Educating Like Florida

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Improvements on test scores for Florida’s K-12 students are linked to education reforms enacted in that state more than a decade ago. But, can Florida’s success be exported to the Grand Canyon State? Some Arizona lawmakers think so. We’ll take a look at bills they’re considering that follow Florida’s lead.

Ted Simons: In recent years, student achievement has improved dramatically. In Florida, from near the bottom to the top. That's attributed to education reforms as the state began implementing in 1999. As David Majure reports, some of Arizona's educators and lawmakers are looking to duplicate Florida's success.

Voiceover: The Arizona house of representatives education committee is trying to improve the education in the Grand Canyon state. But some of the bills on its agenda come directly from the sunshine state. Florida has gained a national reputation for implementing education reforms that seems to have boosted its student achievement. People behind the reform like Patricia Levesque from the foundation of excellence in education believes what works in Florida will in Arizona.

Patricia Levesque: If you look at the data, Arizona was actually above Florida in student learning and student performance in the early '90s, and then Arizona student performance has remained relatively flat. Florida, you can see a distinctive difference in our performance since 1999, which is when we put in the majority of these reforms.

Voiceover: Levesque is in Arizona this week talking with policymakers about Florida's success.

Patricia Levesque: We're trying to share lessons learned and things we experienced when we were at the bottom nationally and now after a decade, we're above the national average, just trying to help other states see what they can do to follow with some policies to help kids learn.

Voiceover: One of those policies keeps third graders out of fourth grade until they're ready to read.

Patricia Levesque: Educators know this. From kindergarten through third grade, students are still learning how to read. But the teacher is the main one providing the instruction and the content. When students move to fourth grade, they have to read in order to learn. And -- and if you promote a student to fourth grade who doesn't have successful reading skills, you're dooming them to a life of struggle and a greater potential they're going to drop out or not graduate from high school. So switching that one policy to a skills policy, you go to fourth grade when we know you're ready. When you have those foundational reading skills made a tremendous impact.

Voiceover: She says it's important to hold schools accountable by grading them based on how kids do on tests.

Patricia Levesque: We started grading schools like students. A, B, C, D, F. We graded hem before, similar to Arizona. You call your schools that we would call C schools, you call them performing here. And if most adults or the general public heard, Wow, that school is performing, people would think it's fantastic. But in Florida, those schools get a C. And the reaction to a C is different than is a reaction to a fuzzy descriptor like "performing." C, it's clear to the parents and media and public they need to improve.

Voiceover: Those and others Florida policies have made it all the way across the country to Arizona, where they're included in a variety of bills lawmakers are trying to pass.

Patricia Levesque: If Arizona does some of the policies that are floating through the legislative process right now, you won't see immediate results. It will take time, it takes determination. It takes comprehensive set of policies that make sure, again, the focus is on student learning, but Arizona could be where Florida is in a decade.

Ted Simons: Here to talk about importing Florida's education reforms to Arizona is Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, and John Wright, president of the Arizona education association largest teacher's union. Thank you both for joining us here on Horizon. Matthew, Goldwater institute brought out the guest we just saw on the taped piece to Arizona to convince educators and lawmakers of what?

Matthew Ladner: The good news is that Arizona is today exactly where Florida was in the '90s. They were down at the bottom of the rankings in the nation's report card examines and far below the average. Today, they've made dramatic improvements and they're a state similar to ours in demographics. They're a majority-minority state. When you look at student demographics, and not a high-spending state and does not have a income tax. And they have a similar percentage of reduced lunch eligible children in their schools as we do here. What's happened since the late 1990s, Florida's made dramatic improvement and Arizona's been flat. And the improvement has been so profound, the average Florida child is reading about a grade and a half level higher than the average Arizona child in fourth grade reading.

Ted Simons: John, education week. Florida ranked eighth. They were 32nd in 2007. They're now eighth. What are they doing right?

John Wright: We want to learn from other states and want to learn from best practices and this isn't to pit Arizona against Florida. That would be pointless. If you listened to the woman who came, you heard her talk about differences in the early '90s and steepest increases Florida saw in reading and math was between 1994 and 2002 before the reforms took place. We have to look at the overall length of time. In recent gains, can we learn from Florida? Yes, they spend $1,500 more per child and they have spent millions in reading, family literacy, there are government programs and public and private programs. And they've invested in their reading systems in ways that Arizona can only dream of. So yeah, let's look at their practices.

Ted Simons: There are some studies that say it looks as though Arizona would have to spend 20% more per pupil to hit what Florida spends right now. Is that how you see it?

Matthew Ladner: It's unclear. Florida is not a high-spending state. And neither is Arizona, we can conclude that. But Florida actually got almost a grade level's worth of improvement in reading scores between 1998 and 2002 and their increased spending per pupil adjusted for inflation was about $110 per pupil. They spent money on high-quality data systems and created financial incentives for success in schools and created disincentives for failure. Some things required money but more than money, what they did was take tough minded decisions that they were very determined to improve student performance and the good news is that what Florida's success shows us, we're not doomed to, you know, suffer along -- flat lining, near the bottom of the barrel in academic achievement. We can do better.

John Wright: I would also say Arizona scores are not near the bottom of the barrel. We can talk apples to apples and doing it around the middle of the range, national average, and that's not good enough. You'll hear legislators say we're near the national average, isn't that ok. And we have to say no, that's not ok. We have to make tough decisions to move from the middle to the top.

Ted Simons: Some of the gory details of public policy. Let's get into a couple of them here, the idea of grading schools. Instead of performing or underperforming just A, B, C, D. Make sense to you?

John Wright: Simplistic and it's not going to work. A couple people have said who really knows what these terms really mean. I think you can get a clear idea of excelling, performing, underperforming. I think those are clear. How about the elementary schoolteacher. I stopped using letter grades because they didn't give a clear indication of performance. We're a standards-based academic system. We need to let the students know where they are doing related to standards. And we have to let the public know where schools are going based on standards. A, B, C, D, that's not the answer.

Matthew Ladner: I disagree. As you heard was said on the intro piece, no one is going to be desperate to get their school out of a performing label. In Florida, that same school would be described as having a C. The national test shows in fourth grade reading, 44% of Arizona fourth graders scored below that in 2007. That's a polite way to describe functional literally. And yet the state is covered with schools that are called performing. And it's not a system that has credibility and it's also not a system that's driving improvement. Florida, A, B, C, D, or F system helps to clarify which schools need improvement and rallies community support around those schools.

John Wright: So the real issue is what is the data that leads to the label? It's not if you use this word or that letter, but are we collecting the right data? Does the data give us a good indication of student learning and room for growth? And that's what we need to look at. What are we collecting and analyzing?

Ted Simons: In Florida, among the things that are collected and I guess analyzed in Florida is testing a program for what seems like every grade. But really concentrating on the third grade reading test and holding kids back if they don't reach a certain level. Again, your thoughts?

John Wright: Well, I think that third grade reading level is critical. And educators realize that. The misunderstanding is that any third grader who doesn't meet proficiencies is held back. What they do in consultation is retain the 10% of the lowest performing third graders. There are other intervention strategies and reading recovery strategies and those are the decisions you make at the school level with the parents. I've raised four children and made dozens of education decisions and I don't want Matthew Ladner and the Arizona legislature making any of those decisions about retention or anything else. That's for the parent, the teacher and school to decide what's best for what child.

Ted Simons: And there's a concern -- some of these kids by the time they get to teenage years and not with their peers anymore, a concern about the dropout rate there.

Matthew Ladner: The cruelest things we can do to kids and it happens every day, and it's not about the state making decisions for schools. This is about having standards. The cruelest thing we can do is pass them on into middle school as illiterate. These become seventh graders and have a science book in front of them and literally cannot read. They never envision themselves going to college. They start to wonder what they're doing there. They get bored and start to drop out in large numbers in eighth grade. Those kids have been passed through a system, as cruelly as you could possibly have for a student. That's got to stop. And you have to make tough decisions and the retention rate is about 10%. It used to be higher. And the reason it's dropped, fewer students are scoring at the initial level. Since the initial retention in 2003, the percentage of kids that have been retained has dropped by 40%. The percentage of kids that are scoring low enough to be retained has also dropped by 40%.

Ted Simons: Why do you think those numbers are?

Matthew Ladner: Part of the thing is that we do need to put some of the responsibility on the parents. And this does that. There's a clear signal sent through the system that your child needs to learn how to read. When they're assigned homework, they better do it. If they want to move on with their peers they have to take responsibility and there's earlier intervention in the system.

Ted Simons: Does that make sense to you?

John Wright: That's what I was saying. Early interventions, make the investments, and have conversations with parents. What you don't want is this automatic barrier because of a test score. These are consultations based on standards and clear expectations and intervention at the earliest possible year.

Ted Simons: The test scores for fourth grade in Florida, they have improved and shown an upward rise there. Again, if the numbers seem to show this, is it not a good thing to consider? Not a good thing to emulate?

John Wright: I think the good parts to emulate are what Matt was describing. Intervention, parent involvement. Consultation and conversations. Understanding collectively that reading is critical. You don't just send your kid to have to school and wait for the results. It's a shared partnership and that's different from the automatic determinants.

Ted Simons: What about the concept of learning? Some criticism of what Florida is doing and other approaches to education, test, test, test, but are we really finding out if these kids are learning anything?

Matthew Ladner: Well, I think that, yes, we are. It is absolutely essential that you learn how to read. Kids have to learn how to read to do anything. Any kind of subject later on in life. It's absolutely critical. So we do need testing. There does need to be accountability and transparency in the system. That's an area we're sorely lacking in Arizona at this point.

Ted Simons: Do you agree?

John Wright: Assessments serve a purpose and you won't find a teacher that doesn't use and assess data critically but there are some factors of a child's education you can't get on a pencil and paper test. What's their view of success and how do you attribute to those areas as a teacher and school community? We can't start ignoring those because we have to add up the numbers for the test results.

Ted Simons: Is Arizona prepared to pay for education? At least as much as Florida?

Matthew Ladner: Right now, we face a gigantic structural budget deficit and whether the sales tax proposal passes, the truth is there's not going to be any money any time soon. In fact, likely there are going to be cuts. I think it's still possible for us to make progress and getting better bang for the buck the way Florida has, whether, you know, that new money materializes or not.

Ted Simons: Better bang for the buck possible?

John Wright: Spend wisely, but we're pulling the rugs out from the teachers' feet.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

Matthew Ladner:Vice President of Research for the Goldwater Institute;John Wright:President of the Arizona Education Association;

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