I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Graduation Rates In Escambia County Part 2: How Are Similar Counties Doing?

We have made some headway in our overall graduation rates over the last decade in Escambia County, no doubt about it. But, how do we improve our 4 year, on-time, graduation rate? This metric is a huge part of our district letter grade-and it is the component that drags our grade down. It is also a huge factor in our individual school grades. Tate and Northview would have been “A” Schools if not for the lack of progress among the lowest quartile of students at these schools—students that were more than likely ill-prepared for the rigor of High School when they were “moved ahead”. There are many ideas, suggestions, and solutions to increasing the four year graduation rate—but what is working right now? If we look at similar sized counties around Florida, there are many that have significantly better four year graduation rates than do we in Escambia. What are the reasons for this? I’ve heard that it’s because we have a higher percentage of ESE students than anyone-so I looked at figure 18 of the 2012-2013 ESE membership document at the DOE Stats page and worked out the percentages for us as well as our peer counties. Escambia has a high percentage—but so do other counties-next reason. What about poverty? We have areas of concentrated, generational poverty—this is the reason, right? Not so fast, I went to the U.S. Census Quick facts page here, and as I have illustrated in the above chart-there are other counties with lower per-capita incomes that have better graduation rates. What about demographics-we have a high minority population-so this must be the reason, right? Wrong. This interactive map from the last U.S. Census shows the demographic breakdown of every county in Florida (and in the US—it is an awesome tool) Duval County has a larger minority population than does Escambia, so does Leon. Both of those counties have graduation rates in the 70s (Leon is 77%!) yet Escambia county is stuck in the low 60’s… But we're told our five year rate is better--so I went here and went to the five year graduation rate by race and school, I downloaded the spreadsheet, and did the calculations in excel. Even the five year rate puts us behind our peers in the chart. So what is the reason for this issue? What Gives? I have a hunch that a large part of the reason our numbers are low is that we are socially promoting students into High School –students that have not yet mastered the skills necessary to be successful in High School. We do this for a variety of reasons….We have some middle schoolers that are 2,3, or more years behind—gotta move em’ up. We let students fail multiple classes, then make these courses up on computerized “course recovery” programs that do not instill long-term concept mastery—gotta move ‘em up. Some administrators harbor notions that students promoted to High School may find a coach, teacher, or some other school based “mentor type figure” once promoted to High School to help them be successful—even though there is no way to measure this. Gotta move ‘em up! I have even heard anecdotally that at some middle schools the unwritten yet expected practice is that at-risk students are not permitted to receive ANY grade lower than a 59, gotta move ‘em up. “These students really want to play

 freshman football, Mr. Bergosh” --gotta move ‘em up! There is a saying from the 60s that really speaks to the problem we have in Escambia County. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are stuck on a script,

 unable to be creative and unwilling to be bold, terrified to step up and do what other counties around the state and nation are doing---set meaningful standards for admission/promotion to High School! I’ve brought this idea to the Board over, and over, and over—and I run into the same Status Quo, Iron Curtain of NO. I’m like a broken record on this issue….. We did this for the transition from first to second grade—it was a smashing success! Why can’t we, if not for social implications (and we don’t socially promote, right?), do the same thing between 8th and 9th grade? Nope—too difficult, can’t do it…… So instead, we allow middle school students to score the lowest possible, failing score on the all-important state skill assessment tests for reading, writing, mathematics, and science—and then we welcome them to High School—knowing they’re ill-prepared. Why? We allow students to complete Middle School with a straight “D” average, and we promote them to High School even though we know in many cases these same students are ill-prepared for the rigor of High School. Why? And then we wonder why these kids drop out or don’t complete High School in four years? It’s not a mystery-they weren’t ready, they got their one season of eligibility for freshman football, or one season of basketball. Then they struggle, and then they quit! The problem is simple-we are promoting too many that are unprepared, for reasons that are social and not academic. Neither Duval nor Leon County--two schools with higher minority populations than Escambia--allow the middle schoolers to directly matriculate with "D" averages and failing assessment scores.  They get it!  This practice we have in Escambia County must change-we can't sugar the pill;  If you have not mastered the concepts, you should not be moved into High School.  Absent a change of course, our rates will not improve, our district letter grade won’t improve, and High Schools like Tate, Northview, Washington, and PHS will continue to be penalized for the lack of progress of the low-performers.

Through our continued inaction on this, we are not doing anyone---- students, parents, taxpayers, or teachers--- any favors. We have met the enemy and he is us. Pogo was right


Anonymous said...

While I agree that we are doing no one any favors by promoting unprepared students, I have some concerns about retaining students until they are proficient according to the FCAT.

First, there are some who will never be proficient. Some students could be retained until age 30 and will not score a 3.

Second, I am concerned about 11 (and some 10) year-old 6th graders in a school environment with 15 or 16 year-olds (up to what, 21 years old?). I would not want my children going to the bathroom, getting dressed out in PE, going on field trips, etc. with such a huge age range of students. A 16 year-old boy is not a peer with 11 year-olds.

Third, I'm reminded of that common definition of insanity. You know, "doing the same thing and expecting different results". There is no alternative education at the middle school level, except that imposed for disciplinary reasons.

We need a broader evaluation of the problem. Blame can be placed at the feet of more than just middle school promotion.

Jeff Bergosh said...

Anonymous-thanks for your thoughts. Your basis for not wanting stricter promotion requirements have to do with issues that are social, not academic. We are not supposed to make promotion decisions for social reasons---but we do.

Nobody ever said you have to score a 3 or 5--I'd just like to see promotion to HS more rigorous than straight D's across the board (many of which are merciful upward grade escalations) and stright 1s (failing score) on the state proficiency tests. DUVAL and LEON both have higher minority populations than do ESCAMBIA--yet they both have promotion requirements (from 8th to 9th grade) that are more rigorous than are ours. Subsequently, they end up with higher 4 year on time graduation rates in the high 70s--we're at 64.

You can say what you have said and believe we need a "broader evaluation of problem"--but a big part of the problem is promotion of students who are not ready which we should not do--and other counties are not doing.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, we are not in complete disagreement. Without a doubt, our graduation rates are shameful.

While perhaps my concerns center on "social" issues, they are, nonetheless, valid. How do the counties you are using for comparison handle these issues? Do they have an alternative environment for kids that held back for 2 or more years? Do they have alternative programs, perhaps vocational-based, available at the middle school level?

What are the specific changes you'd like to see to increase rigor in promotions? Passing scores adjusted to account for grade inflation, i.e. grade scale adjusted to reflect a higher standard for passing? Learning gains on FCAT? I assumed proficiency (level 3), since that seems the logical prerequisite for "readiness".

Oh, and I never mentioned minorities.

Jeff Bergosh said...

Specifics--I think at a minimum a level 2 in reading, writing and math, on the state skills assessment tests and at least a 2.0 GPA in Reading and Math Middle School courses as the low-bar for entry into HS. Anything lower than this --I think is an illustration that the student is not prepared for the rigor of HS. Other counties (Duval, Leon) and states (NC, NY, WI, IL) do this already, and their 4 year, on-time graduation rates skyrocket compared to ours in Escambia. I understand it creates problems with overage students, I get that. But the solution to that issue cannot be that we maintain the status quo and hope for better outcomes. That is illogical and perpetuates the low graduation rate problem. the district is "considering" a minimum GPA requirement for entry to High School and a reactivation of some sort of a Summer School program--two ideas I strongly support. And with respect to minority population-I mention that only because that is often thrown about (along with our ESE percentage) as part of the reason why we don't compare to some other districts--yet two counties that have much higher grad rates---LEON and DUVAL--also have higher minority populations than do we in Escambia--so is that really the reason? And others have just as high an ESE percentage as well.

Jeff Bergosh said...

Texas has a good statewide criteria that mandates 70 average in 3 of 4 core classes and passing scores on State Assessment exams prior to promotion from 5th and 8th grade...This one-pager from Houston sums it up nicely...

Alice said...

Welcome back, Jeff! You have no idea how I have missed our conversation.

So, almost half the students in this county drop out before graduation. Among impoverished African-American students,the dropout rate is even higher. None of the ideas discussed in this blog will make any difference. The bottom line is not emphasizing school choice nor is it retaining students. Either approach will mean larger groups of students "at the bottom" and even more dropouts. We cannot begin to address educational issues in this country until we begin to consider the context.

Consider, for example, how our social "context" differs from that of Finland, a top-ranking country in educational achievement. The United States has two political parties sharply divided in educational policies. Finland, however, has 14 political parties, none with the political clout of our two. What the Finnish people did was to recognize the crisis and then to come together to solve it, leaving preconceived notions behind. No one Finnish party is powerful enough to dictate educational policy, as happened in this country with the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Educational policy in this country, is, for the most part, dictated by the preconceptions of politicians, most of whom have never taught and many of whom don't even have children in public schools. For example, ask any administrator in this county about the purpose of education or about reasons for our failure, and I guarantee you will get an answer couched in absolutes: poverty doesn't matter, students could learn if they just wanted to, the problem is the parents who don't care, our schools treat students equally, and so on and so on.

The one common factor among schools that have "turned around" is this: everyone in the school is working toward a common goal: educating the children, giving them a chance for a better life. They've left aside the preconceived notions about what works. Until we, too, come together, drop our biased preconceptions, and begin listening to each other, our schools will never improve.

Consider what has happened since the publication of 1983's "A Nation at Risk," the result of a comprehensive study of our educational system, the study that concluded "the educational foundations of our society are
presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a
Nation and a people" ( In the 31 years since then, we've made virtually no progress. Our nation is today "at ever greater risk."

The 9/11 crisis brought this country together in a way that it had not been since the "race for space" united us in a common endeavor. Today, we face a much, much more serious crisis, a crisis that, to date, has served only to divide us more sharply. If we do not come together, we are doomed. Benjamin Franklin said it best when he addressed our forefathers, those men who risked being hanged as traitors should England prove victorious: "Gentlemen, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Jeff Bergosh said...


It's good to be back. Now, your statistics are dead wrong--our on-time four year graduation rate is 64%, not 50%. Among African Americans it is a little above 50%.

Leon and Duval Counties do not socially promote-they have actual criteria higher than we do for entry into HS from MS--they ensure Middle Schoolers are prepared before they are promoted to HS, which in turn increases their on-time 4 year rate.

Leon and Duval have demogrhics similar to Escambia (Duval is larger, however) with respect to ethnic diversity.

If we implemented someting like Leon County, our rates will go up too.

Alice said...

"DEAD" wrong, Jeff? (I'm so very happy to be here!!!) "Dead" wrong would be a statement that "virtually all our students drop out." A statement that "nearly half" our students drop out comes closer to "almost accurate" than to "dead wrong."

Question: Suppose we adopt the "retention" policies you propose. The first year this policy is in force, we have a much larger student enrollment in our middle schools. Where do the teachers and classrooms come from? If students have not met minimum standards in three years, what is the chance they will meet the standards were they to be retained an additional year? An additional two years?

Jeff, I have experienced firsthand the classroom experiences of these students. They are generally taught by the most inexperienced teachers using the least effective teaching methods. And the further behind the students become, the more likely they are to be taught by the same teachers using the same methods.

I've taught these students. I've earned merit pay based on their test scores. I know what I'm doing. I respect my students (that doesn't mean, Jeff, that I let them skate). I once had a regular junior English of 26 students, half of whom had not passed the FCAT. Guess how many passed the FCAT retake? All but one. Obviously, I was doing something right.

My classroom walls were filled with posters decorated with my students' writing. A math teacher who used my classroom one period a day once asked how I managed to get such good writing from my students. My response was that I didn't "get it from them." I just didn't get in the way.

When my students came into the classroom, I became part of the class, moving from student to student or group to group. I did not use worksheets. I did not sit behind my desk. I asked my students to write, to read, to think, to share ideas. and I listened to them, I challenged them. I tried very hard to show them that writing is not something we learn for the FCAT. We learn it for life. We learn it to give ourselves the power to change our lives. I tried very hard to make my class interesting.

What I discovered is that when students learn that you truly care about them, that you are truly trying to engage them, they respond in some incredible ways. Discipline problems virtually disappear. Learning happens.

What does all this have to do with our graduation rate? with a retention policy? Since the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, and even more so since NCLB of 2001, we've fiddled with policies (while our students burned)to absolutely no effect. No retention policy on the face of this earth will make a scintilla of difference unless learning happens in the classroom.

And in all the recent posts to this blog, I've not read one word about how learning happens.

Jeff Bergosh said...


it sounds as if your teaching style meshed well with the students, and that they responded to you. I think this occurs with many of our talented teachers. I know my daughter felt this way about a number of her teachers at the PHS IB program. It's too bad not every classroom is like this--but it is something we strive to achieve--because learning that engages students--like my son's science teacher Mr. "O" at Ransom--a great teacher can really bring the best out of their students. Now--how learning happens...That
's a complex partnership between schools, teachers, and HOME. Unfortunately, in many instances in several areas of our community--there is no HOME, so like a three legged stool, all three are necessary to make the stool level. And discipline is a TREMENDOUS issue where I do believe we fail some students; we try to give chance after chance to some particularly disruptive and often times violent students for political correctness' sake and to placate one or more of the radical social justice organizations that wrongly accuse us of institutional racism based upon discipline outcome statistics. To balance the other side of the equation, the honor student, naval academy commitment, who's never had a single referral in 11 years in our school gets a two-day OUT OF SCHOOL suspension for goofing around with a teacher he thought he could joke around with--not even during school hours but during an after school extra-curricular event. And top level administrators look me in the eye and say it was "just punishment" They are out of touch with reality, and certainly don't "get" the disconnect. There have been other instances as well--the treatment is disparate, so attenuated parents pull their kids because we've been unreliable about maintaining safe, distraction-free classrooms and parents value these two things MOST--not PC discipline policies that are uneven and do not work. Did you happen to read the Kinsler paper on discipline? It's an eye-opener. cheers...