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  • Florida’s Education Reforms: The Rest of the Story

    The education establishment is pushing back against common-sense education reforms that have proved successful in Florida. Dr. Madhabi Chatterji, a professor at Columbia Teachers College, has written a paper critical of a Heritage  study of these reforms by Matthew Ladner, Vice President of Research at the Goldwater Institute and I. Last week, The Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet, devoted itself to presenting Dr. Chatterji’s critique.  We are now responding.

    To review: Our study concluded that education reforms implemented under then-Governor Jeb Bush have produced significant academic gains, particularly among minority students. Florida’s Hispanic students, for example, are now outperforming or tied with the overall reading average for all students in 31 states.

    The change-averse may wish to quibble over the details or agonize over just what reform did how much of what. But the bottom line is that in 1998—the year before Bush instituted his reforms—47 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored “Below Basic” on the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] fourth-grade reading test. In 2009, that number was down to 27 percent. That is a 42 percent decline in the fourth-grade illiteracy rate in the span of a decade.

    Dr. Chatterji suggests that Florida’s policy barring social promotion of third-graders artificially inflates Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores. Ironically, she criticizes our paper for not conducting a literature review even as she fails to do so herself. Had she reviewed the literature, she would have found that former Heritage Foundation Senior Analyst Dan Lips and Ladner had already addressed this, her main claim, over a year ago in the pages of Education Next.

    The reality of the Florida policy reforms is far more complex and positive than Dr. Chatterji would have you believe:

    • Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores improved almost a full grade level between 1998 (when Bush began implementing portions of his reform agenda) and 2002. The third-grade retention policy had no chance to impact these scores; it was not yet in place.
    • The maximum number of children retained—16 percent of all third-graders—came in the first year of the policy. The total number of students retained declined by more than 50 percent between 2002–03 and 2008–09. Chatterji’s own data show massive declines in the percentages of Florida minority students who ever wound up as illiterate third-graders in the first place.
    • If retention were driving Florida’s post-2002 improvement as claimed, we should have expected to see Florida’s NAEP scores peak and then decline when the number of students being retained substantially declined. Instead, what we find is that scores continued to improve even as the number of students being retained fell substantially.
    • Chatterji attributes Florida’s improved scores to aging (retained students are a year older when they take the NAEP). Two statistical analyses of the third-grade retention policy compared students retained to two very similar groups of students: those who barely scored high enough to avoid retention and those who scored low enough but avoided retention through an exemption. These analyses revealed that the retained kids outperformed these two control groups after one year and by an even wider margin after two years.
    • Florida lawmakers also created a mid-year promotion policy, retaining children only until they achieve an FCAT 2 on reading with multiple attempts, whereupon they rejoin their cohort. In other words, many of the “retained” children now rejoin their classmates after improving their reading skills.

    Dr. Chatterji also argues that other policies such as class size reduction and preschool vouchers—both enacted in Florida by ballot initiative—may have caused the improved scores. There is little or no reason to believe these policies helped improve Florida’s reading scores.

    There is a five-year delay between attending preschool and reaching the fourth-grade. The preschool program was passed in 2002, but it wasn’t open to all five-year-olds until 2005. The earliest year it could have an impact on fourth-grade reading scores is 2011.

    Florida’s class size amendment, passed in 2002, had a very slow implementation. Any effects from this measure would have shown up only in the later years, if at all. Moreover, a review of the literature shows that the empirical evidence on class size reduction is overwhelmingly negative.

    The bottom line is that Florida’s education reform model, particularly the retention policy, incentivized schools to place a greater focus on early childhood literacy in grades K, 1, 2, and 3. That is why the number of students scoring low enough to be retained in the first place has been cut in half and Florida’s NAEP scores have improved.

    As for us, we recommend that policymakers look to Florida as an example of successful education reform with its proven mixture of transparency, accountability, and parental choice.

    Co-authored by Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., Vice President of Research, The Goldwater Institute.

    Posted in Education [slideshow_deploy]

    9 Responses to Florida’s Education Reforms: The Rest of the Story

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    2. Tom Remington - Flor says:

      Ms. Burke – My wife is a teacher in Pinellas County Schools, Florida. Much of what you have written about is truthful but in my opinion not exactly accurate. Of course there are exceptions to every claim but it should be noted that Pinellas County Schools is one district that should never be referred to as an example for education.

      In re: Class size amendment, Pinellas has NEVER implemented any class size while Gov. Bush and his "friends" have worked tirelessly to overturn the amendment you referred to passed in 2002.

      If there is any improvement in FCAT scores in this county it probably can be attributed to the fact that for weeks preceding the administering of the tests, teachers are required to spend all their time teaching for FCAT passage because it means more money and more importantly a chance for administrators to keep their jobs while placing any failure blame on the teachers. Which leads or should lead us to ask, where is the accountability of the administration? The last school my wife was in failed miserably and the state had to come in and take over the school. Nearly 30 teachers were reassigned or fired. All the administration that was there at the time of the failure are still there. This is a good example of education?

      While forced instruction in order for students to pass an FCAT isn't all bad (at least they are retaining enough to get through the test), is this really in the best interest of education? In this county it just might be. It is that bad.

      Another issue that might need addressing is that the education "leaders" and I use that term very loosely, have figured out how to pull "special needs" kids, those who couldn't pass a basic literacy test if their life depended on it, out of the testing and ranking.

      While it might be my opinion that a clear majority of student these days are "special needs" and couldn't pass a basic competency test, one has to ask if this event has had a bearing on the "success" of Bush's education model?

      A while back, once again Gov. Bush and his "friends" tried to strong arm through Florida a bill that would create teacher incentive pay. While I and my wife are both proponents of incentive pay, the overwhelming majority of sponsors of such a bill have it all wrong. They are asking teachers to "perform" with no changes at the instruction level. Teachers can't "perform" now if their lives depended on it. They have no tools in which to teach what they want. They are given a faulty curriculum to strictly follow, with no means of classroom management or backing by the administration.

      I've always likened it to asking an auto mechanic to repair a seriously broken engine and all he has available for tools is a rag and a screwdriver. And then what? Offer the mechanic a couple extra dollars if he can fix it anyway? And if he can't you now have the right to fire them?

      We need to get the horse AHEAD of the wagon. Glad to at least see more debate on this issue.

    3. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but every good thing that has been found to work is shot down from the Left. This is the new normal in American Education, do what is wrong or else! Get rid of Federal dabbling in Education, that is a State's Right. The only reason they give Federal Money to Education is to somehow undermine it. Americans now have Thought Crime but you don't know that it came in through Traffic Law and Federal Highway Funds! (strings attached) American Education is designed to make surfs out of all of us. They don't teach American ways in this brave new world of Federal Education Policy. Your children are being educated for the "Post Industrial Age" when there is no such thing in the History of the World!

    4. David Safier, Tucson says:

      I want to focus in on one misleading assertion in this post.

      You write about a statistical study which showed that students retained in the third grade are reading at a higher level after two years than similar students who weren't retained. I assume you're referring to the study conducted by Greene and Winters in 2006. So far as I know, it was a good study and the results are accurate.

      However, a 2008 study went back and looked at the same students and found that, after four years, the students who weren't retained had caught up to and passed the retained students in reading comprehension. In other words, the added gains by the retained students were temporary.

      You can find the study here: http://media.miamiherald.com/smedia/2008/07/12/22

      If you didn't know about the follow-up study, I'm glad I could provide you with the information. If you knew about it — and I suspect you did — and decided not to use it because it contradicted your thesis, that's highly deceptive, especially in something that purports to be a semi-scholarly refutation of Chatterji analysis which plays by scholarly rules.

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    7. Patrick, Las Vegas says:

      Mr. Remington, as far as I'm aware not all school districts are required to spend money to reduce class sizes – apparently there are, or have been, some exemptions. That said, class size reduction is an utter failure anyway. Even studies in Florida show no statistically significant increase in student achievement as a result of class size reduction. According to Eric Hanushek, 72 percent of the studies on class size reduction (as of 2000, I believe) show that class size reduction does nothing. Another 13 percent show students can be harmed by it. I doubt much has changed as this has been a long standing consensus among researchers.

    8. Tom Remington says:

      Patrick – Florida passed a class size referendum in 2002. I am not aware of anyone who received exemptions. Most, if not all, school districts put off implementing it claiming they didn't have the money to do so.

      I have no information one way or the other as to whether class size positively, negative or has no effect at all. The point is the article is alluding to the notion that grades may have gone up partly due to Florida's class size referendum. If it was passed in 2002 and nobody has implemented the change, I don't think it's honest to present it as a cause and effect.

    9. Lindsey Burke Lindsey Burke, Herit says:

      Mr. Safier –

      The study to which you have linked isn't a statewide study, but rather a memo from a single district. In reading it you'll see that they did not do a regression discontinuity analysis, so students who were eligible for retention but receiving an exemption are included in the treatment group.

      - Lindsey Burke

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