Florida leads the way for low-income & minority students

Yesterday School Choice Ohio held a discussion led by Matt Ladner, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice who's conducted a mountain of research on school choice programs nationally and in Ohio. His research on Florida is germane not just for Ohio but for any state wishing to emulate Florida's success in moving the student achievement needle for its low-income and minority students.

You can view the full document here (or skip ahead to Ohio-specific policy recommendations; again, they're useful for other states), but the gist is simple. And impressive.

Over the last decade, Florida has managed to eke out steady improvements to student achievement (measured by fourth-grade scores on the NAEP), specifically for students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and for Hispanic and African American students. For example, Florida's FRPL-eligible fourth graders saw a 14 percent increase in scale scores on the NAEP (reading) from 1998 to 2009. In contrast, Ohio fourth graders saw a drop, then a slight increase, and then an evening out such that their scores have gone virtually unchanged in 11 years. (However, despite raw scale scores going up, it was unclear from Ladner's presentation where the proficiency cut-off was and whether/to what extent more at-risk students are reaching actual proficiency.?

Perhaps most impressive is that when you compare Florida's minority youngsters with students statewide (including high-income and white students) in other states, in several instances the former outscores the latter. Florida's African-American students scored better than students statewide in eight other states. And the average for Hispanic students (again, in fourth grade reading) was higher than the statewide average for students in 31 states.

What accounts for these remarkable trends? Ladner was the first to admit that there's no exact explanation or correlation, but attributed the Sunshine State's success to several reforms enacted in the late 90s by then-Gov. Jeb Bush:

  • ?A clear A-F grading scale for schools that heavily incentivizes gains for low performers (25 percent of a schools' score is based on student learning gains for the lowest performing tier of students);
  • Financial rewards and consequences (e.g., schools were given $100 per student for improving their letter grade);
  • Stricter promotion and graduation requirements-for instance third grade students can't advance to the fourth grade unless they are proficient in reading;
  • Funding for student success; and
  • More school choice (Florida has some of the largest and most established voucher programs in the country, as well as a robust charter sector).

It came as no surprise, then, that the policy recommendations for Ohio followed directly from these perceived elements of success (read about them in greater detail here).

Of course, it's difficult to credit any one of these reform ideas among all the noise and the variety of efforts happening in Florida across a decade. Ladner's research brief explores other possible reasons underlying the trends (demographic change? Class size? Preschool?).? But one thing's for sure ? Florida has done something right when it comes to achieving hard-to-come-by improvements for demographic subgroups (on the NAEP, nonetheless). And that's worth our attention.

-Jamie Davies O'Leary

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