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Posted at 2:05 PM ET, 12/21/2010

A sobering look at Florida school reform

By Valerie Strauss

Florida is increasingly being looked to as a national model of education reform. The state began to overhaul its public education system after Jeb Bush became governor in 1999, and it has been a leader in reforms centered around standardized tests and the expansion of charter schools and virtual education.

To separate fact from fiction about Florida’s reforms, I had an e-mail conversation with Professor Sherman Dorn of the University of South Florida, who has spent years researching and writing about public education in the Sunshine State. He maintains a blog about public education at

Please describe the package of reforms launched when Jeb Bush became governor and the philosophy behind them.

When Jeb Bush was governor, there were changes in education policy in the state that were initiated by him and his allies in the legislature and also some changes he either did not start or actively opposed.

Governor Bush pushed for the expansion of the state testing system to cover all grades 3-10, the labeling of schools with a single letter grade (for most years, based entirely on test results), the creation of a statewide reading research center, the hiring of hundreds of reading coaches in elementary and eventually secondary schools, the use of third-grade reading results as a gateway for promotion to fourth grade, the payment of rewards to schools based on the letter grade label applied to each school (which has generally been used for staff bonuses), the creation of a voucher system that gave private-school vouchers to parents whose children’s schools were labeled "F" twice in four years (eventually ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court), and the first of several successive mandates regarding merit pay for teachers.

Initiatives Bush supported but did not initiate included two other voucher programs that have not been challenged in court (for children with disabilities and children of poor parents), the destruction of the old statewide university system Board of Regents, and the creation of a statewide voluntary prekindergarten program.

Initiatives Bush forcefully opposed were a voter referendum in 2002 that reduced class sizes in elementary and secondary schools (and has now set hard caps class-by-class across the state) and another referendum in 2002 that created a constitutional governance board for the state’s public universities.

Governor Bush tends to portray his policies as a coherent package of accountability and school choice. I am less persuaded of that coherence, in part because the state’s accountability framework has not been applied to private schools accepting vouchers and in part because Governor Bush tends to focus on the testing part of his program and not the reading-instruction part.

What parts of this agenda would you consider successful, what parts weren’t, and how do you measure success?

If you’re looking at success in terms of helping children, I credit Governor Bush with prioritizing funding for a reading technical assistance center and reading coaches. To the extent that results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows meaningful improvement during the Jeb Bush years, I judge the evidence to be strongest in elementary reading, which suggests that the Florida Reading Research Center and reading coaches were the most important part of the Bush education policies.

If you’re looking at success in terms of politics, the idea of labeling schools with a single letter grade is a stroke of genius.

The other parts, especially vouchers, have generated a great deal of storm and fury, and the well-respected research by David Figlio and colleagues suggests that the actual benefits have been at best tepid even if measured by the tests that have been relied on for the accountability mechanisms in Florida.

How good a test is the FCAT [the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test] and is it worthy of being at the center of the accountability system in Florida?

FCAT is a system of multiple tests in reading, writing, math, and science -- not a single test -- and they are all administered in the first few months of each calendar year. FCAT is like most state assessment systems, good for some things such as general assessment in a few subjects and generally relied on for too much.

Are charter schools held to the same kind of accountability measures as regular public schools in the state?

In Florida, charter schools are nominally under the same accountability framework as local public schools administered by our county school boards. A substantial minority of charter schools either do not operate tested grades or have too few students for the state to label them with a single letter grade. In 2007, the Orlando Sentinel reported that around 40% of charter schools had not been labeled with a letter grade by the state that year. The percentage is lower now but still notable.

What is Florida Virtual School? How has it affected the public school system in Florida? Has anybody assessed what kind of academic program it offers? How important is online education to the Bush-Scott future vision of education?

Both the state and individual districts operate or contract out for online education. The Florida Virtual School is a centralized state operation, part of public education in Florida and headed by Julie Young. It operates many different kinds of courses, from specialized advance courses students would not have access to in rural counties to so-called "credit-recovery" courses to required courses (such as "Personal Fitness") many advanced students would prefer to take independently in the summer so they can take academic courses in the year. It has developed a generally good reputation inside the state and has been undermined in the last few years both by lower appropriations and by a new state mandate that districts operate their own online programs (and not just direct students to the Florida Virtual School).

As both a parent and a taxpayer, I am worried far less about the quality of courses run by the Florida Virtual School than by for-profit contractors who operate online courses taken by Florida students. If there is an expansion of online education, it will probably be at the expense of the publicly-run Florida Virtual School and benefit for-profit operations instead.

Bush talks a lot about closing the achievement gap. How have these reforms affected it?

The most impressive results in terms of the achievement gap in Florida have come in reading. If you look at NAEP scores for different demographic groups between 1998 and 2009, the achievement gap has shrunk in noticeable ways for fourth-grade reading between students who participate in the federal lunch program and students who do not participate. For eighth-grade reading, for students who participate in the federal lunch program, the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps shrank noticeably.

There are also places where the achievement gap in Florida is as stubborn as it has been elsewhere in the country. In fourth grade math, achievement gaps measured on NAEP between 2003 and 2009 have been stable, and the white-black and lunch-program participation gaps in Florida are similar to those gaps for the country as a whole. In eighth-grade writing measured on NAEP between 1998 and 2007, you see the same stagnant pattern.

And in no case has the achievement gap disappeared in Florida. That doesn’t mean that we should not applaud the successes of Florida schools, but it means we should be careful not to over generalize the reasons for Florida’s relative success in addressing achievement gaps in fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

What was the financial situation of the state’s public schools during Jeb Bush’s administration?

Jeb Bush was governor during the real-estate boom, and even after the legislature shifted the burden of funding education far more onto local taxes than in the 1990s, per-pupil expenditures in Florida rose 19% in real terms during his administration (between 1998-99 and 2006-07). You can hire hundreds of reading coaches with that type of money, and the state’s schools did.
That kind of money is not available in any state right now, and I suspect a number of states will be in for a rude shock when they try the symbolic step of assigning letter grades to schools without supporting instruction.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 21, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  charter schools, florida school reform, jeb bush, school reform, sherman dorn, standardized tests  
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Given the economy, I'm not too sure anyone should start tinkering with programs that will change the funding in any direction. That may be a good thing.

We have chased this tail for a number of years and found little successes. Let's do what we can afford now, review the results and the other benefits/outcomes and see what our new baseline looks like.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 21, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Val, thanks for Professor Dorn's soporific take on Jeb's full-scale assault on public education in Florida and beyond.

Jeb Bush sent his own children to Gulliver Prep Academy, an exclusive private school much like the one he attended. The school carefully shields its students from the FCAT while they take literature classes with titles like "Magic Realism" and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison. Meanwhile, the children of Florida's working and poor people are acquainted through the FCAT with politician's and powerful business interest's version of "accountability" and who exactly it applies to.

If the 9-year-olds do not meet the reading standards of the FCAT they are severely punished in Florida. The educational policy of the state is to brand these children as failed. That is kept in confidence but then to make sure the lesson on accountability is seared into a child's brain and self-image forever, they are publicly humiliated. During the next school year their classmates proceed to grade four while they join a new group of kids to repeat third grade.

If a girl or boy survives Florida's groundbreaking experiment with childhood accountability and the educational value of humiliation, and the child does not dropout before arriving in high school, then another FCAT trial awaits. This time graduation from school, a diploma, is at stake. Last year nearly 27,000 young people were awarded a worthless piece of paper in Florida for finishing high school.

The FDOE does not report this but the vastly disproportionate number of the children retained in the third grade and denied a high school diploma are children of color. They are African-American children, Latino children, immigrant children.

The words of James Baldwin to follow.

Posted by: natturner | December 21, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

On October 16, 1963, James Baldwin delivered a speech he called "The Negro Child--His Self Image" and it has come to be known as "A Talk to Teachers". While the references Baldwin makes are a bit dated, the wisdom of it is timeless. An excerpt follows which applies to Florida's teachers of those 9-year-old victims of Bush's FCAT

"I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them - I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it."

Posted by: natturner | December 21, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Hey Valerie, look at this:

Pray for us in Florida

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | December 21, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

Our family may be moving to Florida with our 2 teen daughters and I have been looking for a top notch public school in the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. I found 1 in the Miami area but the price of admission is a $1M home. I found another but it was a charter school so unsure of admission mid-year.

My children currently attend an IB school and I was disappointed that the IB programs offered at the public schools were a shell of a program with limited course offerings.

The only schools matching my students' needs were private schools to the tune of $20,000.

Sorry, but I think Florida has a long way to go before it is a model of education reform.

Posted by: mpmiles | December 22, 2010 4:46 AM | Report abuse

Our family may be moving to Florida with our 2 teen daughters and I have been looking for a top notch public school in the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. I found 1 in the Miami area but the price of admission is a $1M home. I found another but it was a charter school so unsure of admission mid-year.

My children currently attend an IB school and I was disappointed that the IB programs offered at the public schools were a shell of a program with limited course offerings.

The only schools matching my students' needs were private schools to the tune of $20,000.

Sorry, but I think Florida has a long way to go before it is a model of education reform.

Posted by: mpmiles | December 22, 2010 4:46 AM | Report abuse

Of course, this explains why Florida did so well on the fourth grade NAEP. It had nothing to do with the reform efforts. It had everything to do with the policy of not promoting third graders who couldn't read to fourth grade. Voila! Outstanding fourth grade scores!

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 22, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

FLVS (virtual school) is a great system that follows on the footsteps of similar programs at the college level. Similarly with colleges though, the mechanisms for on-line cheating are there. The only way an online program guarantees the student is learning is if the testing is done in person at a brick-&-mortar location. FLVS should continue either on private/public or private only mode.

People, flooded by media coverage, give the FCAT too much credit. Comparison should exist with the impact the class-size amendment had in Florida's public schools. The new mechanism to grade schools (not FCAT solely based) that started rolling out this year should give a better idea of the state of high-school education in Florida. There are yet several lows in the evaluation formula that will get better as years pass. Floridians should understand that this first year is a tall baseline; high-schools will really have to up there game next year since the formula raises the bar (i.e. this year Advanced Placement participation is replaced by AP success.)

If private schools will take over public education, then teachers and their private schools should undergo the same accountability process currently public teachers go. Parents want better not worse, so Scott should deliver rather than just throwing students into a unproven, unaccountable instructional system.

Posted by: redisni | December 22, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

buckbuck pointed out that retention in grade 3 contributes to higher test scores in grade 4, as well as gap-closing since, as another contributor noted, it is kids of color and poor kids who are disproportionately flunked. I'd be interested in what Sherm Dorn thinks of that factor. It apparently did not contribute to improvements in math - which makes me wonder if things actually worsened, masked by retention.

Retention, BTW, has been regularly found to produce no lasting beneficial effects on learning (as measured by test scores, which are inadequate for the task), while it damages self-esteem and contributes to higher rates of students dropping out.

Posted by: montyneill | December 22, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

To answer Buckbuck11 and Monty, the conflation of retention with developmental progress is a weakness of the grade-4 NAEP results. If the general literature on retention is correct (that the illusory bump from retention fades within a few years), retention would not explain the patterns of results in eighth grade.

Posted by: ShermanDorn | December 22, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

We have kids in elementary school that already have been retained twice. We have 13 year old students in 5th grade sitting next to 10 year old students. All that contributes to is a very high rate of dropping out before high school graduation.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | December 22, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

It bears repeating. Were the incomparable writer James Baldwin teaching children of color trapped in FCAT Florida, "I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him."

If my students know nothing else in our Miami, Florida high school classroom, by the end of the year they can recite, explain and support the truth of Baldwin's words. Anything less would be to join in the criminal conspiracy.

They also learn about a school in Maine called the North Atlantic Regional High School.

Posted by: natturner | December 22, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

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