March 23, 2009
By Dan Lips
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on education reform to a national conference of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. That afternoon, the conference hosted a panel discussion about education reform featuring speakers from the National Education Association, the Center for American Progress, Verizon, and the National Council of La Raza. The following are remarks of Dan Lips of The Heritage Foundation.
Good afternoon. It is an honor to be with you today. My name is Dan Lips and I'm a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
I echo the previous speakers' statements about the critical need to improve public education in America-and particularly to improve opportunities for Hispanic children. It's a testament to the importance of this topic that the President of the United States was addressing you here today.
In my brief remarks, I plan to offer you two things: I have good news, and I have bad news.
The good news is exciting. Today, we have real evidence that aggressive reform in education can deliver impressive results improving academic achievement-particularly for Hispanic children.
The bad news is that implementing these aggressive reforms is really hard work. And each of you here today-as leaders in your community-has homework to do if you truly want to make sure that all children have access to a quality education.
First, the good news: Typically, on these panels, speakers like me talk about research and our theories for improving public education and tackling persistent problems like the achievement gap. But I am here to today to talk about concrete results.
Over the past decade, no state has been more aggressive in reforming its public education system than Florida. And after 10 years, students in Florida have made dramatic gains in academic achievement. Between 1998 and 2007, Florida students' test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have risen much faster than the national average. Importantly, the biggest gains have been made by Hispanic and African-American students.
Just how big is this improvement? It is well-known that minority children have generally scored below their peers on tests like the NAEP exam. But Florida's Hispanic children have made significant strides in closing the achievement gap, and today their scores are at least as high as the statewide average in 15 states.
Let me emphasize this: On the NAEP 4th-grade reading test, Hispanic students in Florida now outscore the statewide average of all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Even when you just look at the scores of low-income Hispanic students in Florida, they are outperforming the statewide average of all students (including upper- and middle-income kids) in the state of California.
For those of us who follow education reform, this is really exciting progress.
Now, how did Florida do it? The answer is that they have gone further than any other state in implementing aggressive reforms. Here are some of the things Florida has done:
They've really focused on accountability. In Florida, years before No Child Left Behind, schools were being held accountable for results through quality testing and public reporting through school report cards that let parents and taxpayers judge how their public schools are performing.
At the same time, students in Florida are also held accountable for results. The state ended social promotion-requiring young students to master basic skills before passing on to the next grade.
In terms of academics, they focused on improving reading instruction and have provided aggressive remediation to children who were at risk of falling behind.
Florida has also implemented smart policies to strengthen its teaching workforce, including performance pay and alternative teacher certification. These policies are attracting new teachers into the classroom and rewarding those who are most effective.
Lastly, Florida has gone further than any other state in offering parents the power to choose the right school for their children. And these school choice policies-like charter schools and school voucher programs-are benefiting both participating children and those who remain in traditional public schools.
For anyone who would like more information about Florida's successful reform model, I would be happy to share with you a paper that we published on the subject.
Now that's the good news. I also promised bad news. And the bad news is that implementing the kinds of reforms that are working in Florida is hard work. If we're serious about improving public education in this country, there isn't going to be a shortcut. For example, if we continue to wait for Congress and Washington to fix these problems, another generation of children will slip through our schools without receiving a quality education.
The truth is that if we want to improve American education, each of us is going to have to roll up our sleeves and do the heavy-lifting, school by school, state-by-state.
And this will be a challenge. In Florida, former Governor Jeb Bush has said that, after eight years of fighting for these reforms, he has the scars to prove it. And I think we should expect similar fights across the country. Powerful political actors-including those who have the most to lose if we change the status quo-will continue to resist aggressive reform.
But we are in a much better position today than we were a decade ago. We now have results to point to. And the experience in Florida has shown that it is worth the fight. Children-particularly minority children-will have a better future if we succeed in reforming public education.
President Obama has called this one of the biggest challenges our country faces. I couldn't agree more. The question is: Are we committed enough to talk honestly about the real problems that confront public education and force those vested in the status quo to embrace change and reform? For the sake of the next generation of children, I certainly hope so. Thank you.
Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.