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Reuter’s Response

• Mike Thomas

There are media stories designed to inform. And then there are stories crafted to reach a pre-ordained conclusion.

Unfortunately, a Reuters story written by Stephanie Simon to discredit Jeb Bush’s education reforms fell into the latter category. This was an exercise in spinning data and ignoring a wealth of information that countered the storyline.

The story was written to coincide with the beginning of a two-day national summit on education put on by Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

If Simon had attended, she would have discovered the bi-partisan consensus growing around reform.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who appeared at the summit, hardly would have made these reforms the focus of the Administration’s education agenda because they don’t work. Of course, that was left out of the story.

What else was left out?

• Between 1992 and 2011, Florida ranked second nationally in student learning gains made on National Assessment of Education Progress tests in reading, math and science. The reporter knew this because she referred to a study in which it was included. It makes you wonder why she left it out?

• Since 1998, African American and Hispanic fourth graders in Florida have advanced two grade levels in reading. Since 2003, the first year all states were included in NAEP data, Florida ranks fourth in the nation for learning gains made by African American students, third for gains made by low-income students and first for gains made by students with disabilities.

• In her story, Simon wrote: “A Harvard education research group reported this summer that Florida students who were held back in third grade notched a big boost in test scores initially, but the effects faded to insignificance before they entered high school.”

She ignores this from the report: “The fade out of test score impacts is a common pattern in the literature on educational interventions, including those which have been shown to generate lasting impacts on adult outcomes. For example, Chetty et al. (2011) show that kindergarten classroom quality improves college enrollment and adult earnings despite the complete fade out of short-term test score gains.’’

She also leaves this out: “Specifically, we show that many of the students retained as third graders as a result of Florida’s test-based promotion policy would otherwise have been retained in a subsequent grade. To the extent that later grade retention is in fact less beneficial, students who are retained earlier rather than later may particularly benefit from the policy.’’

Simon also leaves out that 88 percent of high school dropouts were inadequate readers in fourth grade. Socially promoting illiterate third graders has devastating consequences on their future.

• The story leaves out that since Florida’s retention policy began in 2003, the number of retained K-12 students in Florida dropped from about 208,000 in that year to 104,000 in 2010. Also, the percent of third graders scoring at the lowest level of the reading exam dropped almost in half from 2003 until 2010, although it has ticked slightly up again because the reading test has been made more rigorous. Putting pressure on schools produces results.

• Last year, Pro Publica did an extensive analysis of federal data and concluded that because of policies implemented by Jeb Bush, Florida leads the nation in making Advanced Placement classes available to low-income students. In 2000-01, about 66,000 students took Advanced Placement exams. Now that number is 278,720 . Florida now ranks sixth in the nation in graduating seniors who have passed an AP exam. Rigorous high school classes are a precursor to success in college.

• Florida managed to increase its SAT scores this past year, bucking the national trend, despite expanding the number of students taking the exams. Sixty-six percent of graduating seniors took the SAT last year compared to 57 percent in 2008. More than half the test takers were minorities, and Florida also has a higher-than-average percent of students whose native language is not English.

• Simon reported: Students’ average score on the ACT college entrance exam has not improved and remains well below states such as Missouri and Ohio, where a comparable percentage of students take the test.’’

• Actually, Florida has made slight gains the past two year despite giving the test to a broader population of students. In Florida, almost half the students taking the ACT in 2012 were African-American or Hispanic. That compares to 16 percent in Ohio and 17 percent in Missouri.The story took Florida to task for its low graduation rate, as well it should. But the latest figures for 2012 show the graduation rate increased a healthy 3.9 percent from the previous year, with African American students showing the biggest increase among all racial groups. Florida is about to increase rigor by requiring students to pass end-of-course exams in Algebra 1, Geometry and Biology before graduating. Florida has steadfastly refused to dumb down graduation requirements to make its numbers look better.

• The story noted that a state amendment to reduce class sizes could have produced some of Florida’s academic gains. The amendment was gradually phased in beginning in the 2003-04 school year with final implementation in 2010-11. Florida’s rapid rise began well before this.

• Simon neglects data from an annual analysis of a Florida Tax Credit scholarship program for low-income students that allows them to attend private schools. It is hugely popular and has strong support from minority politicians.

This is what David Figlio, from Northwestern University, reported in August after analyzing test data from students in the scholarship program:

“Finally, there exists compelling causal evidence indicating that the FTC Scholarship Program has led to modest and statistically significant improvements in public school performance across the state. Therefore, a cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the FTC Scholarship Program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low-income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.’’

I could go on and on, for example when Simon quotes herself by writing, “But a close examination raises questions about the depth and durability of the gains in Florida.’’ How can you look at the body of evidence coming out of Florida and make a claim like that?

Of course Florida isn’t going to record the kind of academic scores you see in Massachusetts. Florida has a 56 percent minority student population, with 57 percent of students on free-and-reduce lunches. Florida has a much greater percentage of students who speak English as a second language. The Great Recession hit Florida much harder than other states. Yet the state has moved the needle in a meaningful way. Does Florida have a very long way to go? Absolutely. Is everything Florida does perfect? No. Did Florida gains backslide a bit in 2011 after more than 10 years of solid gains. Yes.

Does digital education, still in its DOS phase, have a ways to go? Yes. But digital education has unlimited potential for customizing education for each student. I understand there are for-profit companies involved in digital ed. And to that, I say that the best software companies in the world are for-profit. Please, let them compete over the business of educating kids instead of just entertaining them.

Should Jeb Bush be scrutinized? Definitely.

But a news operation with Reuters’ reputation has a responsibility to present a balanced view of major issues like education. That certainly was not the case here.

Does Reuters care? I seriously doubt it. The reporter who produced it will be backed by the editors who approved it.

Rather than see the damage caused to this nation’s most vulnerable children by decades of neglect from education bureaucracies, they hone in on those trying to undo it. They choose to turn a blind eye to the massive failure of this nation’s most vulnerable kids by a public education bureaucracy whose primary mission has been serving its employees. Well, that mission is getting harder now that reform has grown from a so-called conservative plot to destroy public education to a bi-partisan plan to ensure every kid gets an equal opportunity at a good education.

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