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Smartest kids: In Florida, early reading and frequent testing bring results, and pushback

Leslie Moore sitting in her fourth-grade classroom

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of Bridge’s series, “The smartest kids in the nation,” chronicling how four high-performing or fast-improving states are making gains in education while Michigan remains muddled in mediocrity. We previously looked at the improving performance of students in Tennessee and Minnesota. Today we visit Florida.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The PowerPoint slides are a color-coded parade of good news for Florida, and bad news for Michigan.

Florida fourth-graders moving from one grade level behind Michigan students in reading, to one grade ahead.


Florida passing Michigan in fourth grade and eighth-grade math scores.


Among Florida’s largest minority group, Hispanics, fourth graders had the highest reading scores in the country; among Michigan’s largest minority group, African-Americans, fourth graders finished 41st out of 45 states measured.

Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform group based in Tallahassee, looks up from her PowerPoint presentation. “If a big state with a Michigan-size population of low-income students can improve,” Levesque said, “maybe there are some things Michigan can learn from Florida’s experience that would be useful.”

About 400 miles south of Tallahassee, in Fort Myers, a different kind of lesson is being taught about Florida’s experience. There, the Lee County School Board recently voted to ban all standardized tests, which had ballooned to the point that on any given day during the school year, some classroom in the district was giving a standardized test to students.

The board later rescinded the ban, but the “act of civil disobedience” crystallized rising concerns among some in Florida that the state’s education reforms have gone too far.

“It’s insanity,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for National Center for Fair & Open Testing (Fair Test), an organization critical of standardized testing, and a resident of Lee County. “It is inherently irrational for a district to create hundreds or thousands of new tests, but that is precisely what Florida is requiring.”

Florida is both an education reform success story and a lab experiment. Name an education reform, and it’s probably been tried here, and likely tried here first. From tying student test scores to teacher evaluations, to flunking kids who don’t pass a proficiency test, to charter schools and performance bonuses. There’s been one constitutional amendment creating universal pre-K classes, and another capping class size.

“It’s been three steps forward and two steps back,” said Florida Sen. John Legg, the Republican chair of the state’s Senate Education Committee. “It’s a long, hard process.”

A zeal for reform has flooded Florida’s K-12 system with a hodgepodge of education experiments. It sounds like a mess, except for one thing: student learning is rising.

If education is the motor driving a state’s economy, Michigan needs a tune up. Student achievement, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, is below the national average, while some traditionally low-scoring states have zoomed past Michigan.

Bridge visited four states to look for answers: Minnesota and Massachusetts, where students perform as well as students in high-achieving countries like Finland; and Tennessee and Florida, states where academic achievement was lower than Michigan a decade ago, but have since seen their NAEP scores rocket up national rankings.

By most measures, Florida is not yet an academic superstar. But growth in student learning has been rapid in the past 10 years, while Michigan has tread water. The Sunshine State has implemented a number of innovative education policies that may be pushing that growth, including tough, test-driven accountability, clear academic standards and a monumental effort to increase early literacy. As critics note, Florida also provides a cautionary tale of overreach, with some school officials feeling they’ve lurched from data driven to data drowned.

‘Bottom of the barrel’

In 1998, Florida was fifth from the bottom in fourth-grade reading among the 40 states that offered NAEP that year. In the most recent NAEP tests (given to selected students in all states in 2013), Florida is tied for eighth. The state is tops the nation in fourth-grade reading scores among students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. By comparison, Michigan is below the national average among low-income and higher-income students.

Florida is also among the fastest growing states, with student growth over the past decade in eighth grade math above the national average, while Michigan’s growth was below average. The same was true for eighth grade reading and fourth grade math (Michigan tied South Carolina for last in growth in fourth grade math.)

One stunning statistic: low-income Hispanic students in Florida had higher fourth-grade reading scores (220) in 2013 than the average Michigan student (217)

And Florida has zipped past Michigan despite Florida having a higher percentage of low-income students (56 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch, compared to 46 percent in Michigan), minority students (59 percent to 31 percent) and spending less per pupil ($8,372, to $10,855).

How does Florida do it?

A focus on reading

Sabal Palm Elementary in Tallahassee is a collection of low-slung, cement-block buildings in what would be a working-class neighborhood if anyone were working.

“We don’t have many parents with jobs,” said Principal Ray King, who from the window of his cramped office can see shirtless men sitting on the front steps of small, run-down homes.

About nine of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and eight out of 10 are African-American.
The school is struggling academically – ranked in the bottom 10 percent of Florida schools. Because of that, Sabal Palm has more teachers, more funding and a longer school day.

Students are in classrooms for an hour longer than a normal Florida elementary, receiving instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. Four certified teachers and two paraprofessionals float among four computer labs and the homeroom classes, which have a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.

Much of that extra staff and instruction time is spent on reading, particularly in kindergarten through third grade.

“You don’t fix language and reading problems in the eighth grade,” King said. “It’s like framing a house when you haven’t built a foundation.”

The focus on early reading skills has been a cornerstone of Florida education reform for more than a decade. Early literacy was one of the reforms championed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who made education his signature issue when he took office in 1999. (Bush, who served until 2007, was founder of what’s now the Foundation for Excellence in Education.)

The state took a carrot-and-stick approach to improving reading skills among young students. In the 2002-03 school year, Florida implemented a third-grade retention policy, in which students who are struggling to read are held back.

“In 2000, 29 percent of our third graders couldn’t read, and we were holding back 3 percent,” said Levesque, of Excellence in Education. “We were moving on thousands of students who couldn’t read.”

Florida State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. was an assistant principal at an elementary school in Miami when the third-grade retention policy went into effect. “People were running around like their hair was on fire,” Diaz recalled. “But when you raise the bar, you’d be surprised what teachers and students can do.”

The retention policy “created a sense of urgency in educating a child, to get the fundamental skills so they can move on,” Diaz said.

The state held back one in every 7 third graders in 2003, the first year of the policy. The retention rate has dropped by half since then.

The Michigan Legislature considered a “read-or-flunk” policy last year, but the measure died in the House.

But the effort in Michigan had one key difference: the bill didn’t include funding for intervention to help struggling young readers beyond a pilot project, something that has been a key to Florida’s success.

Florida spends $130 million in state funds for school reading efforts. The money didn’t add to overall education spending – Florida moved money from other education programs. For example, money was stripped from a dropout prevention program and put into reading programs, on the belief that better early reading skills will result in higher graduation rates.

While it’s up to individual districts to decide how that money is spent, districts are encouraged to make early reading intervention their top priority.

In Leon County, where the state capital Tallahassee is located, $1.5 million in reading funding pays for reading coaches embedded in all elementary schools and low-income middle and high schools, and for teachers who float between classes with small groups of struggling or accelerated students. All reading coaches are certified teachers with reading specialties.

Stuart Greenberg was director of Just Read Florida! and the Office of Early Learning for the state in the early 2000s. “The lesson from Florida is you develop a rigorous reading plan and then provide funding for teacher training and data assessment,” said Greenberg, who is now Director of School Accountability for Leon County Schools.

“The lesson from Florida is, you develop a rigorous reading plan and then provide funding for teacher training and data assessment.” – Stuart Greenberg, director of school accountability, Leon County (Fla.) Schools.

“When teachers receive instruction on how to use aligned material, great things happen,” Greenberg said. “You don’t go to a heart surgeon who doesn’t have training in the tools he’s using. You’ve got to have a plan.”

Tests, tests and more tests

On the day in early September when a Bridge reporter met with Greenberg, he was distributing the results of assessments given at the beginning of the school year to Sabal Palm and other Leon County elementary schools. All students in kindergarten through third grades are given a one-on-one reading test in the first two weeks of school that is used as a baseline to measure their academic growth through the year. Follow-up tests are conducted several times during the year - as often as every two weeks for students who are struggling. Teachers pore over the results, evaluating their students’ strengths and weaknesses.

The use of data is a key to Florida’s education turnaround, Greenberg said.
Recently, it has become a weakness, too.

In 1999, Florida began tying student learning to school ratings, which are given grades of A to F. Two years later, the state went further, trying student test scores to evaluation of classroom teachers.

Florida’s state standardized test, the FCAT, was revamped to become one of the most rigorous in the country. “For the first time, we were able to see what teachers were soaring and who were having difficulties,” Greenberg said.

Faye Adams, a third-grade teacher at Dayspring Academy in Pasco County, is a believer. “Florida was the bottom of the barrel. Now, Hispanic students, low-income students, there’s data showing they’re doing better,” Adams said. “Our graduation rates are going up, more kids are taking AP (advanced placement) classes and passing them.

Adams admits that teachers are divided on the fairness of tying student test scores to their evaluations, but she said that Florida teachers are generally happy to have more data so they can track student progress and intervene when there are problems.

“Teachers have that intrinsic desire to see our students succeed,” Adams said. “I know for myself, when it comes to testing and end-of-year reflection, that was a motivator. I wanted to see that my kids did well compared to other schools in the county and state.

Students are tested several times a year in math and reading to track progress, allowing teachers to make adjustments on the fly.

“A teacher who truly uses data is going to use it to adjust,” said Angela Anchors, an instructional coach at Duval Charter School at Baymeadows, in Jacksonville. “You can get, ‘Oh, she’s really struggling in this portion of geometry, let me go back.’ I’ve had instances where I thought I’ve had a great lesson, then things fall apart on the assessment, so I need to back up.”

Florida’s testing regimen involved just a couple of tests when implemented a decade ago. Today, though, it has become an around-the-calendar challenge. Broward County School District, for example, needed to develop 1,500 new tests this year, one for every course offered.

The average number of assessment tests taken by each student in Lee County, the gulf county that includes Fort Myers, is 11.

Rep. Diaz, a Republican and vice chair of the House Education Committee, is a big believer in the power of assessments. But schools can have too much of a good thing. “The analogy I use is if you’re in a hospital, they draw blood for tests. But you don’t want them drawing blood every five minutes.”

Adams agrees. “Testing itself is not a bad thing if you’re doing it in moderation. But you don’t want to over test,” Adams said. “As a teacher, you need time to teach; (too much testing) becomes taxing on everyone.”

Emphasis on teacher training

In 2011, Michigan created its own high-stakes teacher evaluation system that takes student test scores into account. But unlike Florida, Michigan still does not have state guidelines for how those evaluations are to be carried out, or funding for training of teachers to meet the new guidelines.

In Florida, “everyone gets the same information” on how teachers are evaluated, said Greenberg, the accountability director in Leon County. “The state sets the tone for a level of sameness.”

“The standards (on which tests and evaluations are based) are very detailed,” said Anchors, the instructional coach in Jacksonville. “As a teacher, I like that information. Tell me what you need from me and what the students need and I’ll do it.”

With no statewide standards in Michigan, it is more difficult to compare teacher performance across communities.

Leslie Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Sabal Palm, spent three weeks this summer training to be a team leader in new math and English standards that are part of Florida’s College and Career Readiness – a set of standards that are a slight variation of the Common Core Standards.

That level of professional development is typicall in Florida – Sabal Palm sent one teacher from every grade level to the intensive training.

“We have teacher coaches, side-by-side teaching,” Sabal Palms Principal King said. “We probably spend 10 fold what we did a decade ago on professional development.”

“Accountability is a good thing,” Greenberg said. “When everyone understands it, it’s a better thing. When it’s accompanied by coaching, it’s a great thing.”

How much is too much?

What started as simple but rigorous reforms have become complicated as the state “tinkers” with education, Greenberg said. Some efforts may move the needle, some may not, but it’s difficult to distinguish successful from failure with so many moving parts.

For example:

  • Performance bonuses. Teacher salaries are low, but the legislature this year allocated $480 million in teacher bonuses based on evaluations, Sen. Legg said. Schools that increase their letter grade or maintain an A rating get a bonus of $100 per student, which the school can split up any way it likes. At Dayspring Academy Elementary charter school in Pasco County, teachers last year earned bonuses of $500 each when their school receiving an A grade by beating the state average on the state standardized test despite having 96 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Those bonuses are prized in a state where the average teacher salary is $46,000, about a third less than the average teacher pay in Michigan. “It was a blessing,” recalled Dayspring third-grade teacher Adams, who is currently on maternity leave. Scores are based on student growth, with students expected to increase their academic status by at least one year during the course of a school year. That way, schools (and teachers) in high-poverty communities where children come into kindergarten academically behind their richer peers are not penalized.
  • High school teachers can also earn bonuses for the number of students who sign up for advanced placement courses, and the number who earn at least a 3 on an AP test (a 3 on a 1-5 scale earns the student college credit at many colleges). In 2013, 27 percent of Florida high school graduates passed an AP exam, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. (In Michigan, 17.2 percent of high school grads passed an AP exam)
  • There are more than 500 charter schools in Florida, enrolling just over 200,000 students. There is great leeway to open a charter - cities, community colleges and even corporations can operate a school – but the state holds the power to shut down charters that earn an F on the state’s A-F scale two years in a row. In Michigan, there is no set state policy for determining when to close failing charter schools. “If you don’t have accountability,” said Florida state Rep. Diaz, “you can have all the charters in the world and it won’t help, because you’ve removed the incentive” for schools to improve.
  • A constitutional amendment creating universal pre-K for the state’s 4-year-olds. About 160,000 kids enroll in the program annually. Michigan has a comparable program, the Great Start Readiness Program, but it is available only for children of low- and moderate-income families.
  • A constitutional amendment capping class size. Implemented in 2010, the amendment limits class to 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 for grades 4-8 and 25 for grades 9-12. The amendment has lowered class size overall, but it’s not unusual for districts to calculate that it’s cheaper to pay fines to the state for having too many kids in a class than hire an extra teacher, Excellence in Education’s Levesque said.

Changes to education reform have come fast in recent years. One example: there were 40 changes in the school grading system in the past three years, according to Greenberg. “Florida’s initial blueprint did many things right,” Greenberg said. “When people say we’re doing so well, they want to keep raising the bar.”

Keeping it simple and consistent

So what reforms worked?

“I don’t think it was one particular thing,” state Sen. Legg said. “It was a series of things.”
Top on Legg’s list: increased accountability, and transparency on school performance for parents. “Nobody wants to send their child to a failing school,” Legg said. “So there’s a drive in the school not to fail.”

Legg, Diaz Levesque and Greenberg all say that reforms would not have worked in Florida without strong, consistent support from political leaders.

“What happens in a lot of states, there’s a bill, and six months later, they blink,” Levesque said. “You need political stability to make sure reforms are given time to get through the rough spots.”

In Minnesota, reforms have survived Republican, Democrat and independent governors; in Tennessee, policy changes have been championed by a Democrat and a Republican governor. Cross-party commitment to reforms hasn’t been tested in Florida, where Republicans have controlled the governor’s office since Bush initiated reforms in 1999. “We’ve had close to a super majority (in the House and Senate) since Jeb took office, and every governor since him has said education is the number one priority,” Legg said.

“You have to have key leaders and political will,” Legg said. “If you’re going to make significant changes in education, you need a strong governor willing to put his political capital on the line. The economic future of our state relies on it.”

Next: The Massachusetts Miracle

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