For Crist's sake--Don't go wobbly, Governor

Liam Julian

Gov. Crist, you've no doubt seen the latest headlines: Florida education stinks.

You've no doubt read the articles citing Education Week's recent study that ranked the Sunshine State 31st in the nation.

You've no doubt read the editorial pages, encouraging you to stop focusing on accountability, and, instead, to raise taxes and dump more money into failing schools.

Governor, you should ignore the headlines and the editorial advice. Here's why:

At first glance, Florida's schools don't look good: In fourth-grade reading, for instance, only 12 states perform worse; in eighth-grade math, only 14 states do.

But it's not enough to just take a snapshot of where Florida's students are right now. What you most want to know--and can only tell by looking at multiple pictures, taken over time--is whether your schools are catching up, falling behind, or keeping pace.

Unlike many of your counterparts in other states, when looked at this way you find considerable good news. Florida is catching up--rapidly. It's one of just three states in the nation to make statistically significant improvements in math and reading for its most disadvantaged students in the last decade (see here). That positive change is happening because of the innovative, accountability-based reform ideas that have been at work in Florida's schools over the past eight years.

At the fore is Florida's state accountability system--the A+ Plan--which preceded the federal No Child Left Behind law. A+ is arguably the most comprehensive and accurate statewide education accountability system in the land.

Unlike the federal system (which looks at groups), A+ tracks individual student achievement, and it grades schools on an A through F scale based largely on how much academic improvement each student demonstrates from one grade to the next.

While NCLB's concern is with getting all students to a certain level of proficiency and identifying and sanctioning schools that don't, Florida's system seeks to identify which schools are making progress with their students. Which schools, A+ asks, are seeing their students improve?

That focus on individuals rather than group data helps make Florida's system more precise. A+ can pinpoint the schools whose students are making little or no educational progress. Policymakers and educators can then focus energy on solving the most acute problems. And because A+ focuses on individual student achievement, it can show if little Johnny is actually making any academic gains. That's something parents and teachers need to know, even if Governors don't need to know it (and little Johnny might not want to know).

The system is working. The number of Florida schools receiving D or F grades is in decline, and the number receiving As or Bs reached record highs in 2006--without any credible evidence of "grade inflation."

To build on those gains, the state could also begin using the A+ system not just to grade schools but also to help teachers target specific areas in which students are struggling and may need extra classroom attention (and to target areas in which students are excelling, too). With such a tool at teachers' disposal, Florida schools could offer a truly personalized education that challenges all students while giving some the extra help in areas where they need it.

Of course, this means sticking with the oft-maligned FCAT. Testing can be a lot of things, distracting and overwhelming among them. But it's the only way the Sunshine State can push educational accountability. The bad old days--when schools may have been less stressful but when youngsters (especially poor and minority ones) were learning little--are precisely why Florida is currently digging out of an academic ditch.

It's right to believe that Florida's schools are nowhere near where they should be. But it's wrong to believe that the state's policies, such as using the FCAT as the basis for a thorough accountability system, need repealing.

Change comes slowly in public education, which everywhere in America is a stodgy bureaucratic system being coaxed from decades of stagnation. By education reform standards, though, Florida's improvement has been glittering. To stay on that course, you're going to need strong, reform-minded, thick-skinned talent and heavy-duty brainpower to lead the education area. You will likely end up regretting the loss of Phil Handy and John Winn (though plenty of other states should seek to woo them). But you have considerable talent still in Tallahassee (including elementary/secondary chancellor Cheri Yecke) and a whole country to recruit from. We urge you not to dawdle.  

Education accountability is yielding results in the Sunshine state. Florida's schools don't need to be tripped as they're gaining position to win the race.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the January 10th edition of the Tallahassee Democrat. 

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