Florida’s Reforms Working, Particularly for Minority Students

By Guest Blogger Matthew Ladner 04/05/2010

5 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

Last year, Dan Lips and I demonstrated, in the pages of Education Next, that demography is not K-12 destiny. We cited the remarkable progress of disadvantaged students in Florida based on 1998-2007 NAEP data. NAEP has released the 2009 data, and the news for Florida just keeps getting better.

Education reform in Florida represents a tougher nut to crack than in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Low-income students make up more than half the K-12 student body in Florida, with a “majority minority” ethnic mix. Florida spends below the national average on per-student funding.

Governor Jeb Bush pushed through a bracing dual strategy of accountability from both the top down (state testing) and bottom up (parental choice) in 1999. Governor Bush’s A+ Plan emphasized standards for schools and transparency for parents. In addition, Florida embraced sensible education reforms such as alternative teacher certification, the curtailment of social promotion for students lacking basic literacy skills and the revamping of literacy instruction. Florida is also the nation’s leader in virtual education.

Florida’s choice strategy also included the creation of the nation’s largest voucher program–the McKay Scholarship Program–for students with disabilities and the “Step Up for Students” tax credit for economically disadvantaged children. Today, more than 820 Florida private schools educate almost 20,000 children with disabilities through McKay. A similar number of low-income parents exercise choice through the Step Up for Students program. Florida also has a vigorous and growing charter school program, with 413 charter schools (and counting) educating over 131,000 students.

So what does Florida have to show for this tough mixture of testing and parental choice? The best source of data to answer this question comes from the federal government. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests representative samples of students in the states on a variety of subjects. The NAEP provides the nation’s most reliable and respected source of K-12 testing data.

Children who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically, falling further and further behind with each passing grade. Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks. Such students become academically frustrated and often disruptive. Hopelessly behind, such children begin dropping out of school in large numbers in the 8th grade.

Researcher focus heavily on 4th grade reading scores as a result. In 1998, a stunning 47 percent of Florida 4th graders were on just this dropout track, scoring “below basic” on the 4th grade NAEP reading test. In 2009, 27 percent of Florida’s 4th graders scored below basic on 4th grade reading. The percentage of Florida children failing to master basic literacy dropped by 42.5 percent in the space of a decade- a remarkable achievement.

Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African American students helped to drive the overall results. Florida’s Hispanic scores have soared in recent years. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second highest reading scores for Hispanic students in the nation, and African Americans in Florida score 4th highest when compared to their peers in other states.Both groups have a great deal of momentum on their side.

The average NAEP reading score for Hispanic students in Florida (on a test conducted in English mind you) is now higher than the overall average scores (for students from all racial and ethnic groups) of Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.


Likewise, NAEP reading scores for Florida’s African American students have soared since 1998, from significantly below the national average for African Americans to significantly above. Florida’s African American students have made so much progress in reading that they tied or exceeded the average scores for students from all racial and ethnic groups in 8 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.

Florida’s reform record provides hope to a nation struggling to improve education and to close racial achievement gaps. Given the proper incentives, public schools can improve. Disadvantaged children can learn at levels previously thought reserved for the privileged. Demography need not become destiny.

To paraphrase Rob Reiner, when it comes to K-12 reform: I’ll have what Florida is having!

Matthew Ladner is Vice President for Policy Research at the Goldwater Institute

Comment on this article
  • Kevin Welner says:

    The clear implication of this piece is that the Florida policies the author likes have, in fact, caused the Hispanic students in Florida to do better academically. But the data presented cannot support that sort of conclusion. There is no counter-factual — no adequate comparison. To help understand the problem, consider the following facts:
    1. Florida’s Hispanic students have always done considerably better than national Hispanic data. This is likely because the state’s Cuban immigrants generally have higher SES than most Latin American immigrants.
    2. The growth in NAEP scores for Florida’s Hispanic students mirrors national growth patterns.
    3. For instance, from 2003 to 2009, the growth for Hispanic students on the 4th grade reading NAEP was 12 points in Florida. But it was also 12 points in Maryland. Were Maryland’s policies the same as in Florida? (No.) In fact, the scores increased 20 points in Hawaii, where the policies were also very different. (Perhaps it’s the vacation destination things?!)
    Simply put, the sort of descriptive, exploratory analysis presented above should always be followed by more careful, inferential modeling before going to press and trying to assert causal conclusions.

  • Matthew Ladner says:

    Professor Welner-

    I have not claimed that no other states made progress, nor have I claimed that Florida represents the “one true way” to improving K-12 outcomes. I have claimed that Florida has shown remarkable progress since instituting a multifaceted suite of reforms in 1999.

    On your specific points:

    1. In 1998, 54% of Florida’s Hispanic students scored “Below Basic” on 4th grade reading. In 2009, only 29% scored below basic. Cubans comprised a smaller percentage of Florida’s Hispanics in 2009 than in 1998.

    2. In 1998, Florida Hispanics had a 6 point lead over Hispanics nationally, but in 2009 the gap had increased to 19 points despite the fact that Hispanics nationally have been improving.

    3. Again, I am making no claim that Florida’s reforms are the only way to skin the cat, merely that they have been remarkably successful.

  • Kevin Welner says:

    Thank you, Dr. Ladner, for your substantive response to my comment. Between our two comments, I think we’re starting to flesh out the sort of inquiry that would be useful to learn whether any given reform, or suite of reforms, is likely to be causing better outcomes.

    The analysis should compare Florida to other states and/or to Florida prior to the reforms’ implementation, it should control for factors such as wealth and parental education, and it should try to tease out which reforms or combination of reforms (if any) are having a positive effect.

    On this last point, it would be very important to keep one’s thumb off the scale. While not mentioned in the above article, for instance, hasn’t Florida been implementing its ambitious class size reduction reform since fall of 2003? Might that reform account for all or part of any progress we’re seeing? (I’m suggesting this as an alternative explanation that should be explored, rather than as a conclusion.)

  • Matthew Ladner says:

    Professor Welner-

    My coauthor and I address a number of possible counter-hypotheses in the Education Next article linked to in the post. For instance, Florida’s K-12 population became both less Anglo and a had a higher percentage of FRL students.

    I do not recall whether the class size mandate was one of those. In any case, a substantial empirical literature exists finding a lack of a strong relationship between variation in class size and student outcomes. Further the Florida policy on the subject came after the change in trend in Florida scores and has been very long in the implementation stage. If it had a positive impact, I think it is fair to say that it would have come later in the aughts.

    We do have formal evaluations for some of the puzzle pieces showing positive impacts associated with particular reforms. Even with these, it is not easy to tease out precisely which reform did how much of what. I think the rational response to this uncertainty is to do all of the major Florida reforms. Governor Bush’s instinct seems to be that the A-F grading system, with its heavy emphasis on academic growth for low achieving students, served as the lynchpin, with supportive roles played by alternative certification, literacy instruction reform, high quality data system, incentives for success, parental choice and social promotion curtailment.

  • Diane Hanfmann says:

    Many thanks to Dr. Welner for taming the prematurely and inadequately supported conclusions of Mr. Ladner. The effect of the third grade retention policy on the fourth grade NAEP testing pool is often overlooked by Mr. L> as well.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform