The Push for Better Schools Is Paying Off in Florida

Apr 30, 2018 12:00:00 AM

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If you live in Florida, and especially if you have children here, there’s good news for you (well, for us): Florida schools are getting better. Maybe you’ve noticed recent news lamenting the fact that students in this country, on average, have made virtually no progress in the last decade. All the charts and graphs show a stubbornly flat line. But we’ve got a different story to tell here in the Sunshine State. In the latest results from the Nation’s Report Card, our students improved on all four tests (i.e., reading and math for fourth- and eighth-graders), and [pullquote]we’re the only state that showed statistically significant improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.[/pullquote] The only state! But this isn’t an overnight success. Since Jeb Bush became Florida’s governor in 1999 and started reforming our education system, student performance—across the board—has been climbing. The data from the Nation’s Report Card can’t tell us the exact cause for success, but there’s a strong correlation between student achievement and the work our state’s been doing over the last two decades to make it happen. Bush expanded school options for students and their families (e.g., charter schools and scholarships for low-income students to go to private schools). He increased accountability in our schools, including standardized testing and an A-F school grade system that later became a national model. He also pushed for higher standards. That was just the beginning. Reforms continued through his two terms and both governors that followed him supported charter schools and standardized testing. In 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist presided over our state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (which were later modified and implemented under Gov. Rick Scott). And in 2011, Gov. Scott signed a law that connected teacher evaluations to raises and bonuses, though the implementation has been less than ideal since nearly all teachers are rated "good" or "very good." There’s no question. Florida has had an intense and sustained focus on improving schools, and based on the latest scores, it appears that work is paying off. The trends are easy to see.

Fourth Grade Reading

Take Black fourth-graders on the reading test for example:
Source: NCES.
You can see how Florida’s Black students performed below the average Black student nationally in the early ‘90s, but have made fairly consistent gains since 2002, shortly after Jeb Bush was elected. The only dip came at the end of Gov. Crist’s term, but things started climbing again during Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure. Hispanic fourth-graders in Florida are also widening the gap between their national counterparts when it comes to reading. White students in Florida are doing better than their national peers, too, and in 2017, especially so. Black and Hispanic eighth-graders also generally outperformed their national peers, but not quite as well as fourth-graders. White eighth-graders in Florida have struggled to keep up with the national average in reading, but are definitely closer to closing that gap.

Fourth Grade Math

When it comes to math, Black fourth-graders in Florida have been performing slightly better than their Black peers across the nation for a while now, but might be starting to pull ahead in a big way. For Hispanic fourth-graders, we see a similar trend in math, but with a wider margin against their peers than Black students had. Plus, they’re continuing their upward trend, while Hispanic students on average across the country are moving in the opposite direction! White fourth-graders in Florida have also been almost exactly in sync with their White peers in math, but like Black students, they appear to be pulling away as of 2017. Of course, I’m not suggesting we give all the credit to one or two men. Thousands of teachers, principals, district leaders and other school staff across the state have worked hard to help kids succeed and have shouldered the load of putting these education reform policies and laws into action. Peggy Carr, a top national education official at the National Center for Education Statistics, was impressed with the way Florida’s students stood out from the rest. “Something very good is happening in Florida, obviously,” she said. I agree. It’s our state’s relentless commitment to helping all students get the most from our education system.

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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