Quality of education on the rise

Early edition: An Education Week report that went beyond the obvious says Florida has made strong gains.

Published January 3, 2007

Throw out an education statistic the public understands and chances are Florida ranks near the bottom nationally.

But consider recent progress, a new report says, and Florida stands out as a leader.

“From Cradle to Career,” released Wednesday by the well-respected magazine Education Week, includes several new ways to score a state’s education quality.

One puts education in a broader frame by considering social and economic factors beyond the classroom, such as unemployment rates and family income.

Another looks at a range of academic indicators, including student scores on high school Advanced Placement exams and national reading tests for elementary and middle school students.

Florida ranks 31st in both.

But referring to the academic index, an Education Week researcher singled out Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Delaware as states that have shown strong gains in recent years despite still modest overall scores and neighboring states that continue to lag.

The report credits Florida for improving graduation rates, AP scores and the math skills of elementary school students.

“These are average or slightly above-average states in regions that are low-performing,” Christopher Swanson, who directs the magazine’s research center, said in a teleconference from Washington D.C.

“I think it validates the fact that Florida is improving rapidly,” Florida Education Commissioner John Winn said in a separate teleconference. “It shows me we’re headed in the right direction.”

The report comes a day after Gov. Charlie Crist was sworn in to replace Jeb Bush, who made a wide-ranging and still-controversial education revamp the centerpiece of his two terms in office.

Bush’s test-heavy policies are expected to get continued support from both the Republican-led Legislature and the state Board of Education, which for now consists entirely of Bush appointees. Crist, meanwhile, promised during the campaign to both continue Bush’s school initiatives and be more flexible with them.

Education Week’s “Chance-for-Success Index” looked at 13 indicators grouped into three categories: early years, school-age years and adult years. That index gave Florida high marks for pre-school enrollment and low unemployment, but low marks for graduation rates and family incomes.

Winn said he was pleased with Florida’s ranking on that index, considering the state’s high number of low-income students and one of the highest rates in the country of parents who don’t speak fluent English.

Overall, the index shows, kids in the Northeast and Midwest have the best odds for success, while kids in the South and Southwest have the worst.

Virginia ranked first and New Mexico last.

On the achievement index, Massachusetts ranked first and Mississippi last.

The report marks a big change for Education Week, which has annually graded each state’s K-12 education policies.

Its editors decided to forgo grades this year and take a bigger-picture look at education.

“Children’s chances for success don’t just rest on what happens from kindergarten through high school,” the report says. “They are also shaped by experiences during the preschool years and opportunities for continued education and training beyond high school.”

Winn credited the chance-for-success index with being “comprehensive” and “a good effort,” but also cautioned observers to take the rankings with a grain of salt. For example, a parent’s education level may influence a child’s academic success more than employment or family income, but Education Week gave all those factors equal weight.

The report also scored how well states have aligned their education policies from pre-school to work force, and how far they’ve come in adopting strong academic standards and meaningful accountability measures.

On those indices, Florida ranked No. 11 and No. 4, respectively.

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.