Effective teachers, lackluster test scores?

In Florida, an opportunity to dig deeper into some contradictory data

MIAMI, FL — Two big evaluations of education in the Sunshine State came out this week—and readers can be excused for feeling a bit confused, because they tell rather different stories about the state of Florida’s schools.

Eleven newspapers around the state went front-page this week with stories highlighting the release of teacher evaluation data. The vast majority of Florida teachers—98 percent—were rated “effective” or “highly effective.”

Meanwhile, two papers—the Lakeland Ledger (which ran wire copy) and The Palm Beach Post (subscription-only) gave A1 placement to stories about Florida’s results on the Program for International Student Assessment, which tests students in more than 60 countries. (Florida was one of three US states to pay for state-specific results.) The numbers weren’t sparkling: Florida kids fared roughly in line with the US and international averages in reading, and similar to the lackluster US average but well below the international standard in science. In math, the state’s results were worst of all: well below the US average and “similar to Croatia,” as the Post story put it, with 30 percent of students scoring as “low achievers.”

The demographic challenges in Florida’s schools are real, but still there’s an obvious question here: How can the state’s teachers be doing such a great job while students can’t compete with international peers and struggle to keep up with already-middling US scores?

But strikingly, only one paper, the Sarasota Herald Tribune mentioned Florida’s mediocre showing on the global test in its front-page teacher evaluation story. Gabrielle Russon’s article could have used another paragraph or two with further details of the international rankings, but she was right to include the context.

That’s not to say the state’s education reporters delivered the news on teacher evaluations without skepticism. Joe Callahan of the Ocala Star Banner focused on another apparent contradiction—many of those effective teachers are working at schools that, according to another state metric, are not very effective:

Nearly one-third of Marion County’s elementary and middle schools received a “D” grade in June from the state Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year.

Despite those bad school grades, teacher evaluation data released by the state on Tuesday show that teachers fared much better than their schools.

The data shows that 99.2 percent of Marion’s teachers in 2012-13 were deemed “effective” or “highly effective” — the top two of five evaluation categories.

While it may seem like a head-scratching dichotomy, the reality is that most “D” schools in Florida are not as bad as their grades — and teachers are not always as perfect as their evaluations.

In a more biting piece that didn’t get front-page play, Lisa Gartner and Cara Fitzpatrick of the Tampa Bay Times noted the same discrepancy and concluded:

Florida’s lawmakers have revamped the teacher evaluation system in an effort to end the days when nearly every teacher in the state earned top marks while thousands of students struggled. But with 98 percent of teachers statewide still in the top two categories, the new system hasn’t done away with that issue.

It also continues to face questions that have lingered since its inception in 2011-12. Some teachers complain of being rated based on students they never taught, while others question the accuracy of the evaluations.

At the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union, reporters Kristopher Brooks, Topher Sanders and Denise Amos pointed out that the public release of teacher evaluation results didn’t include “value-added data,” which the paper has sued to obtain.

That article and others also ran through a range of complaints and caveats about the controversial teacher evaluation system, which is slated to shape teacher pay beginning next year. Many of these articles are well executed and capture the ongoing arguments about the evaluation system. They also offer a couple nuggets that help explain why so few teachers are rated as poor: for example, at least a couple districts acknowledged an unwillingness to deliver low ratings, stemming from concerns about inconsistency or unreliability in the evaluation system.

Still, considering the release this week of the PISA results, much of the coverage feels narrower than it might have been. There’s a contentious political debate on the merits of the teacher evaluations, in principle and in practice—reporters know how to cover that story, and they generally covered this week’s news with skepticism.

But part of that argument is about how much stock to put in any method of evaluation. And though the PISA results have their limitations—this was the first year Florida results were broken out; only a few thousand students in state were tested—they offer a useful additional independent data point. The implications of that data might be up for debate, but there was a news opportunity here to tie a couple stories together and enrich the discussion about evaluation and achievement in education. So far that opportunity seems to have been mostly missed, but it’s still available.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , ,