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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Florida's education reforms questioned

From the

by Beth Hawkins

There are lots of great uses for data in education, many of them aimed squarely at helping to close the achievement gap. Data can help teachers identify which skills struggling students are missing, where their lesson plans need tweaking and — provided we ever got away from using data in punitive ways — to identify practices worthy of replicating.

You’d think, given the reams of data generated by all of the tests administered to the modern American schoolchild, that education policymakers might occasionally be able to point to a few objective, capital-T truths.

On Sunday, the Star Tribune carried a column by Katherine Kersten in which she suggested Minnesota look to Florida as a model for education reform. I admit I started reading mostly to find out whether Kersten would make it all the way to the end of the item without name-checking her erstwhile colleague, Cheri Pierson Yecke.

Kersten and Yecke both advocated various conservative education reforms as fellows at the Center for the American Experiment in the middle of the last decade, following the Minnesota Legislature’s failure to confirm Yecke as Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s education commissioner. Among the sticking points: Yecke’s belief that creationism had a place in Minnesota’s science standards.

Examples from Gov. Bush's era
In fact Kersten’s column did not mention Yecke, who served as Florida’s chancellor of K-12 education from 2005-2007, but she did toss out some impressive examples of progress made under the leadership of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007, on boosting test scores and closing the achievement gap.

“In 1998, almost half of all Florida fourth-graders were functionally illiterate,” Kersten reported. “Today, 72 percent can read.” She went on to detail impressive progress on narrowing the gap among African-American and Latino fourth-graders, who she reported now outperform their Minnesota counterparts.

“Since 2000, we’ve doled out about $4 billion in compensatory aid for low-income students and for ‘integration’ revenue,” she wrote of Minnesota. “We’ve got next to nothing in the way of academic improvement to show for it.”

Minnesota, she counseled, would do well to consider Florida’s bold reforms, which include an end to social promotion, a school-grading system, financial incentives for schools and teachers, alternative teacher certification and — wait for it — vouchers.

Florida and the achievement gap
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Minnesota and lots of other states rate schools and have experimented with merit pay with mixed results, I was curious about Kersten’s argument that Florida, where racial and ethnic minorities make up the majority of students, was ahead of much of the nation in terms of closing the gap.

After all, as she put it, “Florida’s challenges dwarf ours.”

I wish I could tell you it took days of dogged sleuthing to pull the rug out from under her argument, but Jeb Bush’s campaign to spread the good word about his reforms throughout the country has already drawn criticism from a number of fact-checkers.

Since the late 1990s, Florida’s African-American and Latino fourth-graders have made impressive strides in closing the gap, particularly in reading. But at the eighth grade, the picture is decidedly mixed. According to Education Week, the state's math scores lag slightly behind national averages and are slightly ahead in reading.

It seems the impressive fourth-grade data can be credited to the same social-promotion policy Kersten cited as an effective reform. In 2002, Florida began holding back third-grade students who performed poorly on the state reading test, including 14 percent to 23 percent of Africa-Americans and Latinos.

“This policy of screening out the weakest readers, along with the presence of unknown numbers of older grade-repeaters in the grade four samples, changes the composition of the students tested in grade four and invalidates comparisons concerning student performance as a whole as well as results concerning ethnic group achievement gaps," Madhabi Chatterji of Columbia University’s Teachers College concluded in a report released last November.

“The evidence on Florida’s … achievement trends and gaps is mixed when other grade levels and subject areas are examined between 2002 and 2009,” the report noted. “A cursory review … shows that these gap patterns are neither consistent nor as impressive as one would think if one looked only at reading in grade four.”

Grad rates and college-entrance test scores
It gets worse. Florida's graduation rate and college-entrance test scores remain among the worst in the country. State officials put the graduation rate at 71 percent, while other assessments put it below 60 percent. Small wonder: In 2004 only 42 percent of Florida high-school students were taking upper-level math courses and only 27 percent were taking upper-level science courses.

The vouchers? Tossed out by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. Bush subsequently tried to push two constitutional amendments through the Florida statehouse, but lawmakers rejected them.

Bush’s two Republican successors have, of course, gone on to promote their own reform agendas, with talk of merit pay, voucher-like educational choice funding schemes and challenges to teachers’ unions.

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, pointed out that Florida’s school system has long been regarded as terrible. State leaders do deserve credit for instituting changes that sparked progress, and some of those changes probably hold lessons for Minnesota’s struggling schools. But Florida schools, he’s quick to add, still are not as good as Minnesota’s.

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