Jeb Bush Speaks Out

Talking education policy with Florida’s former governor

By 11/12/2014

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Fifteen years ago, Florida governor Jeb Bush signed into law an ambitious education reform package. The A+ Plan for Education package made Florida the first state to assign to schools grades A through F based on student performance, with bonuses for improving schools and choice for students at low-performing ones. Both a new approach to reading instruction and a major virtual learning initiative were also undertaken during Bush’s two terms as governor.

Florida’s students had been performing near the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) when Bush took office, but by 2007 they had made remarkable gains in both reading and math; this was particularly true of Hispanic students.

After leaving office, Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education to promote the kinds of reforms that he had backed in Florida, started an organization for reform-minded state education leaders called Chiefs for Change, and launched, with former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, the initiative Digital Learning Now to promote the smart use of technology.

Earlier this month, Governor Bush talked with the editors of Education Next about the legacy of the Florida reforms, his support for the Common Core State Standards, and his vision for education in the United States.

Governor Bush with a student during a visit to Reasoning Mind Photo: Joe Burbank / Courtesy Foundation for Excellence in Education

Governor Bush with a student during a visit to Reasoning Mind
Photo: Courtesy Foundation for Excellence in Education

Education Next: In retrospect, what do you think were the most important elements in the A+ Plan for Education package? If you were to identify the centerpiece, what would it be?

Jeb Bush: Our reforms are not individual elements, each with its own separate impact. They are pieces of a whole, complementing each other to produce the desired result—a better education for our kids.

We use a straightforward and transparent A─F grading system to give parents simple and accurate information about the effectiveness of their schools. We set challenging but realistic standards for students and then ensure they meet them with tests that accurately reflect what they should know. Schools that make progress are rewarded and those that do not have to answer for it and make improvements. Most importantly, we inject competition into the system through school choice. That increases pressure on everybody to improve.

A key component of our strategy is continually raising the bar for what we expect of students. What it took for a school to earn an “A” grade 15 years ago is not sufficient to earn an “A” now.

Some in the education community complain that every time they achieve the results expected of them, we raise expectations and school grades drop as a result. That was our goal. We have learned that students and teachers rise to the new challenge and the school grades go back up because everyone rises to the challenge. This formula is how you drive success in any endeavor.

EN: How would you assess the overall impact that the A+ plan has had on education in Florida?

JB: Florida schools are performing better than ever. Graduation rates are at an all-time high despite more rigorous graduation requirements. Last year, Florida students posted the best results ever on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both reading and math.

We have become one of the nation’s leaders in the number of high school graduates taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and passing AP exams. We had two school districts—Miami-Dade and Orange—win the Broad Prize in the last three years.

Florida is one of the only states in the nation that is truly closing the achievement gap. We have a majority-minority student population, a large group of English-language learners, and almost 60 percent participation in the free or reduced-price lunch program.

The progress we are making defies stereotypes of student progress and achievement for every demographic. What we did was take away the mindset that a child’s achievement is correlated with a child’s circumstances. That was a mindset that sanctioned failure.

In the 1990s, NAEP results revealed almost half our 4th graders read below a basic level. For our low-income kids, the number was more than 60 percent. In the 2013 NAEP results, Florida’s low-income 4th graders were tops in the nation for reading achievement. We’re very proud of this.

Any state can make the same progress. It’s just a matter of establishing the right policies and sticking to them.

EN: What were the most important lessons learned from the implementation of the A+ plan?

JB: I will narrow that question down to what is the most important lesson. And that lesson is that reform is not an endeavor you undertake defensively. You have to be bold. America has an education system in need of disruptive change, and yet too often we approach reform with the notion of accommodating what we know has not worked. We compromise with adults at the expense of kids.

When we implemented the A+ Plan for Education, we witnessed all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about pushing too much change on the system all at once. Everyone has reasons why you can’t do something. The secret to education reform is not letting adult angst about ending the status quo interfere with what must be done to advance student achievement.

Governor Bush with students at Tangelo Park Elementary School in Tangelo Park, Florida Photo: Courtesy Foundation for Excellence in Education

Governor Bush with students at Tangelo Park Elementary School in Tangelo Park, Florida
Photo: Joe Burbank / Courtesy Foundation for Excellence in Education

EN: Are you happy with the way school choice has developed in Florida? 

JB: Florida has more school-choice options than any state in the nation.

Our McKay Scholarship Program now serves more than 26,000 students with learning disabilities. Our Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program sends almost 70,000 low-income students to private schools their parents could not otherwise afford. And we have about 230,000 students in charter schools.

I’m pleased with the progress, but we have far to go. To fully transform education, we’ll need to reach a point when no parent has to drop a child off at a school that doesn’t meet that child’s needs because there are no other options. The parents in that situation usually are our most disadvantaged and that denial of equal opportunity should not be acceptable to anybody.

EN: What’s next for Florida?

JB: As you’ve heard me say before, success is never final and reform is never finished. We have to constantly evaluate what we have done, what the results are and what we need to do to improve them.

We didn’t stop with the passage of the A+ plan in 1999 and we cannot stop today. If you stop forward momentum, you go backward. Thankfully, Florida’s next generation of leaders continues to move the ball forward on education reform. This year, for example, the state legislature passed a great bill setting up education savings accounts for the parents of students with disabilities, enabling families to customize education and therapy plans for their children.

I’d love for Florida to be the first state in the nation where every parent has a choice in truly customizing his or her child’s education at the teacher, school or district level. I’d love for Florida to be the first state in the country to truly embrace competency-based education, where students advanced when they master the material, and where schools draw down funding when they are successful with students.

EN: Some studies have shown charter schools in Florida are no better than the district-operated schools. What would you do to strengthen the quality of the charter school sector?

JB: We hold our charter schools accountable with the same grading system we use for traditional public schools. Those that earn consecutive failing grades are shut down, and high-performing charters are freer to expand.

As a result, we are seeing better results. The latest NAEP scores reflect higher learning gains for students in Florida charter schools compared to their peers in traditional schools. Students from charter schools post higher scores on state tests. The achievement gap is smaller in our charter schools. A report that came out earlier this year from researchers at Mathematica, Vanderbilt and Georgia State found that Florida students who attended charter schools were more likely to graduate, attend college and earn higher salaries.

Holding schools accountable, by sanctioning failure and rewarding success, improves results. That formula applies to charters as well.

EN: Florida Virtual School has had a major impact on digital learning nationwide. What do you think are the next steps that need to be taken, both within Florida and around the country? 

JB: When carefully implemented, it’s impossible to overestimate the potential that technology has to transform education.

I’m very excited about the possibility of course-access policies—when a state allows students the option to take courses in different learning environments from diverse, accountable providers. I envision families picking from a menu of great courses, creating individual education plans for their children. Options could include an AP Calculus course from Florida Virtual School or an online music course from Julliard. Any child in any zip code could access the best courses in the nation.

The main challenge facing the country is how to redesign education around what technology allows us to do. This is not about tools as much as it is about creating new models of learning. We can personalize learning for every child in a way never before possible with blended learning. We can eliminate seat time and award credit based on mastery. We can better support teachers with new tools and resources that connect them with their peers and with experts from around the country. But these won’t work by forcing innovation to fit into old models. We need to redesign schools and classrooms to harness these opportunities.

EN: Some people think the class-size reduction in Florida explains the gains in student performance in the state. How important was this reform? 

JB: Harvard Kennedy School researchers analyzed the impact of the class-size amendment in 2010 and found it did not improve student achievement.

So please do not confuse Florida’s class-size amendment with reform. Reform is about creating a more efficient, more effective education system that meets the needs of children. The class-size amendment has been a hugely expensive diversion from that goal. For example, we are breaking up kindergarten classes with 19 or 20 kids to reach some artificial threshold that has no bearing on student achievement. We have spent billions of dollars on more buildings and for more teachers with no evidence this policy produced better results.

I’ll also point out that our academic gains began well before the class-size amendment kicked in. It’s too bad we can’t use the money we are wasting on meeting arbitrary numbers and divert it to where it will do more good, such as rewarding our best teachers with the pay they deserve. Great teachers are critical to the success of children and incentivizing them to stay on the job, or to teach in our most-challenging schools, is a reform that actually will produce results. 

EN: What lessons can be learned from Florida’s universal preschool policy?

JB: Florida’s universal preschool policy is actually the largest voucher program in the nation, with about 80 percent of eligible kids participating. We give every parent of a four-year-old a voucher and they pick the public, private or faith-based provider of their choice.

We emphasize early literacy in the program, and we measure the effectiveness of the providers when the students reach kindergarten. Those providers that do not adequately prepare a high percentage of their children for kindergarten are put on probation and are expelled from the program if they do not improve.

States that are considering investing in pre-K should learn the four lessons that we did:

1) Give parents choice in preschool, both public and private.

2) Ensure a focus on early literacy.

3) Measure and report on the effectiveness of the programs.

4) Focus on outcomes, not inputs.

With these steps, states can create programs that will show results.

EN: You have been a steadfast supporter of the common core, even when others have become increasingly critical. Why? What do you say to critics?

JB: I support high academic standards. Period.

High academic standards are a basic element of reform. Yet, across the country, state standards have been abysmally low for too long, evidenced by the fact that 75 percent of high school graduates are not fully prepared for college or a good paying job. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research compared state standards with international assessments and found the difference between states with the highest and lowest standards was the equivalent of three to four grade levels.

Low standards are a tactic that takes pressure off teachers unions by accepting mediocrity and failure for kids. Our children can achieve great things when we set high expectations for them.

The Common Core State Standards are more rigorous standards than the great majority of states had in place previously. As Checker Finn once noted, they respect basic skills, mathematical computation, the conventions of the English language, good literature and America’s founding documents.

States are free to modify the Common Core State Standards or adopt their own individual standards, because academic standards are the prerogative of the states.

The opposition to the common core has been mostly fueled by President Obama and his administration attempting to take credit for and co-opt a state-led initiative.

To be clear, higher academic standards are necessary, and the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum in classrooms. If state leaders don’t like common core, they should embrace the challenge of raising their standards even higher. I’ll be the first person in line to support them.

Most importantly, the best, highest standards in the world won’t matter if we don’t accurately measure whether students are truly learning, and hold schools accountable for the results.

EN: What do you think are the biggest challenges to improving education?

JB: This year we hit a critical tipping point in our schools nationwide. We now have a majority-minority student population, which means closing our nation’s achievement gap is more important than ever.

NAEP results indicate that African American and Hispanic students are reading two grade levels behind their white peers. That gap is reflective of a socioeconomic divide when it comes to education and it is intolerable on a number of levels: Morally. Socially. Economically.

Even our higher-performing students are falling behind their international peers in math and science. So, we need to up the game for all our kids.

We have the most diverse population of children in our nation’s history. Our challenge is to create a path to success for every one of them. We must provide them an education that equips them to achieve the American Dream. They deserve nothing less, and our history of exceptionalism as a nation demands it.

EN: What do you see as the big picture for what education should look like in America?

JB: We need to end the government monopoly in education by transferring power from bureaucracies and unions to families. The era of defining public education as allegiance to centralized school districts must end.

Public education must be viewed from the lens of providing each child with the learning environment that best meets his or her needs. If we can send a low-income child to a parochial school, knowing that his odds of attending college will increase as a result, then that should be our mission.

I envision presenting parents with a marketplace of school choices—public, private, parochial, charter, virtual, blended, and home education. They then can choose the model that best equips their children for success.

To accommodate that, we need high expectations for all children, married with accountability and transparency in results so parents can make informed decisions.

This is a system where every high-school graduate is prepared for the next step in life so that our nation is prepared for the 21st century.

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