Florida’s public school “defenders” should stop bashing public schools

reality check aheadIn Florida, we love the bizarre. We cultivate gator-eating pythons and face-eating zombies and transvestites who inject women’s derrieres with Fix-a-Flat. So maybe it makes complete sense that our education debates are so often detached from reality, too.

It’s strange but true: Some of the same people who say Jeb Bush and like reformers are out to trash public schools are the ones, in fact, who often trash public schools themselves. In their haste to throw stones, they put themselves in the position of dismissing the hard work of teachers and the hard-won gains of low-income students.

I know that sounds harsh. But the past few weeks have yielded some notably brazen examples.

In the wake of the FCAT writing fiasco, Fund Education Now, the Orlando-based parents group that has become a grassroots powerhouse, said the test results were “proof that Tallahassee’s ‘education reforms’ are an unmitigated disaster.” The group’s founders said “Bush’s policies have created the impression that Florida schools are failing,” according to StateImpact Florida, a group affiliated with National Public Radio. In an op-ed, co-founder Kathleen Oropeza argued that “fourteen years of unproven, expensive ‘reforms’ have not produced the rumored ‘Florida Miracle.’ “

Meanwhile, Roy Miller, president and founder of the Tallahassee-based Children’s Campaign, also took aim at ed reform in Florida, saying a new report “casts doubts on claims about the progress being made based on FCAT.” An Orlando Sentinel reporter, also inspired, used the report to sarcastically refer to “Florida’s much ballyhooed progress in student achievement.”

Here’s what all these statements have in common: a complete refusal to acknowledge that Florida students have made some of the most dramatic improvements in the nation in the past 14 years. NAEP results show this. AP results show this. Graduation rates show this. In the 1990s, one academic indicator after another showed Florida kids wearing dunce caps in the nation’s academic cellar. But in the last four years no less a respected arbiter of education quality than Education Week has ranked Florida No. 11, No. 8, No. 5 and No. 11, respectively, among all 50 states. It must be emphasized that the gains have been especially strong for low-income and minority students. Reform supporters have rightly lauded the trend lines, rightly noted there are miles to go, and, again and again, rightly thanked the talented, driven teachers who were essential to making it happen.

Some critics, though, act as if nothing has changed – or that things have gotten worse. The statements from Fund Education Now are richly ironic. This same organization has repeatedly painted a portrait of hobbled and dysfunctional public schools. In fact, Fund Education Now is the lead plaintiff in a pending lawsuit that charges the state with failing to live up to its constitutional duty to provide “high quality” schools. This detail wasn’t mentioned in the StateImpact story.

Last month, we politely rapped Fund Education Now for the “unmitigated disaster” claim. But in her op-ed, Oropeza makes that statement look tame, throwing down one fear-stoking whopper after another to support her case of zero progress.

PolitiFact, where are you? Oropeza is wildly off the mark about the cost of standardized testing in Florida (the state hasn’t paid the Pearson testing company billions; the current four-year FCAT contract is worth $256 million); the impact of the state’s third-grade retention policy (it’s nowhere near “likely” that 36,000 of this year’s third-graders will be retained, as she asserts, because historically about half are still promoted); and how the policy works (students are not retained or promoted based on FCAT scores alone).

Roy Miller, whose group also has worthy aims, also has trouble with the details. He riffs on a new report that examines the differences in proficiency rates between state tests like the FCAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is better known as NAEP and widely considered to be the gold standard among standardized tests. He concludes: “These startling differences in national and state test results do nothing to assure taxpayers about progress being made in Florida.”

It’s true that NAEP and FCAT have set different bars as to what constitutes “proficient” (grade level on FCAT is more aligned to “basic” on NAEP). But that hardly diminishes the considerable progress that Florida students have made on NAEP. Whether you look at basic or above on NAEP, or proficient or above (and it must be noted there is a long-running debate about whether NAEP’s proficiency bar is too high) Florida NAEP scores have, until recently, been rising fast. It’s true, too, that some states heartily congratulate themselves for strong gains on their own tests even as they flatline on NAEP. But Florida isn’t one of those states. FCAT lines pretty much parallel NAEP lines. Finally, it should be pointed out that Cornelia Orr, Florida’s testing director for years, is now executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP. The board responsible for arguably the nation’s most important test wouldn’t have hired her if the FCAT was the dud its critics claim it is.

All this isn’t to say Florida is anywhere near where it needs to be. Not. Even. Close. Far too many kids are still falling through the cracks. And here at redefinED, we obviously believe that expanding school choice will help keep some of them from doing so. But the vast majority of students remain in traditional public schools, and we want those schools to be as good as they can be.

The overwhelming evidence suggests they have been improving at a decent clip. Kids in Florida public schools, especially low-income and minority kids, are much more likely today to be reading and doing math at grade level, to be taking and passing college-caliber AP exams, to be graduating. Policy changes deserve some credit, especially those that forced schools to focus more on struggling students. But it’s teachers who carried out those policies. They gritted their teeth. They did more with less. And at the end of the day, they engaged, motivated and educated more kids to reach their potential.

To deny that Florida’s public schools are making progress is to deny that Florida teachers are making progress. That’s not only factually wrong. It’s insulting.

(Image from schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com)

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25 Responses to Florida’s public school “defenders” should stop bashing public schools

  1. Joe June 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Ron:

    Most of the parents groups that are supporting traditional public education tend to be representative of a very narrow sector of the public school student population – higher achieving, middle class, mostly suburban, primarily Caucasian – to them – their schools are serving them well and they embrace the status quo.

    Sadly, few of these groups advocate for the 65% + of students who are not achieving, are left behind and, in many ways, are forgotten.

    They often invoke the dangers of “privatizing” education but ignore the fact that billions of dollars annually are already funneled to contractors, vendors, providers, consultants – in the process feeding a bloated bureaucracy that protects and insulates mediocrity.

    Call them out and examine the true roots of their advocacy and the merits of their spurious arguments…….

    • Ron Matus June 6, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      Joe,
      As always, thanks for the support and the insights. I wish you’d comment more often!

  2. Choosiness June 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    School choice in Delaware:
    “lack of a free and reduced lunch program breaks federal and state laws.”

    http://parentsacrossamerica.org/2012/03/moratorium-on-charter-schools-needed-in-delaware/

  3. Christine June 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    I have a question and a few statements for Mr.Matus:

    Are the children who are participating in the Step Up for Students given the FCAT? It is my understanding that they are not. I did see that should they be tested the results would be tied to their “zoned school” not the school that they actually attend. While your organization is not directly funded by tax dollars, the tax credit given to those who contribute to your program take away from public education.

    I can see why this method looks good to the assistant director for policy & public affairs at Step Up for Students. You keep your position without ever knowing if the program you promote is working. Fair enough, I understand protecting your bread and butter and feeling the need to twist or should I say ‘spin’ a volunteer’s words. Since you are a former journalist I think you will appreciate these facts or at the very least your readers will.

    Kathleen Oropeza is a parent, she receives NO funding from tax payers, the public schools and nothing from Fund Education Now, a grassroots group created by three moms from Orlando. The only thing she has to protect are her children and the community where she lives.

    The lawsuit that you mentioned above has nothing to do with “High Quality” and everything to do with “Adequately FUNDING a High Quality Education System.”
    Edweek ranked Florida as an F in funding; to me that is good cause for parents to seek a resolution for implementation of the constitution regarding funding. Can we interpret this to mean that you do not support following the constitution? Or is your issue with parents becoming advocates for their children?

    I am an advocate for Public Education and my story is much different than what I am reading in one of the comments. My children’s zoned schools look like this: Elementary: grade C, Free and Reduced 77% , Minority 68% Middle School: grade C, Free and Reduced 76%, Minority 66% High School: grade D, Free and Reduced 58%, Minority 51% My children both have IEPs and are McKay eligible, yet I still advocate/volunteer for public education.

    As far as the estimate of children who would fail the FCAT, those numbers came directly off the FLDOE site. Writing scores were pretty low, just ask anyone who watches national media. Lucky for some of the 900 third graders in my district (up from 400 last year) who failed the Reading FCAT a compilation of work from the school year prevented retention. http://www.justreadflorida.org/docs/6A-1-094221.pdf

    The final item I have to address is a flaw that I have found in Ms. Oropeza’s / Fund Education Now’s estimate of the state ONLY spending $400million with Pearson in 2011. My mid-sized district paid out almost $1million this school year alone in remediation materials, consulting and test prep to Pearson. I know Pearson products are in all districts but as a volunteer I don’t have the time nor the stomach to dig any deeper.

    I sincerely hope your personal attack on Ms. Oropeza is well backed by solid facts since she is a dedicated volunteer and you are a paid professional.

    • Ron Matus June 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

      Hi Christine,
      Thanks for reading redefinED and thanks for taking time out to respond. Obviously you care a lot about kids and schools or you wouldn’t have done that. Let me say first what I’ve said before: There’s a lot I admire about Fund Education Now, and I actually agree with them on at least some issues, and perhaps many issues. I’m in awe of their ability to organize and mobilize. And I certainly share their passion for making public schools – and public education – better. I have a son in public school; in August, I’ll have two sons in public school. I want my kids’ schools to be the best they can be. I want other kids to have schools as good as the ones my kids go to.

      I think we all probably agree with each other more than we disagree when it comes to public schools and public education. But we have to get past the labels, the myths and the misinformation.

      By law, every tax credit scholarship student in Florida in grades 3-10 must take a nationally norm-referenced approved by the state Department of Education. Most take the well-regarded Stanford Achievement Test. So you’re right they don’t take the FCAT (although a law passed this year will allow private schools to begin offering the FCAT if they want to), but they do take a comparable test that allows us to see how well they are doing versus kids in public schools. The state has contracted with David Figlio, a highly regarded researcher at Northwestern University, to look at the results. And what he found last year was that the tax credit scholarship students are making modestly larger gains in reading and math than their counterparts in public school, and that those gains appear to be getting stronger over time. You can read more about all that here: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2011/08/report-floridas-low-income-tax-credit-students-making-academic-gains/

      Like many other folks, you argue that the scholarships are draining money from public schools. That’s just not the case. Yesterday, on a different post, another reader raised the same point, so forgive me if I start repeating my lines. I told him the same thing: Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of four, credible, independent studies that all came to the same conclusion: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2012/03/report-tax-credit-scholarships-vouchers-will-save-florida-taxpayers-57-9-million-next-year/

      As far as the lawsuit, it’s about far more than funding. It’s about the whole enchilada of ed policies tied to Jeb Bush. For what it’s worth, I have mixed views about the funding piece in Florida. I have no doubt that thousands of amazing teachers are vastly underpaid; that some good programs could do more good with more money; and that other promising initiatives could get off the ground with more money. But I also have to admit that the more I covered schools at the district level, the more I was troubled with how existing funds are spent. I guess that’s a post for another day. :)

      • Christine June 7, 2012 at 1:56 am #

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. I wish the public schools could all have the option of which test to give to students or at least leave it to parent choice. I am hopeful that the voucher system works for the students using it.

        The real issue is providing the appropriate high quality education system to each individual child. I see too many parents opting for the McKay and ending up paying thousands out of pocket and still not receive that appropriate services for their child.

        I would like to see more local control and a stronger audit of all schools and the monies spent and the relationship of success to the spending. I think there is a happy medium and the leadership in the state are all jumping ship while the shore is in sight and the harbor is full. Too many kids are depending on the state, school districts and individual schools to do the right thing and the wait needs to end.

  4. Sandra June 7, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    The message from parents, community members, and taxpayers is clear. There is something wrong with the accountability system. Increased achievement? Ready for career and college? When a high school student has failed the FCAT three times, they can substitute with an ACT or SAT score. A concordant SAT/ACT equivalent score satisfies the requirement. Through 2011, the equivalent SAT score was 23 percent for reading and 5th percentile for math. What is there to brag about? What do we really know about Florida student achievement? Less and less.

    http://info.fldoe.org/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-5600/ConcordantScores.pdf

    • Ayn Marie June 7, 2012 at 11:17 am #

      Shouldn’t Florida be most concerned about the 10th grade FCAT scores and NEAP scores in high schools years? Have taxpayer dollars really been put to good use?

      For example, 2011 NAEP scores for 8th grade reading in Florida from the NAEP site:

      “In 2011, Black students had an average score that was 22
      points lower than White students. This performance gap
      was not significantly different from that in 1998 (28 points).

      In 2011, Hispanic students had an average score that was
      11 points lower than White students. This performance gap
      was not significantly different from that in 1998 (17 points).

      In 2011, female students in Florida had an average score
      that was higher than male students by 9 points.

      In 2011, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price
      school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an
      average score that was 19 points lower than students who
      were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This
      performance gap was not significantly different from that in
      1998 (24 points).

      In 2011, the average score of eighth-grade students in Florida was 262. This was not significantly different from the average score of 264 for public school students in the nation.”

      Further, Florida’s 10th grade FCAT reading scores for 2001 through 2011 were
      stagnant at about 39% proficiency, despite significant increases in
      funding, especially from 2002 through 2006.

      In 2011, Florida updated the FCAT standards to the 2.0 version, and as
      noted in the previous paragraph, they scored at the 39% proficiency
      level, a level at which they had scored at or near for over a decade.

      Miracle of miracles …, in the newly published reading results for
      2012, now 50% of Florida’s 10th graders were magically proficient.

      How could this be? Easy, the cut scores/passing scores were dramatically
      changed to ensure that there was a significant “improvement” (over 25%)
      in the number of students testing proficient in reading.

      So, are more students competent? Most improbable, as it appears that all
      sorts of standards can be manipulated at will to give an enhanced
      snapshot of student proficiency. This is not appreciated by anyone who
      sincerely cares about student learning.

      Check out the book, Exposing the Public Education System.

      • Ron Matus June 7, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

        Hi Ayn Marie, thanks so much for reading what we had to say and taking time out to write a response. As much as I’d like to get into a debate on all the different stats you cite, I’m honestly running out of time. But I did want to quickly point out that Education Week released its annual Diplomas Count report today and it showed good news for Florida kids. Florida’s grad rate improved 18 percentage points between 1999 and 2009, according to EdWeek’s calculations. Only two states improved more over that period. I think that says something. Remember, the grad rates went up even as Florida’s demographics – and its academic standards – got more challenging. I think there is room for debate on what factors have led academic indicators to rise in Florida, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that they are rising. Here’s the post I did today on the grad rate report: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2012/06/education-week-report-florida-graduation-rates-among-fastest-rising-in-nation/

        • Sandra June 8, 2012 at 10:45 am #

          How confusing!

          In a December 2011 Tampa Bay article, “Graduation Rates Soar, but there’s a catch”, explains the details of what those soaring numbers mean. Then two months later, the data exposes another reality in a February 2012 Orlando Sentinel article “Florida graduation rate plunges under new federal rules.”

          What do parents, community members, and taxpayers in Florida know about graduation rates? Less and less.

          • stlgretchen June 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

            I would like to know the answers to your questions, Sandra. As a Missouri resident (and a native Floridian), I keep my eye on what is happening in Florida, as many of these educational reforms will make their way here.

            What does the data REALLY say? How much credence can a parent give such data? Does the data mean anything when it’s adjusted up, then down, then up again….

            This is what happens when real local control is non-existent, decisions are made by private corporations held unaccountable to taxpayers and voters and politicians represent special interests and not the people.

            So what’s the real story about the graduation rates and testing results? Mr. Matus?

          • Ron Matus June 14, 2012 at 8:07 am #

            HI Sandra,
            I am so sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I am on vacation with both of my young sons this week, so I only have a few minutes.

            Grad rates ARE confusing. People have a right to be sceptical about them, both in Florida and in other states. Florida has not helped things by padding rates the way they have. Even former Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith raised concerns about this: http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/graduation-rates-soar-through-loophole/1140805

            I’m not sure if you noticed, but I’m the one who wrote the story you referenced above, “Graduation rates soar, but there’s a catch.” I also wrote this last year: http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/content/floridas-graduation-rates-pathetic-padded-progressing

            I don’t solely or even mostly rely on Florida’s self-reported test scores and grad rates to get a sense of whether Florida’s public kids are doing better. I look for outside measures from credible, independent folks who don’t have a dog in the fight. I find Education Week and the research center that puts together its reports very fair minded, careful and thoughtful. I think its latest Diplomas Count report captures what’s going on in Florida – our grad rates still aren’t very good, but they are getting better at a decent clip compared to other states.

            I think your earlier suggestion is on point. The media should dig into this more. They should try to better explain to readers what the grad rates show and don’t show, and how it can be that the state’s rate can be so different from the EdWeek rate and other calculations. But I know from being there that often the media doesn’t have time to get into highly technical, complicated subjects. So they often do the he-said, she-said. I can understand that sometimes. But why not do at least that last week, with a report that comes from a highly credible outfit that spends all of its time thoughtfully thinking about schools?

  5. Diane June 9, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    Mr. Matus, perhaps you would find the time to explain why the 2009 Seniors of Florida scored below the national average in BOTH Reading and Math on the NAEP. Eleven states participated and only two others did as poorly. Recall that these same students were long exposed to the bogus accountability system in the state and A schools abounded…to produce awful results. Consider the possibility of being duped by politicians playing with numbers.
    I , for one, consider Quality Counts full of nothing as it is like a checklist for parts wtihout concern for whether or notthe parts function as desired. Just as a junked car may have a steering wheel, headlights, brakes, and an engine, it is not the mere existence that matters..it is the functioning.
    Perhaps you forgot the dropout factories days , an area where Florida was a leader. If you do recall that, I hope you also remember that grad rates are dependent on the definition.
    The spin put out there by politicians to make their lousy plan look good is necessary to detect.
    Those who defend the public schools refuse to be scapegoated for the allowance of our country to have a child poverty rate of 24%. Those who defend the public schools complWho pushed NCLB? It was not teachers..it was the government. When looking at dismal results, how can one avoid looking at policy? The avoidance of these two glaring lights is a political stance in and of itself. rather than improving educational outcomes, privatization and profiteering may well be the goals of politicians pushing bologna.
    I am interested in your take on the most recent FCAT fiasco where proficiency rates dropped by 50 only to be recovered via a phone call. Who was the problem there and what did that mean to you? It was a display of mistaken policy afer mistaken policy. The test results were neither reliable or valid. Where in our bogus accountability sytem does it speak to changing results via phone call if they don’t make you look good? I thought Jeb boasted of raising standards….what exactly am I missing in the high standards required in Writing for all those years?
    Imagine atop this display of enormous questions and exposed bologna that Florida passed legislation to tie teacher career longevity and salary to such test score which fails the test of reliabilty and validity. Read the research that shows merit pay does not work in education, read the research that says high stakes testing does not improve acheivement. Then apply the word problem appropriately. Please do not mistake a desire to mine the public schools for profit with a concern for students.

    • Ron Matus June 10, 2012 at 6:41 am #

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for taking time to read my post and to write such a long response. I admire your passion for wanting to see Florida’s public schools improve. I can assure you, I share that passion. I have a young son in public school now; in August, I’ll have two. I want their schools to be the best they can be. I want the same for all kids.

      There is no perfect way to rate something as big and complicated as a state education system, but I think the Education Week Quality Counts report is a pretty good one. I find the academic portion to be useful. The 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores on NAEP give us an idea of how well kids are doing in elementary and middle schools. The AP results give us a sense of whether they’re taking and succeeding in rigorous classes in high school. The grad rates tell us whether they’re making it to the first finish line. I like that Education Week looks at both the percentage of students reaching the bar, and how much that percentage has changed over time. I think those things together do give us a sense of whether the system is functioning well or not, and getting better or not.

      I find it interesting that while you suggest the Education Week analysis is simplistic, the indicator you point to first and most specifically is a pretty simplistic one. It’s true Florida seniors scored below average in both the reading and math portions of the NAEP. But since that was the first time test results were reported at the state level, we have no idea whether the trend lines for Florida and the other states are up or down. It’s also noteworthy that only 11 states participated in the state-level results, and only one of them has a higher proportion of low-income kids than Florida. I think Florida deserves credit for having the guts to have a credible, independent source not only assess how it is doing, but tell the world about it.

      I do agree with you that what happened with the FCAT writing scores was a fiasco. It was a self-inflicted wound. I wrote about it here: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2012/05/this-time-florida-education-reformers-hand-ammo-to-critics/

      But mistake though it was, it doesn’t erase all the indicators that show Florida’s public schools students – while still nowhere near where they need to be – are doing better now than they were 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of people worked unbelievably hard in unbelievably trying times to make that happen, and none more so than Florida’s teachers.

  6. Diane June 9, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    http://myednext.org/profiles/blogs/the-lowdown-on-florida-s-high-stakes-testing-a-parent-Perhaps Much Ado about Nothing would be a good phrase for Jeb’s broken policies? Check out the data and look beyond the spin.http://myednext.org/profiles/blogs/the-lowdown-on-florida-s-high-stakes-testing-a-parent-s

  7. Diane June 11, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    Mr. Matus,
    I await your explanation of great things happening via Jeb Bush’s policies given the data available on this page. I see no connection to the data supplied here and anything of which to boast. Certainly cherry picking can be done and the system can be gamed.
    I also await your response to my blogs. I have no idea why my second one is disabled and I am trying to have that reversed. It works elsewhere. My concern is your giving credence to that which may be no more than a political tool as so easily noted in the Writing fiasco and a PR gimmick as seen by the numerous A schools which abounded while acheievement was low.
    I found your response of interest as you noted the poverty rate while talking of NAEP scores. This would be inconsistent with a Jeb philosophy which lacks any scientific backing that poverty is not an excuse. I have yet to see eithe r of his foundations speak of the NAEP senior scores. That is exactly why I do. Have you watched their template presentation? I have repeatedly. The NEPC certainly was not impressed, nor am I. As you have followed Jeb over the years, I suppose you recall he used to speak of hating grade inflation. I can only wonder if he hated it far less as it gave an illusion of great things happening in his state.I do know they presentthis basically meaningless data in thier state sales presentations. Smoke and mirrors should not be substitutes for learning.
    A horrid failure of an accountability sytem yields misinformation. How will Floridians know what is going on when a broken measuring stick is used? Why would you want your child’s xrays to be used for surgery to be taken by a broken machine? You would never allow it. That same response is needed to end the ironically titled A+ Plan.
    I maintain my evaluation of Quality Counts and note as well that Florida has legislated the edeletion of a child’s future by denying them a meaningful diploma based on a test score. They cannot even access vocational training. Soon, more will be placed in a cycle of poverty due to legislation as well. Since you are quite the fan of Florida policy. do you think the end result of education being detachment from the workforce is in any student’s best interest?

    • Ron Matus June 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks again for taking time out to write. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to respond sooner. As you know, school just got out for the summer, and I’m spending this week with my young sons.

      I didn’t mention the high poverty rate of Florida’s kids to use it as an excuse. There is undoubtedly a big connection between poverty and performance. I brought it up because, again, only 11 states had the guts to voluntarily put the performance of their high school seniors up to public scrutiny via NAEP. Only one of them has a higher rate of free- and reduced-price lunch kids than Florida. It’s relatively easy for states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, with FRL rates in the low 20 percent to low 30 percent range, to raise their hands for national comparisons. It’s harder for a state like Florida, with rates now well above 50 percent.

      I don’t claim to be an education “expert,” so maybe I’m wrong in how I view the numbers for NAEP, AP, FCAT, grad rates, etc. But I like to look for outliers. While there is a strong connection between poverty and performance, there are some teachers, some schools, some school districts and some states that do a lot better or a lot worse than their demographics would suggest. I think it’s important to take a closer look at those outliers and try to figure out what’s making them tick, or not. I think Florida is outperforming its demographic, according to the indicators that I listed in my original post that many people on all sides of this debate find to be credible and telling. Florida students are majority minority. They have pretty high poverty rates. The demographics are getting more challenging. And yet, Florida students are trending up with NAEP (until recently), with AP, and with grad rates.

      Those gains are not an illusion. I think there is room for debate on which factors led to them. I think there is good reason for criticism when the state messes up something like the writing scores. But I respectfully say again that it’s an insult to hard-working educators for anyone to suggest that those gains are not real. All those national indicators are up because district by district, school by school, classroom by classroom, more kids are learning than they were before.

      A few years ago, I did a story about high-poverty public schools in Florida that were outperforming their demographic. They were seeing sizable jumps on FCAT despite very high poverty rates. I anchored my story at Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg. You can read the story here: http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/article981794.ece

      The bottom line is, Blanton, which had once been an F school, had brought its FCAT reading and math scores up to be within striking distance of a school like Perkins Elementary, a highly prized arts magnet in St. Petersburg that doesn’t have anywhere near the poverty issues. It didn’t do that through hocus pocus or state manipulation. Here is what the principal, Debbie Turner, who makes me puddle up whenever I think of her, told me for that story: “I tell my staff that we cannot go and fix the homes. That’s not your job. The job is, the day your child arrives in front of you, pretend you’re it. If you have parental involvement, great. But if you don’t, you can’t use that as an excuse. … There’s no excuses whatsoever. We’re way beyond that. If they don’t have a pencil, we get it. If they don’t have Christmas, we get it. If they don’t have shoes, we get it.” I have to admit I haven’t looked at Blanton’s performance this year, but when I last checked last year, the numbers had continued to improve even though the FRL rates had continued to go up.

      Ms. Turner and her teachers are rightly proud of the gains they’ve made. The kids at Blanton will go on to do better in middle school and high school and college because of the tremendous efforts of their teachers.

  8. Diane June 12, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Correct me if I am wrong. Blanton earned their D in the 2001 – 2002 SY. Thus the year of which you find significance is the next year, 2002-2003 when they jumped to an A. Here is additional information about those years and Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg.
    While there were 109 third graders in 02, there were only 84 students in grade 4 the next year, with a loss of 25.Somehow, the lost student numbers don’t equal 25, but 27, of which 9 were white, 12 were black, and 6 Hispanic There were 76 free and reduced lunch students in grade 3 in 01-02 but only 46 such categorized students in 2002-2003, a loss of 30, nearly 40%. Students with learning disabilities accounted for 14 students in grade 3 in 02 but there were only 10 in 2003 in grade 4. The pool of testtakers had been changed dramatically, wouldn’t you agree? Was retention the culprit or migration elsewhere? Did they leave to go elsewhere? Who knows…not me but I do know the test takers had a dramatically different demographic description.
    So lets say supporters of the Florida miracle school myths say they were retained. Sorry, I can blow a hole in that by looking at grade 4 to 5 transition from the D year to the A year.
    Total students in grade 4 in the 01-02 SY was 141, diminishing to 97 in 02-03. This time my information on the missing students totals 43, closer to the desired 44. My data tells me that 26 white students are no longer in the count, 12 black students are missing from the counts, 2 Hispanics and 3 Asian Pacific Islanders also are on the missing list. Tellingly, the Free and Reduced lunch number in grade 4 was 111 in the 01-02 SY while it dropped to 69, again a loss of nearly 40%. Students with learning disabilities in grade 4 totalled 23 in 2001-2002 SY but were down to 17 the following year when they were fifth graders. Hmmmm…..I see no miracle at all. I see a shedding of students of low income families. Isee bonuses and funding provided for no redeemable reason.

    • Ron Matus June 14, 2012 at 6:49 am #

      Hi Diane,
      Again, I’m no expert. But it makes sense to me to look at multiple years. So I did not put significance on the year in which Blanton moved from a D to an A (it was given an F initially but that was upgraded to a D upon appeal.)

      I’m on vacation so I only had time to slice and dice a couple of potential categories. I took a look at the free and reduced lunch rates for Blanton, and I don’t see what you see. You noted the number of FRL kids in the 2002 third-grade cohort dropped nearly 40 percent when that cohort arrived in fourth grade. That’s true. But the numbers sound much less dramatic when you take into account that the entire cohort shrank, and when you look at the bigger picture. In 2002, 69.7 percent of the third-grade class was FRL. In 2003, 54.8 percent of the fourth-grade class was FRL. But then, in 2004, the same cohort, now in fifth grade, was 68.3 percent FRL. In fact, the number of FRL kids in that cohort, after dipping from 76 to 46, jumped up to 82 – even more than in the D year.

      In the bigger picture, the FRL situation has NOT gotten easier for Blanton. The overall stats don’t show the shedding of low-income families that you suggest. The percentage of FRL kids in third grade jumped from 69.7 percent in the D year, to 76.6 percent in the following year to 86.3 percent in 2010. The overall FRL rates have climbed from 74 percent the year after the D to 86 percent last year. Despite bigger challenges, the educators at Blanton continue to move the needle. Again, I think they should be applauded.

      You have used the term “miracle” several times in your comments. It’s not a term I’ve ever used. I do think the gains Florida is seeing on NAEP as a whole, on AP results and with grad rates are dramatic, considering how far Florida was behind in the 1990s, how much more challenging its demographics have become and how its progress in the past decade or so compares to other states. But as I wrote in my initial post, there is also no doubt Florida still has far to go. In the meantime, teachers and students deserve a ton of credit for moving Florida in the right direction.

      • Diane June 16, 2012 at 7:14 am #

        Here is the reason you should be concerned. As the size decreases,, it is simple to make percentages look better. If you have 100 FRL kids and 25 of them are on grade level, your rate is 25%. Now you have only 60.(a drop of 40%) you need only have 16 on grade level to beat your prior rate. I will have to look at your other years but I did look already at the most recent year I could, 2009-10. Grades 3-4 show a loss of 15, from 96-81, about 15%.% more White students are added while 5 Black students are missing. 12 Hispanic students are missing. 5 Asian students are added. Two indian students are lost. Seven multiracial students are lost, 7 ELL students are lost, and 7 FRL students are lost. Smells like the same stink to me, and not worthy of a boast
        Here is what happened when grade4 students moved to grade 5 from 2009 to 2010. 4 White kids are added. 3 B;ack students are lost. 3 Hispanic students are lost. 3 Asian students are added. 3 multi racial students are added. 8 ELL students are lost. 5 FRL students are added. ESE students are down by 10. Ta;lk about changed demographics and not boasts, unless one believes changing demographics means instruction has improved..and I am not boarding that bus of deception. Not a single clap will b e heard from me. It seems like a number game to me. Is it gaming the system? In my next post, I will show that Reading distribution of scores has not changed using the data I can obtain. The Florida miracle is a myth which deserves confrontation, imho.

  9. Diane June 16, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Unsure why I would look beyind the years of the Miracle class, I did so anyway to satisy your wish to look beyond the years I noted and to again exemplify what I consider bologna being passed off as important. Please bear in mind mathematical properties that accompany this data. I took the grade 3 in 2003 and watched then progress through to grade 5 students in 05 at which time I assume they left the school.
    Of the 111 grade 3 students, 44 were white, 33 black, 15 Hispanic, and 9 Asian Pacific, 9 multi-racial. LEP 11 Free Reduced Lunch 85 and 15 SLD, 21 students are lost as they move to grade 4 in 2004. SLD students stay about the same at 14, Free and Reduced Lunch DROPS by 25, Whites by 4, Blacks by 5m Asian by 3 and multi racial by 4. LEP by 3, In grade 5 now in 2005, we see another loss of 15 students. 12 are while,8 were students with learning disabilities, 5 were Black students.3 hispanic students were added. 4 Asian students were added. Multi racial and Lep numbers stayed the same. FRL dropped by 3. From the initial 111 students starting as grade 3 students, only 74 are present as grade 5 students. Why does a 40% loss keep showing up? Think math.

  10. Ron Matus November 28, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Hi all, I just deleted a comment that came in yesterday for crossing the line on common decency. We’re all for robust debate here, and we look forward to hearing diverse viewpoints. But there’s no place here for name calling.

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