Florida: Getting it all together?

During a recent visit, I was, frankly, wowed by the comprehensiveness and courage of Florida's education reforms, and depressed by the crummy coverage they're getting in both state and national press, not least the heat they are now taking for holding their schools to high standards under NCLB and accepting the sanctions meted out to schools for not meeting adequate yearly progress. I suppose it has to do with the press's disdain for NCLB, the public's reluctance to accept that their school is not doing well, Florida's pivotal role in the upcoming election, and Governor Jeb Bush's relationship to the incumbent president. (He is, by the way, one of the half dozen smartest, savviest, gutsiest "education governors" I've met in the past quarter century.)

What one may term Florida's purposeful education reforms - those that policy makers have intentionally put in place - can best be described under six headings.

(1) Integration across levels. Florida has reorganized the structure and governance of its education system so that the phrase "K-16" means something. The same state agency runs the whole shebang, with three "chancellors" (K-12, community college, higher ed) working under a single commissioner. The postsecondary sector has been enlisted in worthy teacher-preparation initiatives, dual enrollment for high school students, and one of the country's best-engineered transfer arrangements between 2- and 4-year institutions. At the other end, Florida is embarking on an ambitious universal (but voluntary) pre-K program meant to help prepare young children to succeed in school.

(2) Standards, testing, and accountability. Florida's "Sunshine State" standards are eight years old and the state test, known as FCAT, has been in place since 2001. It now covers grades 3-10, and passing it is a condition of high-school graduation. It is a high-stakes system for students at that point and, more recently, in 3rd grade - part of a multi-faceted plan to ensure that everyone is reading by 4th grade. Though the graduation requirement has occasioned protests and evasions, it's beginning to yield results. Mostly, though, the "A+" accountability plan bears down on schools, which get rated in reading, math, and writing according both to how many students meet the state's standards and how many are making gains. The result is a school grade that brings real consequences, of which the best known is the students' right to exit low-performing schools for better ones, including private schools. Though few have actually done this, there is evidence that the mere prospect of students departing with "Opportunity Scholarships" in hand has concentrated educators' minds and boosted the results of weak schools. Whereas 28 percent of Florida public schools were graded "D" or "F" in 1999, four years later this was down to 6 percent. As best I can tell, that's with no grade inflation.

(3) School choices. Besides the A+ vouchers, Florida has two other kinds. The nation's largest publicly-funded voucher program (almost 14,000 in the just-ended school year) is the "McKay Scholarship" plan for disabled youngsters, now beginning to be emulated by other states. Florida also boasts a sizable privately funded scholarship program "incentivized" by corporate tax credits. (11,500 kids benefited this past year.) Additionally, the state has several hundred charter schools (serving 68,000 children) and recently liberalized its program so local school boards won't have the last word on whether charters can exist. Plus, there's a nifty array of on-line options, including the much-praised Florida Virtual School.

(4) Instructional improvement. Florida has embarked on an ambitious early-reading program that includes parent workshops, retraining teachers, platoons of reading coaches and specialists, and summer "reading camps" for low-scoring third graders. Despite some educator guff, it's also serious about the statewide use of "scientifically based" primary reading programs.

(5) The education workforce. Fewer than a third of Florida's entering teachers today come straight from the state's own colleges of education. Many arrive from other states, from ambitious alternative-certification programs and from the "reserve pool." A fascinating innovation has authorized community colleges to offer competency-based teacher certification programs - and to award bachelor's degrees. (St. Petersburg College just graduated the first fifty products of its new education program.) Florida has also developed a statewide teacher career path akin to the Milken approach, giving extra pay to high-performing teachers and rewards to those with advanced certification (today from the National Board, tomorrow from multiple sources). The other day it also joined the ranks of states ready to certify teachers who pass the entry-level tests of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (and participate in a "mentoring" program").

(6) Smart, analytic decision making. Plenty of states have tons of education data, but Florida is beginning to use it for interesting analyses of school efficiency and a host of revealing disaggregations and comparisons. (For example, they can now set school grades alongside the same students' FCAT performance.) I can't tell how much use of such information is made by district and school leaders, but the folks in Tallahassee no longer operate an education system based on hunch or hope; today it's centered on imaginative uses of hard data.

Let me not gush. In 2004, Florida still has a long way to go, even as its highly prescriptive class-size reduction initiative, passed by referendum in 2002, threatens to sop up all available education dollars for the foreseeable future, leaving little for reforms that might do kids more good. The state's academic standards in some subjects leave much to be desired. The choice programs have been plagued by a few high-profile scandals brought on by ill-behaving private schools - and a silly deadlock (more personality clash than policy disagreement) in the final days of this year's session kept legislators from enacting needed repairs. The charter school program is still cramped. It's no rose garden, not yet. But it might be the most impressively integrated and comprehensive set of education reforms I've seen in any big state.

And there's evidence that it's starting to have a salubrious effect on student achievement, especially for poor and minority youngsters, at least in the early grades. Florida was, for example, the only state to post significant gains on the NAEP 4th grade reading test in 2003, gains that spanned the ethnic spectrum. (Math wasn't so great.)

The FCAT results are brightening, too, both in reading and math and, again, mainly in the early grades and among minorities. But some high-school indicators are inching up too, including graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students.

Nobody in Florida suggests that all is well, only that progress is being made, that it's measurable results-style progress, and that it antedates No Child Left Behind. Indeed, Florida suffers more than most from the layering of NCLB requirements atop its own accountability system. The state's school grades give much weight to improvement, not just absolute standards, and therefore Florida has witnessed big-time confusion as schools getting high marks under A+ are deemed to be "in need of improvement" under NCLB. Because of the Governor's unique situation this year, Florida cannot openly fuss that NCLB might have some problems. There is reason to expect, however, that after Election Day, Florida officials will embark on a vigorous effort either to get that law (and/or its regulations) revised or to win some of the "flexibility" that other jurisdictions have obtained in recent months.

Based on what I've been able to learn, education reform in the Sunshine State deserves a lot more admiration than it's been getting.

"Resisting the tyranny of the exception," by Phil Handy, Education Gadfly, February 5, 2004

"U.S.: Forty percent can switch from failing Dade schools," by Matthew I. Pinzur, Miami Herald, June 16, 2004 (registration required)

"Failing schools may face takeover," by Matthew I. Pinzur, Miami Herald, June 15, 2004 (registration required)

"Education report expected to fuel debate," by Christina Denardo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 15, 2004

"A test in Florida," by Terry M. Neal and John Poole, Washington Post, June 15, 2004

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