Time to cancel the Apocalypse talk for Florida public schools

“Pacific Rim” is without a doubt the greatest “giant robots smashing giant monsters” movie in the long and storied history of cinema. Okay, so the only real competition was the wretched “Pacific Rim 2” and maybe a few Japanese movies with people wearing rubber suits stomping on model buildings. Honest Trailers described “Pacific Rim” as either “The Most Awesome Dumb Movie of All Time” or “the Dumbest Awesome Movie of All Time.” “Pacific Rim” did indeed have everything your inner 9-year-old craves, including the above “Today we are cancelling the Apocalypse!” speech from the great Idris Elba.

So anyhoo – when do we get to cancel the apocalypse talk with regards to Florida schools?

I first started following the K-12 debate in Florida back in the late 1990s. Then, sadly as now, the air was filled with claims about the “destruction of the Florida public school system.” Among the many problems with this fevered story is the fact that the Florida Constitution guarantees public school funding and the public supports that guarantee. A quick perusal of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – the most highly respected source of apples-to-apples K-12 data available, shows consistent improvement in outcomes over time. The below chart shows the percentage of Florida students scoring “Basic or Better” (top four lines) and “Proficient or Better” (bottom four lines) from the earliest available results (1990) to the most recent (2017). Note that all the lines are trending up – which in this case is what you want.

The trend in Florida students scoring “Below Basic” is easier to follow. “Below Basic” is the lowest achievement level on NAEP, so what you want to see in this next graph is the numbers trending down. Sure enough:

There are of course things to disagree over and debate, but for those liberally pushing Florida K-12 apocalypse narratives, I simply want to pose the following questions: How do you square this obvious evidence of academic improvement among Florida students with impending predictions of doom? Is there a nefarious plot to improve public schools to death? The comment section awaits. I’ll hang up and listen.


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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.


Good questions. Of course, in many cases “the calls are coming from inside the house.” During Governor-elects Education Transition meeting, members (i.e. Keith Flaugh) from the team questioned the validity of Florida’s success, calling our public schools and their standards failures based on college aptitude scores (he also called for expansion of voucher for all). Our own newly appointed Commissioner suggested we must act “impatiently” to advance choice initiatives, despite the obvious success of the current system, where the vast majority of the students remain in the public school system. So which is it? A success or an emergency? Parents of successful public school children want to know?

Matthew Ladner

Fair question Sue- if you read King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, you’d never again want to associate yourself with those who urged King to be “patient” for urgently needed changes. I do not mean to suggest or make a case for complacency, but rather to suggest that the alleged destructive power of choice is not simply vastly overblown but a false narrative. Despite the real improvement shown above, in a global context the United States remains a high spending country with relatively poor results. For the kids still scoring Below Basic in the tests above, this still is an emergency. For those wistfully pining for a lost golden age of Florida education, it seems obvious to me that the golden age is now and the task ahead is how to get to a platinum age.

Sue Woltanski

It is too close to Christmas (and my gifts are still not wrapped) to engage this conversation but… How can you know that these improvements in NAEP are due to choice? This chart appears to show that the most dramatic changes in NAEP score happened prior to 2005 or so, with a general flattening of the curve recently… despite significant expansion of vouchers since then. Could it be the Accountability system and it’s focus on testing has made kids much better test takers? Could it be that retaining low scoring third graders skews the data for 4th grade? Could be that class size really does matter? My comment, however, was really focused on Keith Flaugh, who questioned Juan Copa’s presentation of this very same NAEP data and called it flawed. There are skeptics regarding the “Florida miracle” even on the transition team.

Personally, I believe there are likely many reasons for the NAEP trends. Suggesting that choice is the catalyst seems like over-reach.

The international test scores are a whole different discussion. As you must know, part of the reason the US spends so much on education compared to other countries is that the calculation includes the cost of providing healthcare to all the public school employees (making comparisons to most other countries, where the government provides health care, problematic).

Perhaps, after the holidays, we can continue the discussion. Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year.

Matthew Ladner


Merry Christmas to you too! We don’t “know” that choice caused these gains, but we do have a great deal of social science evidence including from official state academic evaluators that choice contributed to them. The Florida reforms didn’t happen inside a random assignment study, so pinpointing exactly which reforms and which other factors contributed how much to overall improvement is impossible. Note however for the crowd that would have had us believe that choice was going to do to Florida public schools what this Pacific Rim kaiju did to the Golden Gate bridge, well, there is less than zero evidence to suggest that this was or is the least bit true:


Sue Woltanski

Sadly, I have watched education reforms, like testing, 3rd grade retention, A-F grading, VAM, Common Core, decimate the quality of education in my children’s public schools. I live in an A district with essentially all A schools, yet still the damage of these so-called reforms is obvious. There is less art, music, PE, Spanish now then when my children started kindergarten. Writing instruction is almost entirely formulaic and focused on passing the FSA Writing portion. In my community, despite having some very good teachers, both charters and traditional public schools are over obsessed with data points, are constantly assessing children and focus primarily on state assessments. In small rural communities like mine, one can watch the neighborhood charter entice the bright, resourced children away from the traditional public school, while sending the poorly behaved, low test score or under-resourced ones back to the TPS. So forgive me if I don’t trust those who have created all this over the last 20 years, including those official state academic evaluators, to repair the damage done to my schools by their actions. The School Choice folk like to distance themselves from the test and punish/data mining/accountability monster, but those of us that have been watching know they are one and the same. The monster has already caused massive destruction to our schools and, since you have been involved since early on, you know it is all part of the plan. Defund the public schools, use standardized tests to label them as failing, so that people will leave them for tiny new “choice” options. Everything is going according to plan. Privatize on.

It always tickles me how they focus on scores that trend up in elementary and middle school but fail to show how NAEP scores trend down in high school. The other factor left out is the elementary trend up due to the retention of 3rd grade students who fail FSA reading. These students are test prepped to death. Additionally, grad rates are up only because of massive credit recovery and concordant scores for FSA. Real literacy, physical education, and critical thinking/inventiveness are -for the most part – not built in FL. with the current over testing, underpayment of educators, and Russ called choice.

Sue Woltanski

Yes, the NAEP is the “gold standard.” Of course, these are standardized test scores and if they are all that matter, good for us. It certainly beats plummeting test scores (like they were concerned with 2 years ago). But at what cost? The destruction is already occurring. After 20 years, ed reform is the status quo.

Also, when you hear the rhetoric: trapped by a zip code, failure factories, status quo, and, the newest, “public education is not the same as public schools” is becomes clear that the goal is not to reform but to replace. Why not describe the end game and let local communities decide whether they want to adhere to the privatization playbook or try to restore balance to their communities public schools?

Matthew Ladner

You guys are strong with the non-falsifiable side of the Force, I’ll give you that.

In addition to those atrocious NAEP scores back in the early 1990s, the litany of destruction would also seem to have a difficult time dealing with clear evidence of improving higher education statistics in Florida. This source:


shows for instance that every ethnic group at both Florida public 4 year and 2 year institutions of higher education have completion rates above the national average. Moreover, the overall statewide rate has continued to improve over time. That’s a very interesting set of accomplishments for students largely coming out of an education system that has been destroyed imo.

Now take a look at the remediation data for FL. students entering colleges and universities. Also, look at the percentage that finish in four years.

Sue Woltanski

“You guys…”

Great use of data, Matthew. Do you have children who have been in 3rd grade in Florida over the last few years? I can introduce you to some. Have you spoken to college freshman who are incapable of college level writing because they only know formulaic-FSA style writing? Have you seen the rise in youth suicide? Failure to listen to parents regarding the real costs to the data focused education is something we have come to expect.

Again my question was: Why not describe the end game and let local communities decide whether they want to adhere to the privatization playbook or try to restore balance to their communities public schools?

Many parents especially public school parents have pulled their kids out due to the complete frustration over testing! God help you if you have a child who is very smart but dyslexic (our situation). My standards are very high and we have completed a mixed bag of public school, (3 years) Homeschooling w Private tutor and Private school. The Common Core standards along with their Pro-Islamic, Anti-Christian slant is enough alone to push us over the edge! Common Core unfortunately has gotten into some of the private schools as well! In high school the push seems to be more on Indoctrinated them into a politically correct, left way of thought! We want our kids to understand why our country is great which is true not why and how we are sooo oppressive! Yet these same people don’t have an explanation why so many people are even dying to live in the U.S. We must take education back from elites who think they know best for our kids! Parents know Best!

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