Florida’s fast-rising grad rates? Shrug

Media coverage of education reform in Florida never ceases to amaze. What you should be hearing today are the sputtering responses of critics who have drawn widespread media attention in recent weeks with reckless claims that Florida’s ed reforms are an “unmitigated disaster.” Instead …

The easy prompt for fair and obvious questions was yesterday’s release of the annual “Diplomas Count” report from Education Week. The independent analysis found that between 1999 and 2009, Florida’s graduation rate climbed 18 percentage points – more than all but two states. It also found that Florida’s black and Hispanic students are graduating at rates higher than the national average for like students, which is of no small import for a majority-minority state like Florida. The 2009 rate for Florida’s Hispanic students, in fact, put them at No. 2 among Hispanic students in all 50 states.

So how did the Florida media cover this compelling news? For the most part, it didn’t.

The Orlando Sentinel had a blog post yesterday. A couple of TV stations posted blurbs parroting a state press release. A couple of little-known news outfits did too. The Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook blog managed six paragraphs this morning that at least put in some appropriate context. But as far as I can tell, there was not a word in the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post or any of the state’s other big papers. As far as I can tell, nobody asked the critics to respond.

Baffling. Remember, as the media have highlighted in dozens of stories over the past few weeks, we’re in the midst of some of the most serious pushback in years against Florida’s reforms. Emboldened by a flap over standardized test results, critics have tossed out one, reality-challenged claim after another about Florida’s public schools being bad and getting worse. And yet, virtually nobody in the media has bothered to note the overwhelming evidence that suggests otherwise.

The Ed Week report is yet more confirmation from a credible, outside source that Florida schools are on the rise. Given the lines they’ve drawn, I guess I can see why Fund Education Now and Parents Across America didn’t issue congratulatory press releases. But I don’t get why the media keeps looking the other way, too.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.



It appears some prior posts regarding the fight against mandatory school of choice in Michigan have been closed off to further comments. As long as these posts can still be searched and viewed by the public, I feel they should remain open to further comments. If you are no longer willing or able to defend material that you or your erstwhile contributors have published, please pull it down entirely. As a protest, I am going to post the most recent correspondence from Michigan State Rep Tim Bledsoe under this Florida topic:

One of the most disappointing, and surprising, elements to the education budget was the so-called “best practice” language that emerged. Let me first mention that some of these “best practices” are “best” only in the minds of free market extremists who disdain public education.

In an odd turn of events, the negotiated budget was worse than EITHER the House version or the Senate version, suggesting influence of Governor Rick Snyder. The House budget contained language requiring districts to perform six of eight “best practices.” The Senate eliminated the “best practice” language from its budget altogether. Hence, a budget that tightened criteria to seven of eight came as both a surprise and a disappointment.

In order to qualify for an additional $52 in per-pupil funding, districts must adopt at least seven of the following requirements:

Become a Schools of Choice district
Offer comprehensive physical and health education
Create an online citizens’ dashboard
Hold their own health insurance policy
Measure — or develop a plan to measure — student growth
Provide online learning opportunities
Allow dual-enrollment in post-secondary coursework
While Harper Woods and Detroit Public Schools will be able to qualify for this funding under their current policies, Grosse Pointe Public Schools will likely, and properly, decline to become a Schools of Choice district. I understand that the specific requirements for providing physical education are problematic for the district as well, meaning that unlike last year using different criteria, GPPS will likely fail to qualify for “best practice” funding from the state of Michigan in the coming budget year.

Ironic, isn’t it, that one of the premier school districts in the state cannot meet the state’s “best practice” criteria.

Jon East

We have added this comment here at the request of the writer and also have removed the limit on comments for older blog posts. He or she should feel free to add this comment to that previous blog post about Michigan. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.


Thank you, Jon. Your response is appreciated. I have added my comment to the previous Michigan posts. I would invite you to delete these three comments so as not to clutter up the comments section for the Florida post.

The data remains confusing. The Ed Week report did not use the new federal formula for calculating graduation rates. So what do parents, community members, and taxpayers really know about graduation rates? Less and less.

Ron says: “So how did the Florida media cover this compelling news? For the most part, it didn’t.”

Exactly, the media outlets in Florida and nationally fail to peel back the layers for an honest look at the data. Instead, what we are getting a flurry of PR pieces of “good news” instead of reporting. Accountability to the people is absent.

Who pays? Who benefits?

Ron Matus

Hi Sandra, I just responded to you on one of the other posts, but thought I should put the comments here too just in case …

HI Sandra,
I am so sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I am on vacation with both of my young sons this week, so I only have a few minutes.

Grad rates ARE confusing. People have a right to be sceptical about them, both in Florida and in other states. Florida has not helped things by padding rates the way they have. Even former Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith raised concerns about this: https://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/graduation-rates-soar-through-loophole/1140805

I’m not sure if you noticed, but I’m the one who wrote the story you referenced above, “Graduation rates soar, but there’s a catch.” I also wrote this last year: https://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/content/floridas-graduation-rates-pathetic-padded-progressing

I don’t solely or even mostly rely on Florida’s self-reported test scores and grad rates to get a sense of whether Florida’s public school kids are doing better. I look for outside measures from credible, independent folks who don’t have a dog in the fight. I find Education Week and the research center that puts together its reports very fair minded, careful and thoughtful. I think its latest Diplomas Count report captures what’s going on in Florida – our grad rates still aren’t very good, but they are getting better at a decent clip compared to other states.

I think your earlier suggestion is on point. The media should dig into this more. They should try to better explain to readers what the grad rates show and don’t show, and how it can be that the state’s rate can be so different from the EdWeek rate and other calculations. But I know from being there that often the media doesn’t have time to get into highly technical, complicated subjects. So they often do the he-said, she-said. I can understand that sometimes. But why not do at least that last week, with a report that comes from a highly credible outfit that spends all of its time thoughtfully thinking about schools?

Thanks for the reply. The data Ed Week used is the same data that the state of Florida has been using based on the calculation that has been making us look so good. My read of their methodolgy does not indicate otherwise. Ed Week did not use the federal calculation, which is now required. Oddly, I learned about the federal calculation from a media report, but it took a lot of digging.

As long as the state manipulates the data, Floridians know less and less. … and we do not have confidence in how things are going.

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