Examining Florida's Education System

The Conditions of Education Report provides an important foundation to be used in examining and setting K-12 school policy.


The Conditions of Education report team, seated (l-r), George MacDonald, asst. dir.; Bruce Jones, dir.; Donna Elam, assoc. dir.;

Justin Burriss, office mgr. Standing (l-r), graduate researchers Sherlene Enriquez-Savery, Nikia Kaiza and Sagar Patel.



By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 27, 2011) – Until the University of South Florida’s David C. Anchin Center plowed through masses of documents and records to compile the data, there was no comprehensive view of the entire state’s K-12 education system – showing performance and achievement district by district.


A five-volume package of reports is the result – Florida’s First Comprehensive Conditions of Education Report. With the report, Florida’s K-12 students are getting closer to getting what they want and need – a better education and anecdotal observations and isolated instances are no longer left on their own to explain matters.

 “A foundation of data on which to base necessary changes is required because getting the results you want requires knowing what you already have,” said Anchin Center Director Bruce Jones. “But you can’t know that until you have the numbers at your disposal.”

Between the Florida Department of Education databases, the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics, the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count database, the Florida Philanthropic Network and Foundation Center data banks, and other less well-known sources, Jones’ team performed its herculean task to end up with a wealth of facts and figures. The data and evidence in the report tell Florida’s education story in detail.

But the way the information is presented also matters. This is where one of the report’s most important features plays its greatest role. The five volumes – one for each of Florida’s regions – are magazine-sized and well-designed to be easy to read with quick-reference charts and graphs.

“The report is completely user-friendly,” said Jones, Endowed Professor of Education in the College of Education. “Rather than have to decipher complex, unwieldy and often confusing spreadsheets that differ from one jurisdiction to the next, anyone who wants to find specific categories of statistics can find them quickly and easily. This is something we’re already hearing from officials that they truly appreciate. We designed it not only for them, but also for parents and everyone.”


Need to know how many students are excelling and failing?  Need to know the specific demographic breakdown of student behavior and concentrations of poverty?  It’s all there. Attendance and advanced placement data plus teacher salaries and degree levels are at the reader’s fingertips.

Now to put the information to use. 


“The real problem is there is no sense of collective responsibility for making sure that all of our students are doing well,” Jones said. “Too often the reformers come up with all kinds of ideas without connecting to the real in-the-classroom impact on kids. Teachers see the problems right in front of them and complain amongst themselves.  And now they’re on the defensive since the latest fad is to blame them.”


And fads are a problem, according to Jones.  With this kind of report, there may one day be an end to what he describes as the “fad-oriented approach to finding solutions,” an approach that has been failing students for decades. He says it must stop.


“In the 1960’s the focus was on community control, in the 1970’s it was leadership, in the 1980’s and 1990’s it was curriculum reform systems. This time around it’s teacher reform. Each one failed – inevitably – because what we need is a holistic approach that uses the best of what all these approaches have to offer.” 


Jones points out that when businesses bring in consultants to improve things, they don’t just go to the workers without including the leadership or vice versa.  “That wouldn’t make any sense and wouldn’t work.  It’s the same with the schools, you have to involve all the constituencies, teachers, parents, leadership and of course, the children. Instead we’ve been blaming each one of these groups as if any one of them could fix the problems without involving the others. Isolated reform schemes – the fads of the moment – have to come to an end.”


But first, there must be dialogue.  The Anchin Center leadership is going on the road to engage in “Community Conversations.”  So far, Palm Beach County’s school administrators and key constituents of the philanthropic community are the first to reach out to the Anchin Center for consultation, a role the center is looking to play throughout the state. Such dialogues fit squarely within the Anchin Center’s mission and set the stage for developing strategies.


“We’re now probing the data, looking for patterns so that we can identify the top issues to explore further and address with concrete recommendations,” said Jones.  “We anticipate doing a series of studies that will help raise the right questions and point to the best solutions in ways that benefit children and the mission of public education.”


A few disturbing snapshots are emerging from the data. The often spoken of achievement gap has solid numbers and trackable trends. Jones says it doesn’t take a crystal ball or mathematical computations to figure out why.


Dropout and graduation rates among African American males are particularly alarming and reading rates are no better.


“We have communities where the graduation rate for African American males is as low as eight percent. With these rates, according to Jones, “We are almost ensuring that the state will have a steady stream of Black boys heading into our corrections system.  This is occurring despite the fact that we know there are models that work.”


He points to successful models all over the country. Names like Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Lorraine Monroe, founder of the Fredrick Douglass Academy and creator of the Monroe Principles to Create Great Leaders and Exemplary Schools, James H. Johnson Jr., the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and his Union Independent School project, have attracted widespread attention based on their successes. And then there’s Bill Strickland.


Strickland earned a ten-minute standing ovation at last year’s Anchin Center conference and people lined up to meet him afterwards. 


“The hotel couldn’t get us out of the building,” Jones said. 


The president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, Strickland is a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant award winner. 


“His presentation was so powerful and so inspiring. Everyone, men and women, had tears in their eyes by the time he finished. His work with children and community engagement across the nation is nothing short of phenomenal.”


Research and delving into numbers delights Jones.  In the mid-1990s he served as chair of the research arm of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NBPEA). He led a team that produced a similar report at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The experience came in handy.


“It would normally take millions of dollars to get a report of this magnitude done,” said Jones. “But we had the resources and the time – two years, a heavyweight consultant and a dedicated team – and a built-in mission that made it all possible.”


The Anchin Center’s mission is to “…promulgate mutually beneficial institutional relationships that advance research, advocacy and information dissemination on best practices in education.”


With this mission, “Our role as researchers is to probe and conduct studies on the status of education in our state,” Jones said. “The focus of the report is institutional performance relative to student achievement.  There’s no way to get around what the numbers have to say about how students are being served. Here in Florida what lawmakers, policymakers, administrators, leaders, educators and parents now have is the basis for demanding better results as well as the data with which to establish benchmarks and set goals. The existing numbers tell a lot and future data will speak for itself.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.