Politics & Policy

Reducing the Achievement Gap

In recent years, Florida has dramatically improved education for minorities.

A few weeks ago, 2009 reading results were released for “The Nation’s Report Card” — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. And the news was very good for Florida.

After a decade of K–12 education reform, Florida’s minority students — both Hispanics and blacks — have outscored the average student (minority and non-minority) in many other states. The state’s success puts it at the forefront of education reform, and proves that demography doesn’t have to determine a student’s destiny.

We can best illustrate Florida’s radical success with maps. This one illustrates how the nation’s Hispanic students are doing on the NAEP’s fourth-grade reading test. It highlights the states whose average scores are equal to or below the average score of Florida Hispanics:

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Note the large number of predominantly white states that are highlighted: Iowa, Oregon, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, and Wyoming. Notice also North Carolina and Texas, two states whose leaders are proud of their K–12 reforms in the previous decade, and Tennessee, one of the two first-round finalists in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.

Today, on average, Florida Hispanics score the equivalent of almost two grade levels higher than their same-race peers around the country. On fourth-grade reading, the racial achievement gap between whites nationally and Hispanics in Florida has fallen by 76 percent since 1998.

Florida succeeded in improving literacy skills for all students, not just for Hispanics. As you can see in the map below, with states highlighted in the same fashion as they were in the map above, Florida’s black students have gained ground as well:

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In 1998, Florida’s black students fell far behind even the lowest statewide averages. Now these students have pulled even with some states, and they have the momentum.

How did Florida do it? Florida’s success has resulted from the commonsense reforms that were implemented during Jeb Bush’s tenure as governor.

One of the key reforms involved increasing parental control in education. Florida families enjoy more educational options than those in any other state. Florida lawmakers have created one of the nation’s strongest charter-school laws, a voucher program for special-needs students, and the nation’s largest tax-credit program. Florida also leads the nation in online education options.

Florida also implemented rigorous state standards and assessments, testing students annually from third grade through tenth in reading and math. Policymakers have periodically raised their standards, and students have demonstrated that they can reach tougher goals.

Among the most commonsense reforms was a move to revamp the school-grading system. Prior to the reforms, the state graded schools on a one-to-five scale; for parents, however, it was unclear whether it was better for their child to be in a school that scored a one or a five. The reforms moved schools to an A-to-F scale, which parents intuitively understood. The grades also create significant media buzz when scores are released each spring, adding an additional layer of accountability to the system.

Florida also implemented alternative teacher certification and a limited pay-for-performance program and, importantly, ended social promotion. If Johnny cannot read in third grade, he will no longer automatically advance to fourth grade. He will retake third grade with extra help.

Florida’s reforms took the basic ideas of No Child Left Behind — academic transparency and accountability to parents — and made them work. Florida’s policymakers created a much stronger dose of this medicine than NCLB did. Florida’s minority students began outscoring statewide averages while, nationwide, minority test scores continue to disappoint.

While there is no national consensus on K–12 education reform, a fact that has led to watered-down and even counterproductive federal policies, Florida’s experience shows that a state consensus can move the needle.

Congress should remember that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain. As reauthorization of NCLB moves forward, federal policymakers should work to allow states increased flexibility in exchange for greater transparency. Florida is a prime example of the power of states to raise the academic achievement of all students — something federal policies have failed to accomplish.

Matthew Ladner is the vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute. Lindsey Burke is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.


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