Some teachers in Florida are holding up a new study by the Brookings Institute as proof that state leaders should stop meddling with certain parts of our education system. They shouldn’t.
The title of the report raises a provocative question: Did Tenure Reform In Florida Improve Student Test Scores?
Read a couple paragraphs in and you’ll get an answer: Only “slightly,” and “by a very small degree.”
Read between the lines and you get even more. They’re essentially saying, ‘We actually can’t tell much at all from this limited study we did, but the effect of nixing teacher tenure isn’t negative and it’s not zero. That much we know for sure. But even though we’re claiming that the benefit for this one policy change is small, it could actually be much bigger.’
The authors are caught between wanting to be seen as legit researchers and wanting to produce a report that helps teachers unions and anyone else against reform. Since they don’t have anything solid, or even significant, they bury the lead, beat around the bush and obfuscate the truth.
That’s what I see between the lines–not only in the report, but also in the Gradebook podcast where Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Solochek interviews Celeste Carruthers, one of the authors.
Bias Toward Teachers Union Agenda is Clear
Consider the words they use to talk about this. They examine the teachers who were “most vulnerable” to the effects of tenure. What do you think of when you hear the word “vulnerable?” I think of someone who might get hurt. The dictionary defines it as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.”
So from the onset, the authors make it clear that they see getting rid of teacher tenure as something that could do harm to teachers. Is anyone thinking about the harm the former tenure policy did to the students? I digress.
If you listen to the podcast, at the 9:55 mark, Carruthers’ dodgy response to Solochek’s sensible question makes her bias against reform even clearer:
“Lots of teachers are holding up this paper and saying, ‘See, I told you so.” is that the right thing to be saying and doing?” Solochek asks.
If you’re a fan of expert non-answers and classic avoidance, you owe it to yourself to listen to Carruthers’ response:
“I think that the political response to the tenure reform law of 2011 has rolled back so many of these provisions, that I don’t think that there’s nearly as much support for the degree of change that the law advocated for at first. Not just among teachers, but among the public in general.”
Did you catch it? Instead of answering the question, she pivots and answers a question he never asked: Do teachers and the public still support this idea of getting rid of reform? Classic PR move. Excellent skirting of the question. Her handlers should be proud.
Teacher Tenure Was Good for Teachers, Bad for Kids
In 2011, Governor Rick Scott signed a law getting rid of a thing called continuing contacts, A.K.A. teacher tenure, for new teachers. Those who already had it were unaffected.
Tenure basically gave teachers a job for life by making it almost impossible to fire them, even if they kicked up their feet on their desk and read a newspaper day after day while students were left to fend for themselves on worksheets (source: My wife’s high school classroom).
Teachers could achieve this lofty, untouchable status after just a couple years of teaching.
Education reform advocates and lawmakers realized this wasn’t a good thing for kids and made the change, not just in Florida, but in several states including Idaho, Kansas, and North Carolina.
Now the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning think tank that tends to support teachers unions, has gone out of its way to try to throw shade at the policy change. It falls in line with a popular narrative that education reform isn’t working and the implication that follows… ‘So let’s stop doing it.’
Everyone who’s being honest and comes with even a modicum of thoughtfulness will tell you there’s no silver bullet to triumph over our education woes. There’s no single policy that will do the trick. Instead, it’s lots of things done intentionally and persistently over time.
Education Reforms Are Working In Florida
Over the last two decades Florida has made several changes to improve our schools. In addition to reforming the tenure laws, state leaders expanded school choice programs like charter schools, tax-credit scholarships and open enrollment. We set more rigorous academic standards and strengthened our school accountability system.
The Nation’s Report Card found that Florida is the only state that made significant improvement in fourth and eighth grade math in 2017. In 2015, Florida’s low-income fourth-graders were recognized as the highest-performing low-income students in the country. And in 2013, Florida was the only state to reduce the gap between white and black fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and math. Fourth-graders with disabilities have also increased their reading skills by 16 percent since 2002.
For years, states across the country have been looking to Florida in hopes of replicating our successes. To undo it now would be insane.
So when you see someone pointing to this Brookings report and telling you that education reform isn’t working in Florida, don’t believe it. There’s a lot of evidence that Florida is on the right track. Help them read between the lines and see the good that is happening for our kids. Help them so that we can keep our education system moving in the right direction.
Lane Wright is a father of three in Tallahassee, former press secretary for Governor Rick Scott, and current Director of Policy Analysis for Education Post, a national education nonprofit focused on creating better conversations around improving our schools.