When Governor Scott and the Florida Department of Education released their ranking of school districts – and later of individual schools – they were roundly criticized for ranking the districts/schools on the basis of “raw” FCAT data, without taking into account demographics, culture or anything else.
But as wince-inducing as this exercise was, it could have been worse. If the Governor and Commissioner had massaged the data with information on socioeconomics or ethnicity, they would have been giving an official state government imprimatur to what President George W. Bush once called the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and that would have been wrong.
Instead, the job of inserting the important information on demographics into the analysis of district and school FCAT data belongs to external analysts – journalists like Ron Matus and Connie Humburg at the Tampa Bay Times and Kelly Tyco at the Treasure Coast newspapers, or even rank amateurs like me. The Tampa Bay Times analysis took student socioeconomics out implicitly by looking at improvements in scores from 2001 to 2010. Tyco produced a list comparing her region’s schools and free/reduced lunch percentages. My quiet contribution to the discussion two weeks ago was to plot the district FCAT numbers from the Governor and FDOE against free/reduced lunch percentage, and to draw a line through the data in an effort to identify school districts that either outperform or underperform the testing results one would expect for the socioeconomic status of the district’s students. My analysis was certainly not suitable for a mainstream newspaper, but it did show that the state’s star school districts are two central Florida rural districts – Gilchrist and Dixie. It was also not kind to my home district, Leon.
Which brings me to my puzzlement over why the Orlando Sentinel wasted valuable space in its Sunday paper on a piece by new columnist Beth Kassab arguing that the state’s way of presenting data – which intentionally left out everything we know about inputs to the educational process – was the most valid analysis of school and district performance:
Last week Florida released its harshest evaluation yet of public schools: a ranking from the cream of the crop to the rock-bottom worst.
No excuses. Just the bare-naked numbers.
And that’s the way it should be.
It’s the best way we have to measure whether a school is actually doing its job and teaching our children.
For the lowest-performing schools, this first-of-its-kind ranking for Florida seems to shine a cruel light on their inadequacy and heaps an extra dose of public humiliation on top of their already-difficult plights.
If a student in my class turned in a paper as willfully ignorant as this one, the student would not only get an “F”, but also a just-short-of-angry speech from me about how intellectual laziness has no place in my classroom. And yes, I’ve done that – including the speech on intellectual laziness.
And I’d wonder if the student was simply covering up the inability to do something that is expected in my classroom – like 8th grade algebra.
Perhaps something like that is what’s going on in Kassab’s piece.
If so, the irony would be rich. The Sentinel has one of the best education reporting groups in the state, offering a rich resource of knowledge and experience – in the same newsroom where Kassab works.