Media shouldn’t ignore good news about Florida public schools

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We can’t have honest dialogue about the what needs to be fixed in Florida’s education system without an appreciation for the signs that academic outcomes are trending upward.

The recent Education Week report that ranked Florida public schools No. 4 in the nation in academic achievement was well-deserved recognition for this state’s underappreciated schools. It arrived in the thick of an election season where public education has been front-burner. And, given the less-than-glowing reputation of Florida’s education system, it bore all the markings of a flying pig. Florida No. 4 in academics?! Stop the presses!

Yet in a state with 21 million people, only one media outlet covered it.

On the flip side: Last week, another report found Florida to be the fifth-worst state to be a teacher. This report wasn’t compiled by seasoned, knowledgeable education journalists, like those who work at Education Week. Rather, it was crafted by WalletHub.

To date, eight news outlets have covered the WalletHub report, including three papers that editorialized about it.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the ranking methodologies from EdWeek and WalletHub are equally rigorous. Let’s agree we’re all guilty of confirmation bias. Even then, I have to ask my reporter friends: Does this seem right?

I’m a journalist by training. I had my first byline when I was 18. I worked at newspapers my entire adult life before I joined Step Up For Students (which publishes this blog) six years ago. For eight of those years, I covered education at the biggest paper in Florida, during a period of particularly heady change.

So don’t count me as another media grump. But I struggle with the degree to which news coverage in Florida seems to be missing powerful indicators of progress in public education. And I fear that the absence of such reporting has contributed to a warped public debate.

We can’t have honest dialogue about funding, testing, teacher pay, vouchers, charter schools, accountability – any of it – without an appreciation for the signs that academic outcomes are trending upward.

Consider another example.

Earlier this year, the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress earned a thin smattering of stories in Florida. This, even though NAEP, aka The Nation’s Report Card, showed Florida made the biggest gains in America.

Anyone who follows NAEP knows Florida has made admirable progress over the past 20 years, particularly with low-income students and students of color. In fact, when results on the four core NAEP tests are adjusted for demographics, Florida ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 8. That’s according to the left-leaning Urban Institute. Until last week, no Florida news outlet had ever mentioned it.

Then there is Advanced Placement.

One of Florida’s biggest academic successes over the past 20 years has been expanding opportunities for students to not just take, but excel in, college-caliber Advanced Placement courses. Florida now ranks No. 4 in the percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed AP exams.

Coverage of the impressive AP results is virtually nil. Last week, in fact, PolitiFact tried to downplay Florida’s success, noting that while AP participation rates rose, pass rates fell. Yes, pass rates did fall, slightly. But because the raw number of students taking the exams shot through the roof, so did the raw number passing. The number of low-income graduates who passed AP jumped from 2,601 in 2006 to 16,548 in 2016. In other words, gobs more low-income students are now graduating having proven, via success on AP exams, that they are college-ready.

Florida public schools deserve credit for this record, but most Floridians have no idea. What they do know is that a lawsuit filed against the state in 2009 claims the opposite.

When that suit was filed, claiming Florida’s education system wasn’t “adequate,” the story was a front-page exclusive in the state’s leading newspaper. I know because I wrote it. Since then, the “adequacy suit” has generated dozens of stories, even though the claims have been roundly dismissed by the circuit court and appeals court.

The suit is still alive, with a Nov. 8 hearing before the Florida Supreme Court. The stain it helped splatter on to Florida schools now spans three gubernatorial elections.

I know journalists have a tough job, and that economic pressures are depleting newsroom staffs. But isn’t the core mission to tell it like it is?

Even if the news doesn’t fit the narrative?

Even if the news is good?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Admit it. You and everyone here at this blog will be voting for DeSantis, a man who really doesn’t care whether teachers can change their car tires, pay their electric bill, or save money for retirement.

    • Teacher,

      You would probably be pleasantly surprised at the political ideology of a lot of people within the school choice world. Hopefully one day we can emerge from the tribal divisions that are consuming our political discourse and engage rationally.

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