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Florida's perpetual NAEP collapse is America's most important education story. That's why no one, including the NAEP, will tell it.
What do Michigan, Missouri, Maryland, Maine, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Iowa, Colorado, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Nebraska all have in common?
Between 4th grade and 8th grade, an aggregated sample of the children of those states all caught and surpassed Florida's children on the NAEP Math test in 2017, the supposed national "gold standard" for comparative state testing. The NAEP is Florida education leaders' favorite test. And it says clearly that the measured "quality" of Florida's state model craters with age year after year after year. Florida's measured proficiency, in all subjects, always peaks for nine-year-olds and always collapses from there. Always.
That is what a failed education governance model looks like. Waves of teachers and kids have come and gone; but the advocates and policies of the Florida Model have been in power since 1999, delivering the same results over and over again. And the results are the worst in America if you care about how kids grow.
Florida's astonishing and horrifying individual growth achievement gap
Florida was tied for 7th on the 2017 4th grade NAEP Math test. And it was tied for 36th that same year in 8th grade Math. (I'm excluding Department of Defense schools because they are not a state.) Florida was three points behind national leader Massachusetts on average Math NAEP score in 4th grade. By 8th grade, it was 18 points behind. A very similar collapse occurs in Reading. Go look for yourself at the NAEP's "national report card."
That is what you call an accelerating achievement gap. This is what test-obsession and teacher hatred and transprently fake "accountability" gets you: a catastrophic collapse in test results.
And it's not just 2017. (It's also not just the NAEP. More in a second.) It has always been this way, since at least 2003. Florida's kids, whomever and wherever they are, suffer from America's worst achievement gap in state-level growth. The longer children participate in the Florida system, the less proficient they are in aggregate, according to the NAEP. The data is unequivocal. Hiding in plain sight, with no clothes. That is Jeb Bush's true legacy. Look at the chart I created below.
Look at how numbingly and predictably consistent the collapse is. In every single NAEP cycle, in every single subject, since 2003, Florida's NAEP score relative to the national average has collapsed. 2013 Math was the best year, holding the collapse to -3 in 8th grade and -4 in 12th. All the rest, in every year and subject, were -5 or worse. Last two cycles have been -9 and -10 in Math. Florida is careening in the wrong direction.
This is not because of ground-level educators; this is because of the crushing model imposed upon them by terrible statewide policies. That is why the growth results are catastrophic statewide. They are a logical outgrowth of the conscious political decision to eliminate personal, individual, human growth as a priority for the Florida state education system.
The result of treating children like widgets is a record of perpetual proficiency collapse. We have destroyed the humanity of education and the teaching profession for a generation to achieve that outcome. For that outcome. Let me say that again. We have destroyed the teaching profession and humanity of education for that collapse.
If DoE was held to anything at all remotely like local educators, everyone would have been fired years ago. Years ago. They would all be fired now if Florida's VAM rules -- supposedly about measuring growth -- applied to them.
And if you think DoE doesn't know all of this...well, they know. I don't know how any of them sleep at night. I really don't.
The Death Purple and NAEP agree completely: Florida is an "almost insane basket case."
Seriously, try to imagine plugging Florida's state growth numbers into its VAM equation, which is still wreaking havoc with actual human beings in actual schools.
It turns out you don't really have to imagine: the Stanford University Death Purple Study I've written about quite often did something like that for you between 2009 and 2015. A magazine writer named Kevin Drum -- not an education writer -- gave Florida a verbal VAM score based on the study: "almost insane basket case." He was the only journalist or think-tanker I saw address it anywhere. The only one.
In my chart above, you can see the Death Purple years charted against the regular NAEP collapses. Ask yourself if the Death Purple's growth measure was likely to change before 2009 or after 2015, based on the NAEP proficiency collapse measures.
The Death Purple said quite clearly that Florida has the worst individual test score growth in the country. Not one county, not even superrich St. Johns or Carvalho-land Dade could manage a year's worth of average test score growth. See the map. These terrible individual growth numbers are completely consistent with the aggregate proficiency numbers shown by NAEP. Completely.
The scandal is that Billy Townsend is the only person in the entire educrat think tank industrial complex in America to devote the hour or so it took to reconcile the Death Purple and the NAEP correctly -- and derive the correct conclusion about the state model that has most influenced American education for a generation.
In my first deep article about the Death Purple, I wrote the following, trying to puzzle through how to reconcile it with what Florida was telling me about how great its NAEP scores were.
In truth, the 2017 NAEP shows that a random sampling of Florida kids churned out scores slightly higher than the national NAEP average of other randomly chosen NAEP-takers. That’s probably the core takeaway. And honestly, it’s what I would expect from Florida’s test-obsessed model. It is surprising that we did badly on the NAEP in 2015; and it’s shocking how badly we seem to have done in individual growth over time during the Scott administration, according to the Stanford Death Purple study.
The Death Purple truly surprised me when I saw it.
So here’s the question you have to ask yourself: what do I, as a voter/parent/taxpayer/child, believe about how Florida serves and values my kid and my money? Does our testing say we are marginally better than the national average? Or does it say we are the most comprehensively awful state system in America?
You can make a case for both. But they can’t both be true. And believe this: your state government will not make any effort to figure out which is truer. They’re gonna go with the brand signal they prefer.
As it turns out, I was completely and utterly wrong about what the NAEP shows. Although I am not a cynic, experience has taught me to apply perhaps the most cynical view of any Floridian about anything Florida's government says about education. And I was still not nearly cynical enough. Somewhere, somehow, even I didn't think Florida would lie with such relish to its citizens about something so easy to check. I took the NAEP press releases at face value, just like the entire educrat, edu-journalism, think tank industrial complex did. Just like the NAEP did. And Florida got away with it unscathed. I blame myself; and I'm sorry.
I will never, ever make that mistake again.
State government and DoE don't tolerate state mediocrity. They actively celebrate state catastrophe.
When I say your government lies to you about what the NAEP results say, read this press release from 2018. To call it Orwellian is to insult Big Brother. Header:
"Gov. Scott: Florida Students Lead the Nation in Reading and Mathematics"
Governor Scott said, “Florida students have again outpaced their peers and have demonstrated once again that our states’ commitment to providing a high quality public education for each student has paid dividends. My wife, Ann, and I benefitted from public educations, so we understand the important role that our schools play in ensuring our students can grow and achieve. A large part of today’s success comes from a commitment from Florida taxpayers to continue to invest in Florida schools. During my time in office, state funding for Florida’s K-12 public schools has increased by $3.2 billion or 37 percent. Every Floridian should be proud of the results that our educators and schools have delivered for our students today.”
Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said, “Today’s announcement provides further evidence that Florida’s commitment to high expectations and strong accountability is right for Florida students. We continue to see the benefit of focusing on policies that ensure Florida schools have high-quality teachers and administrators, and that students, families and educators have access to outcomes-based information about school and district performance. As a result, student success has continued to climb. I am thrilled to congratulate our state’s students on their accomplishments and to thank the educators whose hard work and dedication helped make this achievement possible.”
Rick Scott wouldn't know what a lie is. But Pam Stewart knew damn well she was lying when she said all of that to the public. As surely as she knew she didn't want Katie LaGrone to interrupt her lunch about the teacher shortage.
Imagine being the NAEP, which presumably knows its own data -- 2017 and historical -- and letting Pam Stewart say that bullshit in its name without a peep. Anyone who ever took my work and lied about it like that would answer to me swiftly and publicly, I promise you.
So why did the NAEP not contextualize its own data? Why did it just nod at that press release approvingly?
Because when the Florida Model falls, which it will, all American fake measurement data education is going to come with it. The Jeb-Obama-Race-to-No-Child-Test-and-Punish "reform" era is going to come with it. That will not be a good day for the NAEP. And it will cost a lot of people and testing companies and organizations a lot of unearned, undeserved money and social prestige. Florida is the keystone of all of it. Delaying that day of reckoning as long as possible drives a profound moral and intellectual corruption. It drives equal metric tons of bullshit and silence.
Why do you not know this? Why do I have to tell you?
In America, dabbling rich people and useless foundations have spent billions of dollars to give jobs to people who won't even do them. They've spent billions on people who want to say they work in "education" but are afraid to teach and interact with kids for $45k/year while suffering endless government abuse and fake judgement from dilettantes.
They've created an American educrat industrial think tank complex that is a corrupt, smug, self-satisfied mess incapable of doing something as simple as accurately characterizing NAEP results. The NAEP itself won't accurately characterize its own results. But man, the educrat industrial complex can sure design tortured, fraudulent rankings for clickbait and grant money and Ivy League welfare.
What a metaphor for elite institutional behavior in this entire country.
Believe me when I tell you there is considerable overlap in the class and type of people who consider themselves "disruptive" education "thought leaders" and the class and type of people who took Jeffrey Epstein's money post conviction.
That's why basically the entire American educrat industrial think tank complex responded to Rick Scott's campaign press release with, "Why yes, indeed."
When I think about all the anonymous flesh and blood human beings -- children, teachers, parents -- harmed and injured and lied about because the edu-industrial think tank complex is too lazy and too morally vain to question anything government or the toxic bipartisan consensus says about data, it sickens and angers me. All the humanity snuffed out in Florida for 20 years enrages me. It does. I make no apologies for it. It should enrage you, too.
And you should, citizens, know about it; but no one wants to tell you with clarity. There's too much free Chardonnay to drink at conferences. The American think tank educrat will sacrifice truth and your children for that supply of sponsor Chardonnay and Brie tartlets, forever, until you, the public, take power away from them and demand better. Trust me on that. I've been to the conferences. And I have consumed a Brie tartlet. It was delicious.
Real reporters do a good job; but the Think Tank edublob always surrounds them
I should clarify a little on who I'm talking about in all these educrat industrial complex cracks.
I'm largely excluding writers who work for straight journalism outfits, rather than education outfits. There's a big difference between the business and mission of the Tampa Bay Times and the incentives and funding for ReDefined, Education Week, the 74, and all the many, many others on the Big Foundation Think Tank dole.
And there are giant differences in the funding and incentives between reporters and organizations like the Florida School Board Association. Believe me, nobody at the FSBA conference has ever in my experience, since my election in 2016, hosted a single breakout session on Florida's endless proficiency collapses between age 9 and age 13. No one. Too busy with self-congratulation and grumbling about term limits from people who have no power, but do have health insurance and $40K/year, courtesy of the taxpaying public.
All of these educratic groups and standard education reporters mix quite a bit, and I think they can get friendly with each other in the way that all sources and reporters do. Believe me, I try to cultivate reporters all the time. I need them. So this isn't even really a criticism, just a particular danger in education where the bipartisan policy consensus of power is toxic and largely unbending, despite public revulsion. And where the enforcers always have booze to share.
Also, I was a reporter. I know what it's like to report on people with whom you are familiar or even friendly. It takes a constant effort to think critically about people and concepts you like or that you see all the time. It is much, much easier to abstract away the pain of a retained 3rd grader, whose mother works all night cleaning up other people's shit. And then blame it on the mother.
Edu-journalists, please, please cover the reactor, not just the radiation poisoning
Other than that, in Florida, I think education reporters at the big news organizations are doing a very good job under terribly difficult business circumstances and powerfully limiting conventions.
Jessica Bakeman's work on the chartering of Jefferson County is tremendous; the entire Orlando Sentinel education staff, including columnist Scott Maxwell, have been heroic in their pursuit of voucher "Schools without Rules;" Jeff Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times provides an invaluable daily overview of what's happening in Florida, while also covering Pasco County directly. Here in Polk County, The Ledger's education coverage by Kim Moore is a very bright spot in a largely dismal ownership climate.
But these reporters are all reporting on symptoms. Charters, vouchers, teacher shortage, behavior issues, ESE struggles, school security, Jacksonville conflict, etc. They are all the outgrowth of a fundamental problem -- the destruction of individual growth and human development in the Florida Model in favor of fake data for government press releases.
If Florida is the Chernobyl of public education -- and it is -- we have ignored the reactor for a generation and documented the radiation poisoning. If Florida is the Enron of education data -- and it is -- then the NAEP is its Arthur Andersen. The simplicity of that story is what makes it so hard to write.
It is functionally impossible for the Tampa Bay Times as an institution to simply state across the top of A1 in a header and subheader: Florida kids of all types collapse in aggregate proficiency between age 9 and 13 on the NAEP. Every NAEP year. Every NAEP subject since 2003. Why? And why does DoE lie about it in press releases?
It was not functionally impossible for the Tampa Bay Times to win a Pulitzer Prize while mislabelling a deeply reported package about segregation in five Pinellas County schools as "Failure Factories."
Yet there are substitute teachers babysitting the children most likely to attend segregated schools all over Florida today because of it. That is the opposite of the intent of the "Failure Factories" articles. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And power used those articles to punish the children and teachers of "turnaround" schools, which overwhelming serve vulnerable children. I am not lying about that. Ask anyone on the ground willing to tell you the truth. Reporters will have to decide for themselves if they have any responsibility for the use of their work. I, personally, felt obligated to seek official power to make sure my work wasn't abused or ignored.
"Everything you know is wrong" is the hardest story to tell
So why is it functionally impossible for a Tampa Bay Times reporter to ask out loud: what is the deal with this Death Purple Study and the NAEP. Something's weird?
That's because the hardest thing to do in journalism or advocacy is tell an entire citizenry: everything power tells you is wrong. Everything you think you know is wrong. Ask the Civil Rights movement or the opponents of the Drug War.
The act of declaring "everything you know is wrong" is often confused with writing conspiratorially. Straying beyond the narrative that power deems acceptable gets you called asshole, crazy, or perhaps most importantly for a reporter -- unserious or uncivil. Institutional journalism lives in terror of being mocked by power as unhinged or unserious or uncivil. If I have any virtue at all, and I probably don't, it's indifference to what power calls me. I'll be dead soon enough, geologically speaking. Who cares.
I differ from many writers and reporters that I know and respect about the power of the press. I've studied enough history and the failures of my own reporting over the years to know that power uses journalism much more often than journalism checks power. That's not same as saying journalism isn't vital; because I don't know what else ever checks power but naked confrontation and human suffering.
I want journalism to thrive because a journalism that truly checks power in the way it says it does would be better than naked confrontation and human suffering. It could start by accurately describing the Florida's NAEP results somewhere. Anywhere.
It could start by asking: Why are Florida's 4th grade NAEP scores so high? And why do they collapse? Is it because Florida purposely ruins the lives and prospects of thousands and thousands of our most vulnerable 8-year-olds in a transparent attempt to game a corrupt test that can't even tell the truth about its own results? Here's a hint: yes.
So I'm begging you serious reporters: test what I'm saying here. It's easy to do intellectually. You can do it in two hours. Institutionally and personally, it's a risk to you. I know it. It will be hard to do. It will involve asking: how on earth did we all miss this for so long? Did we want to? What is our culpability? Those are hard, hard questions. Which is why they are mostly ducked.
But the Florida Model is -- and always has been -- the Failure Factory; it makes every child less likely to grow and thrive, according to the data cited in its own lying press releases. And it's getting worse. That is the biggest story in American education. Tell it. Please. It's an incredibly important narrative; and I hope you hate it.