There’s more to the story about education reform in Florida

behind the headlinesTony Bennett has a tough, tough job ahead, and the way education in Florida is covered is not going to make it any easier. The big news last week is a case in point.

Besides Bennett’s selection as the state’s new education commissioner, the top story was how Florida fourth-graders scored on a respected international test called PIRLS , which stands for the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. In case you missed it, Florida students ranked second in reading, behind only their peers in Hong Kong. Virtually none of the state’s major daily newspapers (the Orlando Sentinel being a notable exception) covered this development, but CNN did. It interviewed interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart live, next to an all-caps headline that read, “FLORIDA STUDENTS SCORE BIG.”

This wasn’t a one-time oversight. Over the past 10 to 15 years, Florida students and teachers – its public school students and teachers – have made impressive academic gains, whether it’s on national math and reading tests, or on college-caliber Advanced Placement tests, or in graduation rates as determined by credible, independent experts. For four years running, Education Week, looking at both performance and progress, has ranked Florida among the leading states in K-12 achievement (to be specific, at No. 7, No. 7, No. 6 and No. 12 over that span). And yet, flattering reports about Florida’s progress rarely get more than passing mention, while those who oppose the state’s accountability and school choice initiatives are often allowed to deny that such progress even exists. Even stranger, the more outrageous their statements get, the more often they seem to get quoted.

None of this is to say Florida has arrived. Its grad rates remain anemic and in so many other areas, it still has so far to go. And none of this is to say there aren’t tradeoffs worth debating, or bad mistakes along the way, or policy changes that may have gone too far (like, in my humble opinion, the new teacher evals). But I think any fair-minded person would have to look at the body of evidence and conclude that, for whatever combination of reasons, Florida has gotten more traction than arguably any state in the nation. Parents and teachers deserve to know that – not only because it’s true, but because it helps put a proper frame on the knock-down-drag-outs we have about our schools.

Fast forward to Tony Bennett. Coincidentally, the Board of Education picked him a day after the PIRLS results were released. But that didn’t stop some of the state’s major newspapers from piling on, and ignoring those results and others as they did. “A predictable choice that values conservative ideology over proven performance,” editorialized one paper. “Institutional arrogance,” charged another. One columnist wrote that Gov. Rick Scott “put his faith in a theory instead of Floridians” and suggested he was guilty of “adherence to an agenda.” Another wrote that with Bennett’s hire, “it’s as if we’re back to where we were 20 years ago.”

Those are mighty strong charges. And considering the sources, mighty ironic, 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 or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at