Matthew Ladner

Florida shows how to close an academic achievement gap in the public schools

Posted on May 14, 2009 | Type: In the News | Author: Matthew Ladner
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A demographer recently displayed a map of the Southwestern United States at an academic conference and predicted it would become “the Appalachia of the 21st Century.”
Southwestern states, among others, have rapidly growing Hispanic populations which are transforming their K-12 demographic profiles into “majority-minority.” Hispanic students score lower on standardized tests, are more likely to drop out of school, and are much less likely to graduate from college.
“Demography is destiny,” the expert proclaimed in explaining his dire prediction.
As a southwesterner, and an American, I can summarize my rebuttal with one word: Florida.
In 1999, then-newly elected Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through a dual strategy of accountability from the top-down through rigorous state testing and the bottom-up with copious parental choice. Florida lawmakers also curtailed social promotion and reformed reading instruction, among other things.
What does Florida have to show for this witches’ brew of testing and parental choice?
In 1998, only 53 percent of Florida fourth graders could read at a basic fourth-grade level. In 2007, 70 percent of Florida fourth graders could read at the fourth-grade level. The number of Florida children failing to master basic literacy dropped by a remarkable 36 percent in just nine years.
Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African American students helped drive the overall results. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second-highest reading scores in the nation, and African Americans score fourth-highest, compared to their peers.
The average Florida Hispanic student score on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test – which is conducted in English - is now higher than the average score of all students in 15 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Florida’s free and reduced lunch-eligible Hispanic students outscore the statewide average in seven states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.
Florida’s African-American students may soon have their own long list of states that they outperform. As it stands, they already tie or exceed two statewide averages, and several other states are within striking distance.
Why is Florida’s success story significant to you? It provides hope to states struggling to improve education and close racial achievement gaps. There are two more important facts to know: Florida is near the bottom of states in per-student spending, and their K-12 population is majority-minority and almost half is also free and reduced lunch-eligible. It didn’t take hundreds of millions in additional spending or require an affluent student population to radically improve student learning.
Demography need not be K-12 destiny. Given the proper incentives, public schools can improve. Disadvantaged children can achieve at levels previously thought reserved for the privileged. We can close racial achievement gaps. Florida has shown us how it can be done.
Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. is vice president of research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute.

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