January 16, 2009

January 16, 2009 | Commentary on Education

Florida's School Strategy a Success

Seven years ago, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, billed as an antidote to what ails America's public schools.

But if President-elect Barack Obama wants to improve our education system, he should look at what Jeb Bush did in Florida, not what George W. Bush signed in Washington.

The No Child Left Behind Act, also known as NCLB, has been a troubled program. It stripped away much local school autonomy and expanded red tape and micromanagement from Washington-based bureaucrats.

And while it set annual benchmarks for academic improvement, it let states write their own tests and set their own pass/fail thresholds. The result: many states simply dumbed down their tests with an easy passing grade. That allowed them to "demonstrate" artificial progress toward NCLB's lofty goals and avoid federal penalties for "failure."

Florida took a different track. Three years before NCLB was enacted, then-Gov. Jeb Bush decided to set clear accountability standards, and to back them up with school choice for students and meaningful rewards for good teachers.

The results are remarkable. Mr. Obama and his nominee for education secretary , Arne Duncan, should pay heed.

The National Assessment of education Progress (NAEP) is the gold standard of national education achievement tests. It is not a state-designed test. Over the past decade, NAEP reading scores for Florida fourth graders have soared nine percentage points - more than twice the national gain. Florida's eighth-grade reading gains were also almost double the national average. Math scores also registered solid gains, exceeding the national average.

Most impressive has been the success of minorities. Scores among Florida's low-income black and Hispanic students have risen much faster than the national average. Hispanic fourth-graders in the Sunshine State now boast reading scores higher than the all-student average in 15 states, including California.

How did Jeb Bush get results so much better than his brother's national program? Four simple but effective ideas.

First, the state didn't play games with test standards. Florida's test methodology measures what students actually knows, not just how well they do compared with other Florida students. And each public school in the state gets its own A-F report card annually. Successful schools get bonuses. Failing schools get tough remedial action.

Second, Florida ended "everyone-passes" social promotion at the third grade. Failing students get early remedial help, not a free pass.

Third, Florida got serious about school choice, promoting a range of public and private options. For instance, 20,000 students with disabilities now receive private-school scholarships. And more than 100,000 children attend charter schools.

And, it turns out, school choice delivers an added bonus. The Urban Institute, a leading national think tank in Washington, found that competition spurred a general improvement in student achievement in Florida's "F" schools. When faced with accountability pressure and choice, these schools tried new and better ways to raise standards.

Fourth, Jeb Bush acted to reward good teachers, while circumventing union-devised red tape that often keeps excellent educators out of the classroom. The state awards large bonuses to teachers with demonstrated success. And Florida instituted alternative paths to teacher certification in order to attract top-flight educators who would be stymied by the normal bureaucratic rules. Today, about half of all new Florida teachers use the alternative certification route.

Mr. Obama should look carefully at Florida. But when he drops off his daughters at Washington's private Sidwell Friends School, he can also check out some of the same ideas being implemented in the District. His daughters will meet inner-city youngsters able to attend Sidwell through the D.C. voucher program; though if congressional Democrats have their way, the program will end and those students will not be learning at Sidwell next year.

His motorcade is also likely to pass one of Washington's many charter schools, where more than a quarter of the District's public school students attend classes.

And he should talk with innovative D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is proposing a radical change in how the District pays its teachers. She is pushing the teachers union to go along with the end of tenure -- which protects lackluster teachers - and accept an alternative contract that would mean sharp increases in salaries for high-performing teachers, but pink slips for those who don't make the grade.

Mr. Obama ran on the promise of change. He has a chance to walk the walk in education. He can buck the old guard and embrace the no-nonsense reforms proven in Florida and now being tried in the District. Or he can go along with the establishment and add more red tape and money to NCLB. I suggest a chat with his daughters and with Jeb Bush.

Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., is Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

First Appeared in the Washington Times