Author(s): Matthew Ladner
Jeb Bush campaigned for governor on a clear and bracing set of education reforms in 1998. Having won office, he immediately pursued a dual-track strategy for reforming Florida’s K-12 education system: standards and accountability for public schools, choice and options for parents. Florida lawmakers followed those reforms with additional measures. They enacted instructionalbased reforms, curtailed social promotion, introduced performance pay for teachers, and expanded school choice for families. A decade of bold reforms led to dramatic achievement gains in Florida, while academic improvements in Tennessee were held back by a lack of strong policy changes.
Ten years after Gov. Bush’s election and subsequent work to improve K-12 education, this study lays out the cumulative impact of his reforms, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
NAEP is the nation’s most reliable and respected source for data on K-12 education, testing representative samples of students in every state on a variety of subjects, including mathematics and reading.
Looking particularly at NAEP’s reading test, 47 percent of Florida’s fourth-grade students scored below Basic in 1998, meaning they were unable to master “fundamental skills.” By 2009, however, 73 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored Basic or above—a remarkable improvement. What’s more, after a decade of strong improvement, Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second-highest reading scores in the nation; Florida’s African Americans rank fourth-highest when compared to their peers in other states.
Compared to Tennessee, the average Florida Hispanic student scored higher than the average score for all Tennessee students on NAEP’s fourthgrade reading test in 2009. Tennessee’s students are not alone. Florida’s Hispanic students also outscored the statewide averages for all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, Florida’s African American students went from being far behind their peers in Tennessee to being significantly ahead of them.
The pages that follow lay out Florida’s reforms, and suggest how Tennessee policymakers could emulate the Sunshine State. Florida’s work wasn’t easy, but the academic success that has occurred should make it easier for other states to follow, including Tennessee.