Is progress in Florida schools exaggerated?
Florida’s public school system is frequently held up as an exemplary example of how specific school reforms -- vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes standardized tests, etc. -- can improve student achievement.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talks frequently about the great successes he had in his eight years in office (his term ended in 2007) and afterward through his Foundation for Excellence in Education, while officials in other states compare their own progress with that of Florida’s, and think tanks write papers about Bush’s accomplishments.
A recent paper by Matthew Ladner and Lindsey Burke for the Heritage Foundation, entitled “Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms,” says:
"One state, Florida, has demonstrated that meaningful academic improvement—for students of all races and economic backgrounds—is possible. In 1999, Florida enacted far-reaching K–12 education reform that includes public and private school choice, charter schools, virtual education, performance-based pay for teachers, grading of schools and districts, annual tests, curbing social promotion, and alternative teacher certification. As a result of parental choice, higher standards, accountability, and flexibility, Florida’s Hispanic students are now outperforming or tied with the overall average for all students in 31 states. It is vital that national and state policymakers take the lessons of Florida’s success to heart. The future of millions of American children depends on it.
The paper discusses fourth grade standardized test scores in reading -- because, it says, they “are an important focus of education reform because early childhood literacy is the gateway to all other learning.”
Florida students, it says, have “demonstrated the strongest gains” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the nation since 2003. And, it says, “After a decade of K–12 education reform, Florida’s Hispanic and black students have outscored averages for many other states."
And because of Florida’s success, other states should adopt the same kinds of reforms.
That all sounds good, but, it turns out, it’s not quite all that it seems.
A new review of the report, by Madhabi Chatterji of Teachers College at Columbia University, questioning its methodology and citing flaws that undermine its key conclusions.
For one thing, the Heritage paper fails to discuss or consider the impact of the voter-approved class-size reduction policy launched across the state in 2003-04. It also does not discuss the influence of “fundamental policy changes on test score averages and racial achievement gaps in grade 3-4 students.”
“In particular, Florida instituted a grade retention policy from 2002 that resulted in 14-23% of largely Black and Hispanic third-grade students being held back in grade 3 if they performed poorly on the state reading test. This policy of screening out the weakest readers, along with the presence of unknown numbers of older grade repeaters in the grade 4 samples, changes the composition of the students tested in grade 4 and invalidates comparisons concerning student performance as a whole as well as results concerning ethnic group achievement gaps."
Another flaw noted was “the decision to look only at grade 4 NAEP Reading scores and the resulting inflated conclusions.
“The evidence on Florida’s NAEP achievement trends and gaps is mixed when other grade levels and subject areas are examined between 2002 and 2009,” it says.
There are a lot of other elements to Florida’s education reform story that bare scrutiny. This serves to remind us that things are often far more complicated than they seem.
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| December 2, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Accountability, Achievement gap, Research | Tags: achievement gap, charter schools, florida, florida's schools, jeb bush, school reform, vouchers
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