Florida’s Poorest Students Are Among the Nation's Highest Achieving, So Why Won't DeVos Approve Their State Plan?

Jul 27, 2018 12:00:00 AM


It looks like the feds are having a hard time figuring out what to do with Florida. After California and Utah’s education plans were approved last week, Florida is now the only state that still hasn’t gotten the green light. Florida officials sent in their first attempt at the federally required school accountability plan back in September of last year. The U.S. Department of Education rejected the plan because it didn’t conform to certain requirements of the new law. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, each school is required to report on the progress of specific groups of students that have typically fallen behind their peers: Students with disabilities, English language learners, racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. There’s a good reason federal law requires this. In the past, [pullquote]states have tended to ignore what’s happening with these groups and let them slip further and further behind.[/pullquote] But years ago, Florida came up with its own solution for helping low-performing students and there’s strong evidence that it’s been working. Instead of counting poor students, racial and ethnic minorities, English learners, and students with disabilities separately, Florida requires schools to track their lowest-performing 25 percent of students. The state then holds each school accountable for how much that group progresses. The logic behind that approach is pretty clear: Regardless of what demographic group a student belongs to, those struggling the most will get the attention they need. Under that plan, Florida’s low-income students are some of the highest achieving in the nation. When poverty, English learner status, race and ethnicity, and other factors are considered, Florida ranks No. 1 in the nation for fourth-grade reading and math, and No. 3 and No. 8 for eighth-grade reading and math respectively, according to the Urban Institute. Not only that, but we’re the only state that showed statistically significant improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading in the lastest results from the Nation’s Report Card, and we’re doing it with less money than other states and D.C. that spend substantially more. Adding a layer of what must be a serious internal conflict for President Trump’s education chief, Betsy DeVos seems to genuinely like Florida. In April, she said reforms are paying off in Florida, and commended education leaders and teachers for their work on Twitter. Even before the Nation’s Report Card scores were released this spring, DeVos had visited the state several times and held up Florida as a national example. This isn’t to say Florida doesn’t have a long way to go. We still have far too many students who aren’t performing on grade level or graduating prepared for life after high school, but [pullquote position="left"]the state’s achievements can’t be ignored.[/pullquote] While Florida’s existing system meets the spirit of the law in looking out for the most at-risk students, it’s not meeting the letter of the law. So the U.S. Department of Education rejected that plan and sent the Sunshine State back to the drawing board. They also couldn’t accept Florida’s refusal to offer standardized tests in Spanish or its plan for dealing with homeless and migrant students. In April, Florida submitted an updated plan that kept the school grading system the same (schools would still track the lowest-performing 25 and factor that into the school grade), but added a secondary system to identify the progress of the specific groups mentioned above, and take action when necessary. The plan also acknowledged that a lot of students speak Spanish, but it still doesn’t commit to creating a Spanish version of the state tests. I have a hunch that’s one of the big sticking points for the feds right now. I’m no budget expert, but my guess is that creating a Spanish version of the state test would prove expensive, but perhaps less expensive than forfeiting a billion dollars in federal money tied to a compliant school accountability plan. We shall see.

Lane Wright

Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts. During his time at Education Post, and with previous organizations, Lane has interviewed teachers, students and local school leaders. He’s spent time watching them work in the classroom and helped them raise their voices on issues they care about. He’s also helped parents advocate—in the news, and before lawmakers—for a better education for their own kids. Lane, his wife, and three children live in Tallahassee, Florida, where his kids attend a public charter school.

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