Rod Thomson’s recent editorial, “Reforms, Not Money, Working,” was spot-on. His argument that money hasn’t led to increased test scores in our educational system is true both at the international level and at our local level.
Half of the world’s major industrialized countries outscored America on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment. And, yet, America outspends all countries in the world on education, except tiny Luxembourg.
Like America’s position in the world, Sarasota’s position in Florida is that of a top spender but poor performer. Since 2002, Sarasota has outspent all but a few tiny school districts. We spent 20% to 35% more per student than each of the districts that outscored us on the 2010 Reading FCAT. To put a round number on the savings for Sarasota County, if only we could be as efficient and effective as these other districts — $75 million each and every year.
Meanwhile, since 2002, the weighted-average reading FCAT scores for our 10th-grade white students barely made it into the top half of all white students in the state. Even worse, the weighted-average scores for our black and Hispanic students were in the bottom 25% when compared to other black and Hispanic students across the state. During the period from 2002 to 2010, the racial-subgroup scores for five of the largest urban areas in Florida beat Sarasota’s racial-subgroup scores, including the school districts for Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa. (These five districts alone account for 45% of Florida’s students.)
The only way to get our scores up is to stop telling our students and their parents that they are doing just fine. The kids and their parents need to know the truth, and the kids need to understand that their future depends on their education. The happy talk that deceives them and the resistance to reform found in the Sarasota County School District needs to stop.
But teachers can’t turn this around by themselves, because, as Thomson noted, a student’s cultural and family background have more influence on learning than a teacher does. Nevertheless, the cultural issues can be addressed by creating a strong “culture of learning” within our schools and by providing more parent/teacher interaction. Schools such as KIPP Academy Charter Schools have been successful in overcoming the cultural issues.
While we need to be more selective in hiring and retaining teachers, the Sarasota school district also needs to accept the philosophy of “no excuses!” for student performance, and we the parents and public need to hold the School Board, the superintendent, the principals and the teachers accountable.
The top-performing school districts in Florida based on their test scores for all of the racial subgroups are Leon, St. Johns, Broward, Brevard, Seminole and Okaloosa. We should find out how they consistently outperform us.
This is by far the biggest scandal in Sarasota the frustrated lives and wasted money caused by an under-performing school district. It’s time we stopped accepting it.
David Merrill is a former mayor of Sarasota, on the Better Government Association Board of Directors and is president of Arox Underground Utilities.
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