Monday, September 19, 2011

Florida reform case study

STOP THE PRESSES!  Here is a slide presentation (which I've posted at: by Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education ( that I think is important enough (and long enough: 99 slides) to send out as its own email.

The reason I think this is so important is that Florida represents the best response to the frequent charge from the anti-reformers that there's no evidence that the reform agenda works.  To quote Gary Rubenstein, "your solutions haven't been shown to work, even on a small scale except for some KIPPs." 

I think this is wrong, but there's no doubt that reformers could use a compelling, large-scale case study in which a large fraction of the reform agenda was implemented and there is clear evidence of broad, dramatic success.  I think Florida provides this.

The first half of the attached presentation show the enormous gains Florida has made, starting as reforms began to be implemented in 1999 and continuing to this day.  The numbers really are SPECTACULAR: both NAEP and state FCAT scores skyrocketed, graduation rates jumped AND remediation rates fell, AP exams taken and passed soared, the number of schools rated A or B went up 4x while the number rated D or F fell 73% – and, best of all, the largest gains were among low-income, black and Hispanic students.

The second half of the presentation highlights all of the elements of the reform agenda that drove this change: grading schools; money to schools and directly to principals and teachers to reward success; allowing parents to opt out of chronically failing schools; ending social promotion after 3rd grade; raising high school graduation requirements; setting up alternative routes to teacher certification; reforming teacher evaluations and tenure; tying evals to teacher pay; eliminating LIFO; requiring mutual content (i.e., principals must approve any teacher transfers into their school); pre-and finally, the full gamut of choice: various tax credit scholarships, charter schools, vouchers for pre-kindergarten, and virtual education.

In addition to Florida, my response to the anti-reformers is threefold:

1) There is plenty of evidence that in the few cases where reform has been tried over a number of years, there has been real progress:
·         There have been MASSIVE gains in New Orleans (see this article and chart:
·         Critics of reform like to make a lot of hay about the cheating allegations in DC, which they then insinuate means that no progress was made under Michelle Rhee, but this is nonsense.  Among other pieces of evidence, check out pages 29-33 of the attached to see that DC rivals Florida in gains on the NAEP from 2003-2009.
·         Critics of reform with deny to their dying breath that NYC schools improved under Joel Klein, but there was major improvement.  See,, and
·         I'd argue that Massachusetts, which has the highest NAEP scores of any state, is a good example of the progress that can be made with at least one major piece of the reform agenda: a solid testing and accountability system (and anti-reformers will like that fact that it was done in conjunction with the union and that charters played only a small role due to a moderately unfavorable charter law).
·         (Are there any other case studies I'm missing?)

2) I'd also argue that the reason it's hard to show the success of reform is because there's never really been a chance to implement a true reform agenda, other than New Orleans and Florida.  Klein and Rhee tried their best, but the unions used their enormous power to hamper reforms at every turn.  It's so ironic that they then turn around and say, "You see – reform doesn't work!"

3) More broadly, I'd argue that reformers' approach is rooted in the proper management of ANY large organization: the US military, Wal Mart, etc. 

Now, as you can imagine, the anti-reformers haven't sat still amidst all of this success.  A key tactic of their anti-reform agenda is to find some researcher to write a hatchet job, and in this case they found William Mathis, who wrote this foolishness for the union-backed National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado:

Here is the response by Dr. Matt Ladner, research scholar at the Foundation for Excellence in Education:

In 1999, Florida implemented a series of education reforms to improve transparency, increase accountability, incentivize academic success and expand educational choices for Florida's families.  A decade of data  provides clear results; these reforms reversed a generation of decline in Sunshine State schools and caused a dramatic and sustained improvement in student achievement.

In 2003, all states began taking National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. If you combine all four tests (4th grade math and reading, 8th grade math and reading) and subtract 2003 scores from 2009 scores (the most recent NAEP scores), you learn that Florida's Free and Reduced Lunch eligible students, Black students and Disabled students made greater gains than any other state. 
Figure 1 illustrates the gains, by state, for Free and Reduced Lunch eligible students (Note, this chart doesn't illustrate the gains Florida's students made between 1998-2003- which were substantial. The chart therefore understates the academic gains Florida has achieved since the adoption of the reform package.) States vary widely in terms of family income, so examining the gains of low-income students represents more of an apples-to-apples comparison than examining raw scores.
Not everyone, however, is pleased with the success of Florida's students and schools. The education unions fiercely resisted the implementation of the Florida reforms, and still seem to resent many of them. The unions fund an entity known as the "National Education Policy Center" at the University of Colorado which has just made a second attempt to question the success of Florida's reforms.
Despite the clear data, the NEPC report and other anti-reform individuals continue to believe that Florida's literacy-based promotion policy has falsely inflated 4th grade NAEP reading scores.  This is simply not true, as others – Education Next & the Heritage Foundation - have previously found.  The first NEPC review completely ignored the Education Next refutation of what amounted to their central thesis, and the recent Mathis review ignored both the Education Next and the more extensive Heritage Foundation refutation.
Florida ended social promotion for students who fail to acquire basic literacy skills by the end of the 3rd grade. This policy is backed by research, which confirms that gaining literacy in early grades is critical to future academic success. 
A sophisticated and peer-reviewed analysis of the reading scores found significant reading gains for retained students independent of mere aging. The analysis involved comparing the reading gains of retained students to two different control groups of similar students.  The analysis also found that retained students achieved higher reading growth scores than students who received a good cause exemption from the policy, and those who barely scored high enough to earn promotion. All three groups aged another year, but Florida's retained students learned how to read.
Both NEPC reviews ignored these peer reviewed studies of the Florida policy. Rather than addressing the subject at hand, Mathis prefers to discuss evaluations of past policies in other states.

Most important of all, the number of Florida 3rd graders scoring at the lowest achievement level – FCAT 1 – has declined by 41 percent since Florida enacted the literacy-based promotion policy. Amusingly, the first NEPC critique included these very figures in the Appendix of their critique, but the author and editors failed to recognize their significance. Regardless, the FLDOE data illustrated in the above graph is clear.
Since 2002, the percentage of students scoring FCAT 1 has dropped by almost half and retention has plummeted.  As illiteracy dropped – and thus retention rates – scores on the 4th grade NAEP climbed. If retention artificially played a gigantic role in Florida's 4th grade NAEP scores, they should have spiked after the implementation of the policy, and then fallen sharply as the number of retentions fell. Instead, Florida's 4th grade reading scores have climbed steadily.
NAEP serves as an independent barometer of state academic tests, and both document substantial learning gains.  According to the 2009 NAEP, Florida's 4th grade Hispanic students are reading as well or better than the average of all students in 31 states and the District of Columbia.  African-American students are reading as well or better than the average of all students in eight states. 
Florida has been recognized by USDOE as one of only three states to significantly narrow the achievement gap between affluent and low income students and white and nonwhite students.  In the recently published NAEP Hispanic student achievement gap report, Florida had the smallest achievement gap in reading and math when compared with other large, diverse population states. Florida's policymakers, educators and students can take justifiable pride in this, although we still have far to go before realizing a world-class system of schools.
Those seeking to protect the status quo, over promoting hard-edge reforms proven to improve student achievement, will constantly seek to make excuses for this data.  Unfamiliarity with the sequence and implementation of policies can also lead to missteps.  For example, Florida's schools did not fully implement the class size reduction until last school year, but the NEPC critique focuses on this policy. Additionally, Florida's universal Pre-K voucher is a promising program, but it's only been in existence since 2006.  The full impact of this voucher program is not fully realized – pre-K students have yet to take the 4th grade NAEP.  
Florida is the 4th largest state with 2.7 million students.  A majority of public school children are minorities; about half of these students come from low-income households and a large percentage are English language learners.
The good news from Florida: the actual proves the possible. Large learning gains for disadvantaged students at scale is not only possible, it has been done. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. The fact is that the nation's most highly respected source of K-12 testing data shows continual improvement in Florida reforms since the enactment of reform.

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