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Evaluating Education: Do Results Matter?

• Mike Thomas

Funding has long been the flawed measuring stick of education quality.

This follows the misguided belief that the more you spend on something, the better it must be.

Or similarly, the more you care about something, the more you spend on it.

And so a politician’s commitment to improving education often is measured, at least in campaign commercials, by his or her commitment to increasing education funding.

Consider this recent example in my hometown newspaper. The headline read: “Scott, Crist duke it out over education records.’’

The story – on the gubernatorial race in Florida between former Gov. Charlie Crist and current Gov. Rick Scott – focused almost exclusively on how much each had allocated for education funding during his time in office.

The story never once examined the results of education, which is what should be the measuring stick to gauge someone’s education record.

And by results, I mean are all kids learning. Are they graduating?

Looked at that way, budgets are secondary in importance to policies in gauging someone’s education record.

Florida posted record results in all academic indicators last year even though per-pupil funding remains below where it was before the recession. We had our best overall showing on NAEP. We are excelling in AP participation and success. We had our highest graduation rate ever.

And all this was accomplished despite student demographics that have become more challenging. Florida has a minority-majority student population, a significant number of English-language learners and a poverty rate (free or reduced lunch) approaching 60 percent.

If money drove academic achievement, Florida’s results should be headed in the opposite direction. So how the state spends money is more important than how much it spends.

When you crunch the numbers, Florida has made far greater academic gains over the past 15 year than states that have raised their education budgets by far greater amounts.

Money without policy to direct it is money that will buy you nothing.

This is not to say I oppose spending more money in Florida, quite the contrary. Our best teachers are grossly underpaid for starters. But you spend by looking at results and targeting the money at need rather than just throwing it into the bureaucratic chipper. A good example is a program in Florida that adds an extra hour to the school day in low-performing schools, with that time spent on reading. This was paid for by reprioritizing existing education dollars and putting them to better use.

Data show the investment is paying off. Children in the program are becoming better readers, a finding validated by assessment scores.

The investment Florida made in boosting AP results has paid a huge dividend, with Florida now one of the national leaders in the percent of high school graduates having passed an AP exam.

On the other side, the state spends several hundred million dollars a year complying with an inflexible class-size amendment that studies have shown does nothing to improve results. Money and results do not go hand in hand.

So the appropriate question a reporter should ask on education is not: “How much additional will you spend on education?’’

But: “How would you spend the additional money?’’

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at