Reform Is Good for Education
The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity has just released a study showing that education reforms involving “accountability, transparency, and parental choice” can catch minority and disadvantaged groups up to the average, while increasing the average overall. Most striking, in my view, is the comparison between a state that really wants to reform and one that wants to make make it look like it’s reforming:
Florida grades all district and charter schools based on overall academic performance and student learning gains. Schools earn letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F, which parents can easily interpret.
The full study (PDF) provides more detail:
Florida determines schools’ grades in equal measure between overall scores [on a standardized test] and gains over time. In addition, the state divides the “gain” portion of the formula equally between the gains for all students and the gains for the 25 percent of students with the lowest overall scores. Figure 14 below illustrates how the state determines these grades (50 percent on overall scores, 25 percent based on the gains of all students, and 25 percent based upon the gains of the lowest performing students).
In Rhode Island, as I’ve pointed out before, the performance of our schools is, first, masked by significant changes in testing mid-decade that boosted the impression of progress and, second, inflated by the fact that schools with too few children in a particular category automatically get credit for adequate progress in that category. Andrew put it well a few years ago, when he said that “the final classifications have more to do with some obscure bureaucratic criteria than with how well students are learning.”
Much of the Center’s study, which was initially developed by Bill Felkner for the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, compiles charts to illustrate that, yes indeed, Florida’s students have advanced considerably, to the point of surpassing Rhode Island. The key takeaway, though, ought to be the description of the state’s reforms:
• Public-school choice. Students in low-performing public schools may transfer to a higher-performing public school of their parents’ choice.
• Private-school choice. Families with special-needs children have access to the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to attend a private school of choice. Corporations in Florida can also receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to organizations that fund private scholarships for low-income students.
• Charter schools. Charter schools offer families another choice. During the 2008/2009 school year, more than 100,000 Florida students attended charter schools and more than 50 new charter schools began operation.
• Virtual education. Florida is a leader in online learning. More than 80,000 students in the state take courses online.
• Performance pay. Florida’s performance pay system rewards teachers who achieve student gains, not necessarily those who have the longest tenure. It also provides bonuses for teachers who increase the number of students who pass Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Since beginning performance rewards for AP completion, Florida has considerably increased the number of all students who take and pass AP exams.
• Alternative teacher certification. Non-traditional routes to teacher certification, such as permitting school districts to offer teacher certification programs, reciprocity with other state teaching certificates, and honoring certification offered through alternative teacher certification programs such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (“ABCTE”), play an important role in bringing qualified teachers into the classroom.
• A+ Accountability Plan. In 1999, Florida required that students be tested annually. While Florida has graded the performance of its public schools since 1995, the Sunshine State moved to a more straightforward grading system in 1999.7 The new grading system, coupled with the introduction of the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), means that students and schools are held accountable for academic outcomes.
• Social Promotion Ban. Florida has also curtailed the “social promotion” of students. This reform plan requires students to pass the third-grade reading (Florida Common Assessment Test) FCAT before progressing to fourth grade
Once such reforms are implemented (and I don’t encourage any breath holding on that count, in Rhode Island), the next step would be to expand them such that they apply not only to minorities and the disadvantaged. There’s plenty of room for average and above average students to be assisted to real, world-class excellence.