For a story I'm working on in next week's print edition, I interviewed Florida state Sen. Stephen R. Wise, who represents the Jacksonville area in the state legislature. We were talking about the open state education commissioner's job in his state, but I want to focus on a few, arguably quite remarkable things that the state senator volunteered over the course of a roughly hour-long interview.
Wise is no tenderfoot in Florida politics. He has spent 23 years in the statehouse, the last 11 in the state Senate, and is chairman of the Senate's education committee. He is a Republican. He is also term-limited and will leave office after the state legislative elections this year, a fact that may explain why he felt relatively free to say some of the things he said about state education policy dating back to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Two policy areas in particular drew Wise's outrage during my discussion with him, although the thread tying them together is his concern that the ultimate result for disadvantaged black male students in particular is that they are dropping out "like flies." (Wise is white.)
The first is the state's policy of holding back some 3rd graders who can't demonstrate literacy on an exam. He said this, along with the emphasis on phonics and not meaning in reading, has caused widespread misery and disillusionment with school, particularly among poor minority students.
Wise said he is particularly incensed by 2010 data from the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation for Public Education. He highlighted the foundation's report on "Public Education and Black Males" showing that three Florida districts (in Duval, Palm Beach and Pinellas counties) as among the 10 worst large school districts in the U.S. in terms of black male graduation rate for the 2007-08 school year. Duval County schools, which are in the Jacksonville area Wise represents, were third from the bottom, with a 23 percent graduation rate for that school year cohort. (Palm Beach and Pinellas were the two worst districts.)
The data may be old by some standards, but Wise's anger burns pretty hot, particularly since these numbers are local and personal for him.
"They have a different language. They have a different context ... they have no idea what we're talking about," said Wise of many low-performing and young black male students. "We're failing them and we're holding them back, and then when they get to the 5th grade they're old, they're bigger than the teachers sometimes, and they still can't read."
He added later: "The two skills they have are 'steal and deal' and then they end up in the prisons because they can't get [jobs]."
Researchers writing for Education Next, for example, would disagree with Wise and argue that based on reading test scores, the numbers for Florida students, at least in general, show "genuine progress" in Florida as measured by the National Assessment for Educational Progress. But Wise isn't buying it, at least as far as at-risk populations of male students are concerned.
This is not the first time that Wise has questioned the state's approach to reading, as well as its cost. As in this Florida Times-Union piece from last year, Wise told me the $1.4 billion the state has spent on improving reading performance in the last 10 years has brought the state, essentially, nothing.
"When you look at what we're doing to these kids, especially the black boys, (it) is unbelievable," he said.
Questioning College for All
The second policy initiative that angered him was the general push for more advanced courses to prepare more students for higher education. Wise said he resented the idea that the state was pushing kids so vigorously into tougher classes that, in his words, many children were dropping out and getting trapped into the juvenile justice system. He said that the state should be doing much more to prepare students for traditional, well-paying jobs that don't require college degrees.
"What are we going to do with the kids who ... somewhere along the line, they haven't passed the math [test] ... and [then] they've got to take advanced algebra. Are we killing the kids or what? What are we trying to do?" he said.
And again, he said the impact from the approach of preparing more and more students for college, not jobs, after high school graduation has hit poor black males particularly hard.
"I would rather be a crane operator and make $100,000 a year in the Jacksonville ports than get a master's degree in social work and make [$35,000]," Wise said.
Not surprisingly, the Foundation for Florida's Future, an education advocacy group which Bush leads, disagrees with Wise both about the state's early literacy programs and the policies regarding more-rigorous courses.
A spokeswoman for the foundation, Jaryn Emhof, wrote in an email that "more African-American students are reading on grade level today than were a decade ago." She also said that more black students are taking the PSAT in preparation for college and passing Advanced Placement courses, and that graduation rates for minority students have also risen, proof that the policies Wise discusses aren't having a "negative effect."
"We need to keep working to improve their outcomes, not undo the reforms that made progress with African American student achievement," she wrote.
The senator emphasized that his remarks should not be construed as a wholesale repudiation of the state's education policy initiatives, many of which can be traced back to Bush and his work in the state education community. Indeed, Wise said he worked in the legislature to make sure much of Bush's agenda became law. He stressed in particular that the state's previous work on school accountability and teacher quality, in particular, were necessary for Florida's schools to improve.
But in a way, those qualifying remarks from Wise, along with his legislative background, make his other comments more interesting. And he expressed concern that the ideas underpinning these policies are spreading further nationwide.
In summation, Wise said he thought that many middle-class and other students who would probably have performed well anyway were helped, or at least not hurt, by some of the same reforms he said have done great damage to the academic performance of poor and minority students.
"We need to train these young people to get a job that is rewarding and puts food on the table and those kinds of things without making them decide to drop out," he argued.