A little context for a rough patch in Florida ed reform

Ron Matus
Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Florida high school graduates passing college-caliber Advanced Placement exams jumped from 36,707 to 39,306 – a robust 7.1 percent. The increase wasn’t an anomaly. Florida ranks No. 4 in the country in the rate of grads passing AP exams. Over the past decade, it ranks No. 2 in gains.

These AP results are but one of the encouraging indicators of academic progress in Florida schools. But you wouldn’t know it from some of the media coverage, which often overlooks them and ignores or distorts the context. The same goes for a good number of critics. Many of them continue to be quoted as credible sources, rarely if ever challenged, despite assertions that are at odds with credible evidence.

In the wake of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett’s departure, some particularly harsh spotlights have been put on Florida’s school grading system and on former Gov. Jeb Bush, who led the effort to install it. I can’t defend some of the recent problems with grading (the errors, the padding) and I do wonder whether there should be more value put on progress than proficiency.

But I have no doubt, from years of reporting on Florida schools, that school grades and other Bush-era policies nudged schools and school districts into putting more time, energy and creativity on the low-income and minority kids who struggle the most. I also have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle for those students and the system as a whole. To cite but one example: Between 2003 and 2011, Florida comes in at No. 9 among states in closing the achievement gap, in fourth-grade reading, between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In closing the gap in eighth-grade math, it comes in at No. 6. But don’t believe me. Take it from Education Week, where those rankings come from.

To those who approach education improvement with an open mind: Isn’t it troubling that such stats are rarely reported? And isn’t it odd that they’re rarely commended by teachers unions, school boards and superintendents who should be claiming credit?

Instead, we routinely get quotes like this one, from a story last week about Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions potentially being hampered by ed reform fumbles in Florida: “The long sleep is now over,” said Kathleen Oropeza with Fund Education Now. “People are starting to realize that Jeb and his reforms are not good for children and not good for schools. They are meant to privatize public education.”

I can’t help but scratch my head: Why would people hell bent on privatizing public education constantly point out the progress and achievement of public schools? And why would people who consider themselves defenders of the public schools constantly bash them? Fund Education Now is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that argues that Florida schools are massively failing their students. Yet in the past five years, EdWeek’s Quality Counts report has ranked Florida No. 11, No. 8, No. 5, No. 11 and No. 6, respectively.

Listen, I’m not arguing that we should become education Polyannas. I’m sick myself about the turnover with education commissioners. I worry about the recently flat trend lines on NAEP. There is no doubt Florida ed reform has hit a rough patch and, even if it hadn’t, still has far, far to go.

But any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators and in the face of many demographic challenges.

Is there a good reason why that isn’t part of the story?

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5 comments

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Chris Guerrieri August 22, 2013 - 5:52 pm

A couple things, first the AP results are a bit misleading, sure more kids are passing but there is a lot more kids taking them and a lot more offerings as well. When I was in school there were like six tests total and now there are dozens. State Impact however reported today something that teachers have known for a while and that is there are lots of kids taking AP classes who shouldn’t be.

Then Ed Weeks quality counts is a terrible measurement. There are six categories:

Chance for Success, we received a C and were ranked 34th. Okay, our schools are in the bottom half of the nation, that’s not so great, but it could be worse right? We could be Alabama or Mississippi.

K-12 achievement, we received a C- but there is good news here, we were ranked 12th. It seems like the whole country is doing pretty poor. Yay we’re the best of the worst!

Standards Assessment and Accountability, and if you guessed we excelled in giving tests then give yourself a no-prize, we received an A and were ranked 4th, it’s just to bad all these tests haven’t led to more chances of success for our kids.

Transitions and Alignment is the other category we excelled in receiving an A and being ranked 4th. Which begs the question how great is a comprehensive plan if it leads to such poor chances for success and academic achievement? Somebody at a higher pay grade will have to answer that one.

Next we got a B for our teachers, which translate to a number 4 rank nation wide. You would probably have no idea teachers here ranked so high if you looked at their treatment at the hands of the legislature and governor. 3% pay cut, value added evaluations, teachers aren’t professionals and neither their experience nor education matter, no work protections, anyone?

Finally we got a D+ in finances and a 39th place ranking. Cheap, cheap, cheap and according to Ed Week this makes us one of the best values around, it’s just to bad many teachers have to get second jobs and live in fear of illnesses, flat tires and the Mondays through Thursdays before payday.

Let me ask you this, if your kid brought home 2 As in his electives and then 1 B, 1 C, 1 C- and a D+ in his core classes, what would you think? Would you think he or she was 5th in the class?

Finally, In one paragraph you write, I also have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle for those students and the system as a whole.

Then in another you bash unions. Who do you think makes up teacher’s unions? It’s teachers, it’s not some random group who decided one day to represent teachers, it is teachers who chose representatives to represent them. And I remind you the teaching profession has been under constant attack by Jeb Bush so it should be no surprise that they resist his reforms.

You can’t give people cherry picked numbers and bash teachers and expect to convince people.

As somebody in the trenches I believe any success Florida is having is in spite of Tallahassee not because of it and if you want to see real improvement it is time we got Tallahassee out of it.

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Diane Hanfmann September 7, 2013 - 5:17 pm

Hmmm…how does being third from the bottom in ACT scores combine with the AP stats? How about all those A schools throughout the state while Florida’s Seniors were again among the three bottom feeders on the NAEP a few years ago? How does that show remarkeble progress? Take off your Jeb colored glasses!

Ron Matus
Ron Matus September 8, 2013 - 8:20 am

Hi Dianne. I’ll pose the same question to you as I did to Chris. What state in the country would you say has made the most academic progress over the past 10 to 15 years? And what indicators would you point to as evidence?

Ron Matus
Ron Matus August 22, 2013 - 8:47 pm

Hi Chris, as always, thanks for reading and commenting. What state in the country would you say has made the most academic progress over the past 10 to 15 years? And what indicators would you point to as evidence?

Common Core, the Florida Plan and the Lake Wobegon Effect | Bridge to Tomorrow August 31, 2013 - 9:20 pm

[…] achievement levels and the narrowing of racial achievement gaps – about which they should be proud – and the state’s high rankings by Education Week, which do not reflect […]

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