This post is a heartfelt thank you to Cheryl Etters and her colleagues on the Florida Department of Education public information staff. Their hospitality to me – as a private citizen who is not by any means a professional journalist – has been remarkable. My only regret is that I couldn’t get this placed in the Tallahassee Democrat so that more folks could have seen what wonderful work Cheryl and her colleagues have done.
Florida is a state in which governmental transparency is a constant theme. Political leaders and journalists often talk about the importance of making information about public institutions easily available.
Educating our children is the single most important thing we do as a state. So transparency about what the students in our public K-12 schools are doing well and not doing so well is the most important public information mission our state government has.
Fortunately, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) is the best in the nation at providing that information. During the summer of 2015, future high school physics teacher (and FSU physics major) Connor Oswald worked with me on finding out how many students around the nation were taking high school physics – the gateway science course to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. Much of Connor’s work consisted of contacting and reminding staff members at state departments of education around the nation to send him information. After a summer of work, we had physics enrollment numbers from 30 states and the District of Columbia. (You can find the results in this talk from the 2016 national PhysTEC conference)
Only one state – Florida – made it easy. In fact, the reader can try this at home: On the FLDOE web site, find the “PK-12 Public School Data Publications and Reports” page. Click on “Students” and then scroll down to “Course Enrollment”. Not only can you find out how many students are taking physics in Florida (or AP Computer Science, or Spanish 2, or Algebra 2), but you can also find numbers for each district, and even for each school.
You can also see how individual school districts are doing in graduating their students from high school and which districts have the largest numbers of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
If you go elsewhere on the FLDOE site, you can learn that while the number of students taking Algebra 1 in middle school is declining (a troubling trend), the percentage of those students who are black is increasing (which is encouraging).
The FLDOE has also led the nation for years in providing the detailed information from its “data warehouse” that researchers need to figure out what works in improving student achievement. For example, in 2007 researchers from the University of South Florida showed that students who take physics and calculus in high school are dramatically more likely to earn bachelors’ degrees in lucrative STEM fields than students who do not.
In another study – this one published in 2015 – researchers showed that the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program, which was terminated by budget cuts during the recent recession, was effective in reducing the attrition of math and science teachers in Florida’s public schools.
As Florida faces critical educational challenges in the New Year, we can be confident that policy-makers have the best possible information available to them. We can also be confident that those of us who observe and sometimes criticize those policy-makers will have access to that information. In this way, the FLDOE is providing a model for government transparency, not just for our state but for the nation.