Lessons Learned in the Sunshine State

by Jeb Bush
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

You can see the change in the face of a single child.

Remigio Mendez was a second grader in Bonita Springs, just south of Ft. Myers. His parents spoke neither English nor Spanish but rather Conjubal from their native Guatemala. Remigio was frustrated because he could not speak English as well as his classmates, which also led to behavioral problems. But after intervention and mentoring by two teachers at Spring Creek Elementary, Remigio was able to progress from illiteracy to reading at a second-grade level in only one year. He now writes essays full of creative ideas, and he is fluent in three languages.

You can see the change in the hallways of an entire school.

Lillie C. Evans Elementary School in Dade County was graded an F school last year based on the reading, writing, and math scores of its students as measured by the state skills assessment test. But like other F schools, Lillie C. Evans was paired with high-performing schools with similar demographics and challenges—in this case, Olinda Elementary in Liberty City and Charles R. Drew Elementary in Miami. Both of these high-performing schools have shared successful strategies with Lillie C. Evans, such as recommendations on effective instructional materials and one-on-one meetings with third graders prior to testing to encourage them and allay their fears. The results speak for themselves: 45 percent of the students are now meeting high standards in reading, up from 27 percent just one year ago, and 72 percent made adequate annual learning gains in reading this year. These and other gains in student achievement raised their school grade from an F all the way to a B in 2003. This means more opportunity and brighter futures for many children who once suffered not only from poor reading skills but also from a society that did not expect them to do much better.

And you can see the change across the state of Florida.

Rising student achievement in reading, writing, and math. Parents empowered by having educational choices. Teachers armed with the latest research-based methods for teaching reading. Mentors volunteering their time to nurture a child’s education. This is all part of a new paradigm in education based on high expectations, which has made Florida one of the nation’s leaders in education reform and accountability.

Prioritizing student achievement is not a new idea. However, it is becoming increasingly popular. According to an April report from Public Agenda based on a decade of survey research, a strong majority of parents, teachers, employers, and professors believe that high standards should be set and that passing standardized tests should be required for promotion to the next grade. It is because of increasing support for standards and testing that the president and Congress worked together in a bipartisan way to create the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.

Florida embraced this educational reform agenda early because we felt it offered the best opportunity for our children to succeed and for our state to get the most out of each taxpayer dollar. But now that a national consensus is emerging that ours is a path that others want to pursue, we offer our experience in the Sunshine State on how to implement accountability reforms successfully.

Through it all, we have stayed true to our original vision while also being flexible and responsive to those most directly affected by the reforms we have implemented.


Phase I: Implementing Accountability

Although Florida had taken steps toward reform prior to 1999, the real paradigm shift was the A+ Plan for Education. This landmark act reaffirmed high standards, established assessments, and demanded accountability. The A+ Plan also promoted both public and private educational choices for parents and sought to end social promotion in the state of Florida.

Standards. The A+ Plan was built on the solid foundation of the Sunshine State Standards adopted in 1996. Our state went about this in the right way, developing draft standards here at home by a team of Florida practitioners, teachers, supervisors, professors, and other partners. We then asked nationally recognized experts to compare our standards with those nationwide at the federal, state, and district levels.

Having clear standards of what our children should learn in school is essential to school accountability. We have also been pleased at the national recognition they have received. In 1997, the American Federation of Teachers announced that the Sunshine State Standards meet or exceed national criteria in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. More recently, in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2003, Florida’s standards and accountability system was rated an A, second only to New York.

Assessment. We knew when we created the A+ Plan that we needed to assess our schools and our students accurately before we could hold the system accountable for results. Assessment of students was already in place via the FCAT, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The FCAT was created by Florida teachers to conform to the Sunshine State Standards, but through the A+ Plan we used this assessment tool in a new way.

Our key innovation was to use FCAT scores to assess whole schools as well. Since 1999, our state has awarded a letter grade—A, B, C, D, or F—to every public school in Florida.

Accountability. Next, we held public schools in Florida accountable in two ways. First, we offered a carrot. The A+ Plan rewards improving and high-performing schools by awarding $100 per student in additional funds to those schools that improve by a letter grade or more in a year or that maintain their A grade. These funds have allowed high-performing schools to fund everything from teacher and staff bonuses—the choice made by both Olinda Elementary and Charles R. Drew Elementary, for example—to additional library books and art supplies.

F schools, by the way, do not receive less money per student than A schools. On a per-student basis, F schools receive about $1,000 more. But school recognition funds are essential because we believe that success should not merely be noted, it should be rewarded. These funds represent only a fraction of our public education budget, but I believe they offer a better return on our investment than any program in state government.

Second, we implemented a stick. The A+ plan provides that if any school earns an F grade twice in four years, the next year its students are eligible for vouchers—which we call Opportunity Scholarships—to attend another public or private school of their parents’ choice.

We are committed to choice because we feel parents should have alternatives to low-performing public schools. But we also feel that Opportunity Scholarships provide incentives for public schools to improve themselves.


Florida’s Commitment to School Choice

Opportunity Scholarships are central to our vision of educational reform. Yet there remain two major misconceptions about school choice in Florida.

The first is that school choice in our state is linked only to F schools and accountability. That’s not true. We believe in school choice on principle, and we are proud to have three separate voucher programs in place in our state: one for students with disabilities, which serves more than 9,000 Florida students; one for economically disadvantaged students paid for through an $88 million corporate tax credit program, which serves more than 16,000 now, with new funding for more than 10,000 additional students next year; and the Opportunity Scholarships, which have been given to more than 500 students.

That relatively low number of Opportunity Scholarships is significant because it illustrates the second misconception about school choice. Our goal is not to shut down low-performing schools and transfer the students to private schools. Far from it. We offer school choice primarily because it acts as a catalyst for improvement of public schools, where the great majority of students choose to be.

Last year, for example, more than 80 percent of children eligible for Opportunity Scholarships stayed in the same public school, with about 10 percent staying within the system at a different public school. Significantly, of the more than 500 children who did use Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools this past year, 96 percent of them were minority students.

Florida is also a national leader in school choice through charter schools, which serve more than 50,000 students at 223 schools across the state. We also support the nearly 45,000 Florida children who are home-schooled by allowing them, if they choose, to participate in athletic and cultural programs at their local public school or select academic courses to supplement the instruction they receive from their parents.


Results: Better Schools and Rising Student Achievement

Florida offers much more than just a model of implementation of accountability reforms and school choice. After four years, we can now document that this vision leads to better schools and rising student achievement.

In 1999, there were 78 F schools in Florida. But thanks in part to the carrot of school recognition funds and the catalyst of Opportunity Scholarships, that number dropped to four the next year and to zero the year after that, an extraordinary result under our original school grading standards.

I say “in part” because the credit for school improvement in every case must go first to the teachers, principals, parents, and students at each of these schools who did the hard work to turn them around. I strongly believe that setting high standards and holding schools accountable to them are essential. But a challenging new vision will only bear fruit if people respond to the challenge by making the vision a reality.

We also see encouraging results among students through rising scores overall on the FCAT. In fact, we are documenting rising student achievement in both reading and math among the general student population and in particular among minority students.

In 1998, for example, only 23 percent of fourth-grade African American students were reading at their grade level. Four years later, that number has risen to 42 percent. Hispanic fourth graders reading on grade level have increased from 38 percent in 1998 to 56 percent last year. Test scores have even improved, although very slightly, among students diagnosed with learning disabilities. Similar gains have been achieved in math skills as well.

In addition, preliminary data from the 2003 FCAT show continued improvement. More third graders than ever before, 63 percent, are at grade level or above in reading, up from 60 percent last year and 57 percent in 2001. That means more than 12,000 more students are reading at grade level or above. Only 23 percent received the lowest score of Level 1, or below basic level, which is down from 27 percent last year and 29 percent the year before. That means 10,000 fewer students are reading at below basic level. In mathematics, 63 percent are at grade level or above, up 11 percent in two years, and only 19 percent scored at Level 1, which is down by 5 percent.

Make no mistake; these scores are not nearly high enough. Nearly one-quarter of Florida’s third graders have not yet learned to read effectively, and that’s a major concern. But the scores do show improvement. We are turning the tide, and these results document that accountability reforms through the A+ Plan are working.

And for those who may question the validity of the FCAT as an assessment tool, Florida received two major endorsements in the past year. A Manhattan Institute study demonstrated that the FCAT is a reliable measure of student achievement. In other words, if you do well on the reading portion of the FCAT, you can read; if you do well on the math portion, you can do math. It’s been proven to be a reliable tool.

In addition, a study by the Princeton Review released in May ranked Florida’s testing program 6th best in the nation, up from 21st just one year ago. The study ranked states on 22 indicators in four different criteria: test alignment to state curriculum standards; test quality; the openness of the testing program to public scrutiny; and the extent to which data are used to support better teaching and learning.

Lastly, the norm-referenced portion of the FCAT allows us to compare student achievement in Florida with that of the rest of the nation. Florida’s median national percentile rank in third-grade reading has increased from the 49th percentile in 2000 to the 61st percentile in 2003, 11 points above the national average.

We are therefore very confident that rising FCAT scores document real additional achievement by Florida students.


Phase II: Enhancing and Improving Educational Reform

We remain very proud of our original A+ Plan, and we are especially encouraged by the results that demonstrate that school accountability is working.

But part of our vision is never to be satisfied with the status quo. We have not been content simply to implement the A+ Plan and wait for scores to improve and schools to turn around. Instead, we have made bold improvements along the way. These additional innovations reinforce the original vision, while also expanding educational opportunity and performance.

Since 1999, for example, we have improved the school grading process. We now assess the annual learning gains of individual students in each school, rather than compare third graders from one year to third graders the year before. We also weigh how the lowest quartile in a given school is performing. As a result, we are now able to identify and reward those schools that have students who enter the system behind their peers but who make remarkable gains from year to year.

We have also improved the FCAT itself. We are now testing every grade from 3 to 10, up from just grades 4, 8, and 10 in 1999, which means Florida will still test more grades than the federal government requires. We have added science to the FCAT. And we have improved access to the test for the disabled, so that it can more accurately assess their progress as well.

We have also raised school grading standards across the board. Once the number of F schools under the original grading system dropped to zero, we recognized that our teachers, principals, and students had responded well to high expectations, so we raised them even higher. One result was that Florida once again had F schools, 64 in all in 2002.

Lastly, we strengthened accountability in 2003 by ending social promotion in our state once and for all. All 23 percent of third graders who scored at Level 1 in reading on the FCAT will be provided additional intervention this summer to assist them in demonstrating mastery of reading skills. But those who have not acquired them after these efforts will be retained for another year before moving on to the more difficult material in the fourth grade. And about 12,000 high school seniors will not receive a standard diploma with their graduating class, as they did not pass the tenth-grade-level FCAT in six tries.


Helping Low-Performing Schools and Students

But of all our innovations and improvements to the A+ Plan, the ones that may have the most far-reaching impact are those that assist struggling schools and students to meet the high expectations we set for them.

Critics of accountability have long argued that setting high standards merely stigmatizes some schools or students with failure. Although our commitment to accountability remains unwavering—we simply cannot foster success until we define failure—we nevertheless do agree that we must ensure that those who do not meet the standards at first are encouraged to work hard to meet them in the future.

That’s how Assistance Plus was born. When 64 schools earned an F grade in 2002, we wanted to combat the notion that these schools are doomed to failure. They are not. Every child can learn, and every school can improve. We believe that in principle, but we have also seen it over the last four years. Seventy-eight F schools from 1999 had improved. These 64 could as well.

The idea behind Assistance Plus was simple. In addition to providing the additional funding and support that F schools have traditionally received, we also provided them role models, examples of schools that had been there before but that had turned their programs around.

Lillie C. Evans’s match with those two other elementary schools in Dade County represented one of these new partnerships last year, but there were 64 in all. Each paired an F school with a higher-performing school with similar demographics and challenges. Assistance Plus also recruited hundreds of volunteer specialists, in fields from reading to administration to technology, to donate their time and talent to help F schools improve.

As a result, there was a new sense of what was possible at each of these F schools. They were not stigmatized or abandoned. We did not simply hand out vouchers and wash our hands of low-performing schools. Instead, the hard work of so many paid off, with 52 of those 64 F schools, including Lillie C. Evans, raising their school grade in 2003. Those that remain have a long way to go, as do the nearly two dozen new F schools this year, but now they know that role models and resources are available through Assistance Plus to improve student achievement.

Assistance Plus has been received so well at F schools across our state that we used it as a model to reach out to those students affected by our new effort to end social promotion.

No parent, at first, wants to see their third grader retained for another year, and every high school senior wants a diploma. We understand that. Ending social promotion is not about punishing children who do not meet high standards, it is about ensuring that children have mastered the skills needed to advance to the next level. For high school seniors, the skills are those needed to advance to college work or contribute in the private sector. For third graders, the primary skill is reading. Research shows that through third grade students learn to read, but beginning in fourth grade students read to learn—they put their new skills to use in mastering other knowledge.

And so we named our new outreach efforts Read to Learn. Like Assistance Plus, Read to Learn emphasizes that performing below standards is not an ending but a beginning. The journey may be difficult, but just as every school can improve, every child can learn. It’s as simple as that.

Read to Learn offers several options to help struggling third graders improve their skills, including summer reading camps, reading mentors, and workshops for parents to learn about building literacy skills in their children. For 12th graders, options include FCAT remediation and GED preparation, as well as opportunities to receive vocational training and admittance to Florida’s community college system, which is one of the best in the nation.


Lessons Learned

We believe that Assistance Plus and Read to Learn will be successful. Even more important, we believe they represent an approach to school accountability that can be instructive to other states.

The president has long been a champion of compassionate conservatism. These efforts are yet another example of how this philosophy can guide reform in government. We believe in challenging the educational status quo and insisting on high standards. But we also believe that those who do not meet the standards have the potential to do so in the future with the right kind of support and encouragement. Providing that support, as well as defining the standards, has proven to be an essential element of our reform efforts in Florida.


Phase III: Set New Visionary Goals

As educational reform efforts are implemented in Washington and in state capitals across the country, Florida is committed to moving forward. Indeed, one of the real benefits of successful accountability reforms is that we can then challenge our schools with visionary goals, with the confidence that they have the ability to achieve them.

One of our visionary goals is to create a seamless K–20 educational system, so that all elements of our state’s educational infrastructure—public schools, universities, community colleges, and workforce programs—are working together to make student achievement the priority.

Another goal is to provide greater educational opportunity for minority students without the divisive policies of racial set-asides and quotas. Through our One Florida initiative and our partnership with the College Board, we are encouraging African American and Hispanic students to choose the most challenging courses at the high school level, to prepare themselves to take the SAT and other standardized tests, and to foster in themselves a desire to be the best possible applicants when pursuing admission to college.

But our primary visionary goal in Florida is to ensure that every one of our schoolchildren is reading on grade level or better by 2012. We have a long way to go. But the FCAT scores, including the most recent ones from 2003, tell us that we are making real progress day by day.

And the best is yet to come. Our Just Read, Florida! initiative has several components that are in place now but that will truly affect student achievement down the road. We are giving teachers and principals the latest research-based methods to teach reading in the classroom. We are training mentors from across the state in the same methods to support their efforts. And we are getting information on early literacy skills to our parents—in fact, we are giving the parents of every Florida newborn an “I’m a Reader Kit” before they ever leave the hospital. Some of today’s newborns will not even take the FCAT until 2012, but a statewide comprehensive approach to teaching reading today is the best way to ensure that those kids will be reading at grade level into the next decade.

Education remains a top concern across the nation, as our people justifiably lament the lack of success among too many of our public schools. We believe that Florida’s experience offers insight into how accountability reforms can best be implemented, but we also offer something more valuable: hope.

Florida’s story can give education reformers the realistic hope that we can build a public education system that strives for excellence at every level and gives every child her or his best chance for a successful and productive life. That is the original vision behind public education, and we are beginning to see in Florida what the realization of that vision might be like.