There’s Good News, and then There’s Really Good News

By 08/04/2011

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about our schools’ “secret success.” Simply stated, poor and minority students are achieving at dramatically higher levels today than they were two decades ago—in some cases two or three grade levels higher. And while we can’t be sure what led to this academic acceleration, test-based accountability was probably the most important factor. Or so I argued.

But the plot thickens, because these national averages mask state-by-state differences that are quite instructive, too. See, for example, this chart from Matt Ladner, a longtime Goldwater Institute education analyst who now works for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. It examines NAEP gains over a shorter six-year period—2003 to 2009—for kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Combined NAEP Gains for Free and Reduced Price Lunch Eligible Children, 2003-2009

Those are huge differences, with Florida leading the pack. While this is hardly causal evidence, it sure seems likely that Florida has been doing something in the realm of education policy that is making a big difference. (Perhaps Governor Bush’s comprehensive and aggressive reforms?) And likewise, that West Virginia is doing something very wrong. (Twenty-first century skills, anyone?)

Skeptics, including the union-funded “National Education Policy Center” at the University of Colorado, wonder if Florida’s grade-retention policies explain the impressive results. (Florida students can’t move onto the fourth-grade until they are reading proficiently.) Sunshine State kids are scoring better, goes the argument, because they are older. But Ladner dismisses that argument thoroughly in the pages of Education Next—something the NEPC refuses to acknowledge.

There’s plenty of bad news to bemoan in education. How about all of us—reformers and skeptics alike—agree to make the most of the good news that falls in our lap every now and then? Poor kids in Florida and a few other states are making HUGE gains. Let’s figure out why.

—Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • Joe Beckmann says:

    It’s so good to see the Florida grade retention policy defended, even if the data are…suspect. We know, from the Consortium on Chicago School Research ( that grade retention is the single most critical cause of later dropout behavior. After all, teach ’em they’re dumb long enough and they’ll believe you.

    Therefore a grade retention strategy that does not integrate an early intervention strategy to reduce that retention produces…more…of the same. And it is so good to see in Florida, where the intellectual leadership is so well grounded, that they are willing to produce early dropouts rather than high rates of graduates and college qualified young adults. It gives us, from other states, an unfair advantage that your climate and your immigrant ratio might well give to your own residents.

  • John Wakefield says:

    I would like to think that great programs like Take Stock in Children have something to do with this. Students who are on free/reduced lunch are the Take Stock population!

    Take Stock students are paired in junior high school with an adult mentor who meets with them once a week until high school graduation. Students who complete the program are awarded a tuition scholarship through the Florida Prepaid Foundation matched by local donations.

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