The nation's report card
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is widely considered a credible measure of a state's academic performance. Tests in reading and math are given to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in all 50 states every other year. These charts show the percentage performing at or above basic level.
When Education Week put Florida's beat-up, much-maligned public schools at No. 5 in the nation this year, the debate finally began shifting from whether they're improving to why. It's a better, tougher question. And one worth chewing on as new Gov. Rick Scott and unstoppable Republican majorities in the Legislature get ready to shake up the teaching profession.
The proposed overhaul is the latest push in an unrelenting effort to reform schools. In the past two decades, Florida has experimented with one big change after another: high-stakes testing, school grades, vouchers, charter schools, smaller classes. …
It has tinkered with everything, it seems, except teachers. And given that nothing inside a school matters more, it's obvious why they're next in the legislative lab.
To get a better idea of at what's been happening in Florida schools over the past two decades, we plotted out 20-year at trend lines for a handful of key academic indicators. Then we overlaid those trend lines with a time line, marking off major policy changes.
What emerges is a complicated puzzle. One that has enough bright spots to show Florida schools really do look better (grad rates: up; national scores: up; kids passing Advanced Placement tests: way, way up), but that also has enough gray and fuzz to become a political Rorschach test (Did school grades move the needle? Did charter schools? Did a combination of the two or some other mishmash of policies, intentional or not?).
This is the backdrop as Republican lawmakers go toe to toe with teachers unions, school boards and PTAs during this spring's legislative session, and as both sides carry that No. 5 ranking into battle.
For one side, No. 5 is a sword to advance an agenda that is as radical as they come: a monumental rewrite of how teachers are hired, fired, paid and evaluated. The education establishment, they say, marched in lockstep against all the big changes that made Florida's traction possible: school grades, vouchers, third-grade retention. Now, on the teacher stuff, here they go again.
For the other side, No. 5 is a shield. Why such dramatic changes now when our schools are on a roll?
Teachers and their allies face long odds. Take it slow is a tough sell.
Florida might be No. 5, but that's based on recent progress, and it belies how far Florida kids need to go to truly be in the top tier. The ranking also ignores real fear that even tops in the U.S. is not good enough globally.
Teachers also face this handicap: The burden of proof has shifted.
Whether rank-and-file teachers agreed or not, teachers unions, Democrats and many newspaper editorial boards tried to diminish virtually any sign of progress over the past decade, for fear Jeb Bush might get credit.
Two years ago, a Tallahassee think tank whose board members included union and PTA leaders argued that Education Week's Quality Counts report — which had put Florida at No. 10 that year — was, despite its name, not really about education quality. At the same time, a state representative who was the Democrats' point man on education said while it was nice that "one group thinks we're doing a little better," parent complaints about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test still made him conclude that Florida's system was "deplorable." Similar shots were fired last year, when Florida was ranked No. 8.
Only now, with Republican boots on teachers union necks, are gains acknowledged. And often it's with a nod to the class-size amendment, which didn't start meaningfully shrinking classes until many trend lines started rising.
And yet. …
And yet, truth be told, it's hard to tell from the trend lines and time lines what, exactly, sparked Florida's sprint out of the national cellar. Yes, credible research has found that school grades do light a fire, that competition from vouchers does have a positive effect and that Florida's approach to third-grade retention really has, so far, helped held-back kids be more successful. But so many other factors haven't been studied — and plausibly had impact, too.
How much did creation of better academic standards in the 1990s help? How much did alignment of those standards with better tests (yes, the FCAT) lay a stronger foundation? What impact did all those reading coaches have?
What about the money?
You'd never know it by the way critics squawked about funding during the Jeb era — and by the way he and his talking-point supporters conveniently fail to mention it — but annual teacher pay raises were 50 percent higher (before adjusting for inflation) during his two terms than they were under Gov. Lawton Chiles. Did fatter paychecks help spur student gains?
The point is, there's a lot to consider, carefully, as lawmakers roll out a revolution. And there's everything at stake.
Floridians, finally, have reason to feel good about their schools. Republican lawmakers deserve more credit than they've been given. But in a finger snap, there's a sense that we've gone from one side's foot-dragging to the other side's blind rush.
There are good questions about whether teachers can be accurately rated based on standardized test scores. It is not off base to wonder if there will be enough money to truly reward the best teachers in a meaningful way.
So teachers grumbled about the FCAT. They still rolled up their sleeves and got the dunce cap off Florida's head.
In the school reform puzzle, they're the most important pieces. Lawmakers should rearrange them with care.
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.