Florida’s K-12 adequacy trial: How is Florida really doing?

Over the last several days, I’ve replayed parts of the testimony from Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen from Citizens for Strong Schools, Inc. v. Stewart, the trial that is intended to determine whether the State of Florida is meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate K-12 education for the state’s children.  This is the defense phase of the trial, when defense witnesses such as the Commissioner and Deputy Chancellor first respond to questions from their defense attorney, then are cross examined by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and then again respond to the defense attorney during redirect.  If I had to summarize the testimony I heard, it would be like this:

Direct testimony:  Florida is doing a good job in its K-12 schools.

Cross examination:  No, it’s not.

Redirect:  Yes, it is.  

There are lots of numbers flying around and graphs being projected on the wall that few if any in the courtroom understand (Deputy Chancellor Tappen, a math teacher, clearly has the best grasp of the numbers).  It is perhaps a superb example of why lawyers should be mathematically literate.

Of course, each side cherry-picks the data and delivers part of the truth.

And what is the truth?

The truth is that Florida’s K-12 system does some things really well, some things OK, and some things terribly.  And the levels of success the state’s system has in different areas are determined by the priorities set by policy-makers.

The results of the two most recent administrations (2013 and 2015) of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provide a striking demonstration of this.

Florida does a superb job in elementary school reading, as illustrated by the results of the NAEP 4th grade reading exam.  The plot below shows that the percentage of Florida 4th graders measured at proficient or better in reading is well ahead of the national rate, even though our state’s families tend to be economically poorer than in the nation as a whole.

4reading

This isn’t a surprise.  After all, Florida is the “Just Read!” state.

Florida’s 4th grade math results are not as impressive, but certainly qualify as OK since they are close to the national proficiency rate.

4math

But when we move to 8th grade, things start to deteriorate.  The 8th grade reading results can be characterized as subpar.

8reading

And the 8th grade math results are nothing short of catastrophic, and getting worse.

8math

What is so frustrating about Florida’s K-12 system is that the state’s leaders clearly know what it takes to succeed, as illustrated by the impressive 4th grade reading results.  It’s just that these same leaders have chosen not to succeed in middle school math.  Or in science, for that matter.  That’s right – it’s a matter of choice.

As for the trial itself, do results like those shown above mean that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation?  On the whole, Florida’s K-12 system is average.  A judge would have a hard time defending a decision to essentially take over the state’s K-12 system on the basis of the system being average.  And legislators would certainly balk at a judge’s order to pour substantially more money into an average K-12 system.

What it comes down to is this:  If Florida’s parents and voters aren’t happy with the K-12 system they have, they should elect legislators and a Governor who will do things differently.  The effort and resources that have been poured into the adequacy trial have been wasted and could have been better deployed in the election campaigns of candidates who support increasing educational investments in targeted ways.

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