such as biology or chemistry. This is a benefit for more rural schools in Missouri that might not necessarily have the resources to hire a physics teacher since physics is not a required science.

"Every child in ninth grade gets to take a physics class then," Chandrasekhar said. "It essentially boosts the numbers."

The national picture

When Greitens made his claim about physics enrollment, it was part of a much larger claim — that education in Missouri is behind.

"We have an education system that ranks near last in every measure that matter," Greitens said.

However, when it comes to physics, that’s far from the truth. Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State University, has focused some of his research on physics course access in the United States. As a part of his research, he requested data from every state education department on its  physics enrollment numbers.

For the 2014-2015 school year, Missouri ranked sixth out of the 29 states from which Cottle received data. Missouri’s physics enrollment numbers were also above 50 percent, compared with the 23 other states, which had enrollment rates below 42 percent.

Our ruling

Greitens said that over 200 of 520 school districts in Missouri didn’t have any students enrolled in physics.

The data that Greitens used for his claim contained incorrect information and didn’t account for students enrolled in the Physics First course.

Part of Greitens overall claim was that the Missouri education system ranks nearly last in every category. But when it comes to physics, Missouri has an above-average enrollment rate.

We rate this claim as Mostly False.

Our Sources

Email exchange with Parker Briden, press secretary to Gov. Eric Greitens, Jan. 23

Email exchange with Michael McShane, Director of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute, Jan. 26

Course Access in Missouri: Diversity, Personalization, and Opportunity, accessed Jan. 26

Course enrollment numbers in physics, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, accessed Feb. 6

Interview with MU physics professor and a TIME for Physics First leader, Meera Chandrasekhar 

Course Access in Missouri, Updated, accessed Feb. 8

Physics is a Choice: The variation in physics enrollment rates among states, Paul Cottle, accessed Feb. 12

Greitens overstates number of students not enrolled in physics

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