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By Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips
For years, education reformers have struggled to find strategies to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children and eliminate the achievement gap between minority students and their peers. On Capitol Hill, decades of new programs and increased government spending on education have failed to achieve significant improvement.
But there is new reason for hope that serious education reforms can make a lasting difference. After a decade of aggressive statewide reforms, students in Florida have made impressive strides on national exams, which should cause policymakers from around the country to study what's happening in the Sunshine State.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Florida students are outpacing the national average on improvement in reading and math. Between 1998 and 2007, Florida 4th graders gained nearly 9 percent on the NAEP reading test compared to 4 percent improvement across the nation. Florida students are also outpacing the nation in progress on math exams.
Importantly, the greatest gains have been made by Hispanic and African American students. For example, African American and Hispanic students' 4th grade reading scores have risen by 12 percent and 10 percent respectively since 1998, ahead of their peers across the nation.
Compared to students around the nation, Florida's minority children are making dramatic progress. In fact, Hispanic 4th graders in Florida now have higher reading scores than the statewide average of all students in fifteen states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
What is responsible for this progress? We tried to answer that question in a new paper for the Goldwater Institute: "Demography Defeated: Florida's K-12 Reforms and Their Lessons for the Nation."
Thanks largely to the leadership of former Governor Jeb Bush, Florida implemented sweeping education reforms to set challenging standards, expand school choice options, hold public schools and students accountable for results, and improve teacher quality. Some of Florida's most promising reforms include:
Standards and Accountability: Three years before state-testing was required by No Child Left Behind, Florida implemented a plan to test the majority of public school students annually and grade schools based on students' achievement. Test scores track students' progress over time to allow parents and teachers to gauge whether a child is learning.
Ending Social Promotion: Students are held accountable for results, too. Third-grade students must be able to pass the state's reading test before moving on to fourth grade. In 2006, approximately 29,000 were identified for retention. Struggling students are provided remedial instruction.
Focusing on Reading: Florida launched a statewide initiative to improve reading instruction. New reading academies were created to train teachers about how to provide better instruction. Two thousand reading coaches were hired to improve learning in schools across the state. Older students in grades 6 through 12 have access to reading instruction to provide remediation.
Expanding School Choice Options: Florida is a leader in offering families school choice options. The state has more than 300 charter schools which are educating more than 100,000 students. Thousands of disadvantaged children and special education students are attending private schools using tuition scholarships.
Improving Teacher Quality: Florida has implemented policies to attract talented teachers and reward those who are succeeding in the classroom. An alternative certification program allows talented professionals who don't have traditional teaching credentials to enter the classroom. Approximately half of all new teachers are being hired this way. Performance bonuses are awarded to successful schools to reward teachers who are lifting students' academic achievement.
It is impossible to conclude which of these reforms has made the biggest contribution to improving students' academic achievement and reducing the achievement gap. In all likelihood, the combination of these reforms is responsible for the improvement. But we review the existing academic research evidence in our study and find that studies report that reforms like holding schools accountable, ending social promotion, and expanding school choice are contributing to the improvement.
Given the breadth of Florida's reforms and the encouraging test scores as evidence, we hope that researchers continue to study the Sunshine State to help policymakers understand just how these reforms are making a difference. In the meantime, policymakers across the country would be wise to follow Florida's path in implementing this broad range of promising education reforms.
Florida is proving that all children can succeed. If states across the nation can follow Florida's lead and replicate this success, millions of children-especially low-income and ethnic minority students-will have hope for a brighter future.