Arizona had a breakthrough in 2010 that could end years of frustration about the state’s relatively low academic achievement. The Arizona Legislature this year adopted new reforms for K-12 public education that combine accountability, transparency and parental choice. Lawmakers modeled these changes on innovations first launched in Florida that have raised the average reading test scores for that state’s fourth-grade students by two entire grade levels over the past decade.
The Goldwater Institute’s 2008 policy report “Demography Defeated: Florida’s K-12 Reforms and their Lessons for the Nation,” noted that Florida’s strategy has led to the biggest improvements for students who traditionally struggle the most to learn — minority and low-income children. 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores show that many of Florida’s disadvantaged children now outscore the average Arizona student.
Florida schools focus heavily on disadvantaged students because the state’s school-grading system looks at overall performance, overall gains, and progress among the 25 percent of students with the lowest scores. By double counting gains among the lowest-performing students, the system provides strong incentives for schools to help those struggling to learn.
The reforms that Arizona will pursue include similar, clear labels of overall school performance with letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F, limit the social promotion of third-grade students who can’t read, provide alternative certification for non-teachers to enter the profession, and more choices for parents. Rather than an end to the reform process, these new laws are only the opening salvo in a long and difficult battle to transform Arizona’s public schools.
As Arizona implements these reforms, policymakers should prepare for fierce pushback from teacher unions and other powerful groups. Policymakers have watered down past reforms because of similar opposition. But they should be inspired this time by the courage of their Florida counterparts, who weathered the criticism and stayed the course leading to Florida’s dramatic K-12 improvement.
Likewise, in 2011 Arizona legislators should consider additional Florida-style reforms such as retraining teachers in basic reading instruction and basing any future funding increases on better school performances. These reforms will help schools refocus on what matters most — student success.