Guest Column: Mixed News On Education

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Guest commentary

We're getting mixed messages on education these days.

Some good news, some not so good.

On the good news side, Education Week just ranked Florida sixth in the country in quality of public education, up from 31st five years ago. Pretty impressive. The category of student and teacher standards and accountability, always a hot potato, got an A.

A bit earlier, we learned Florida fourth-graders were ranked a jaw-dropping second in the world in reading scores. That may be a once-off happening, but it's still impressive.

In other good news, Florida's high school graduation rate jumped nearly 4 percent in 2012, moving up to 74.5 percent — no great shakes, but a step in the right direction.

And school choice continues to return benefits. Voucher programs and charter schools led to big improvements in student performance in Missouri and Louisiana. St. Louis found that metrics-driven classroom planning boosted test scores — no big surprise.

More students than ever are taking Advanced Placement courses in high school (my granddaughter in Massachusetts among them), and many high schools are offering community-college courses, another way to ease into higher education.

But not everything is rosy.

The New York Times reports a widening education gap between economic classes. With less financial aid available, colleges are increasingly making choices based on merit. As a result, needy students — mostly minorities — are often shut out. And of those who are admitted, a high percentage don't make it past their freshman year.

The statistics are not encouraging. On average, four times more students from the suburbs meet math standards than their inner-city counterparts. At some grade levels, the discrepancy is even worse.

Then there's the global education gap. Arthur Levine of Columbia University says, in 70 countries tested, U.S. students rank no higher than the middle of the pack. Well-off students don't fare any better. Affluence doesn't close the gap with Singapore, Finland or South Korea.

And, as we've heard many times, this shortfall leads to lost jobs. Employers hire better-educated foreigners or move operations overseas, particularly in high-tech fields. Stanford's Eric Hanushek says the U.S. economy would be boosted by $1 trillion a year if Americans performed at Canada's level in math.

A recent article in the Naples Daily News drives home the point. An official from Algenol Biofuels in Bonita Springs said she could not find a single qualified scientist with a master's degree or doctorate for an opening with a $95,000-a-year salary.

So while Florida has moved up to number six in education, we're still not matching degrees to jobs.

And it's not for lack of trying. Incentives for STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — are being offered, and Florida schools are touting the benefits. This includes Kamela Patton, the enlightened superintendent of Collier County Public Schools. But we have a long way to go.

So there's good news and bad news in education. There's just not enough good news.

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