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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is Vice President of Research at the
Goldwater Institute, www.GoldwaterInstitute.org. Dan Lips is a Senior Policy
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.