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

Leslie Moore sitting in her fourth-grade classroom

Leslie Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Sabal Palm Elementary in Tallahassee, Fla., spent three weeks this summer in intensive training in Florida’s new math and reading standards. Florida spends more money on professional development for its teachers than does Michigan. (photo by Ron French)

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The board later rescinded the ban, but the “act of civil disobedience” crystallized rising concerns among some in Florida that the state’s education reforms have gone too far.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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Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:02am
Hmm. DeVos is a 'sponsor' of The Bridge and has spent millions pushing charter schools. And then we start seeing all these 'articles' about all the wonderful success of 'educational reform' (seems to be charter school driven) in The Bridge. Who's checking these 'miracles' for 'teach to the test' and slanted numbers (amazing how wonderful the numbers are....). My mother used always tell us kids: 'If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is'.
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:21am
That's the kind of thinking that will keep Michigan below the National average. Did you catch the part about Florida teachers earning 30% less than their Michigan counterparts?
Ron French
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 5:57pm
Hello Rick. Last week, Bridge was being accused of being too liberal for choosing to stop publishing guest columns written by the man who was the campaign manager of Devos' gubernatorial campaign. If we're fielding complaints from the right and left, I'm hoping that puts us in the center. Thanks for reading.
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:59pm
Well, I don't know what those Floridians are thinking, but I sure don't want any amendments mandating specific education programs or class sizes cluttering up the constitution!
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:18am
To poster 'Rick": I think if you spent some time and did some research, you could come up with some worthwhile criticisms of this article--or at least some questions. But to just write suspicious insinuations isn't helpful. I know it's embarrassing that our Michigan teachers make on average a third more than Florida's teachers, but let's try to learn from this and help our teachers help our kids. Also there is nothing wrong with "teaching to a test" if the test is composed of the content that we want kids to learn. I'll bet you're glad that your doctor had to take tests that he/she was 'taught" to take!
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:45am
Your problem is this: You presume to know what children should learn and insist on forcing children to buy your opinion without question. Our "content" is not theirs. Teach to the test to support "our" content kills the natural ability to learn turning great minds into mush!
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:55am
Look up the definition of "average" and how an "average" is calculated. Then consider the economic context of Florida (cheap, low income) to Michigan (expensive, higher income). Or consider Florida's historical low compensation for teachers, timeline of population growth, median income for the state . . . . Maybe Michigan's teacher compensation averages are made up of a lot of very senior, highly educated, highly paid individuals with a lot of entry level very low compensation teachers with the resulting "avarage" not being reflective of, say, a histogram of salaries and years of service to provide some context. An average does not a valid comparison make. And if you really want to know what a teacher makes listen to Taylor Mali's short poem at
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:41am
There is a fundamental problem with the conclusions drawn in this article, that student "growth" is greater in Florida than in Michigan and that the "reforms' actually worked. The premise of this piece is completely wrong. First, how do you know student learning is growing? On the basis of comparing two completely different systems with two completely different starting points with politicians and educational hierarchies at both manipiulating the numbers? Then label the same old exhortations tried in the past as "reforms". Higher standrads, more rigor, accountability, more testing, etc. The agenda of those promoting these types of reforms as success for student learning have a far different set of agenda's from simplistic view of how to manage a system to the private takeover of public funds for education. Here's a simple message for all of them: Shut up and begin to listen to the teachers and the students. Let them take the lead. This article simply perpetuates the myth of competence in educational circles, those that circle above the teachers and the students in classrooms like vultures waiting for their next meal! All the same crap the public has been handed for decades and nothing really changes.
Bob Thompson
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:20pm
As mentioned above, as much as I try to believe that The Bridge attempts to maintain a sense of balance in their approach to reporting, I think articles like this, (an article that clearly lacks some of the most basic principles of good scientific research and tends towards political hyperbole) is very disappointing. Most people don't know what good scientific research is. It would helpful if The Bridge would take at least some editorial responsibility and look into the claims of such an author(s). For example, there are no validity studies of any of these state tests. We don't even know what they are measuring. If they were validated using good science, they will most likely mirror all standardized testing and tell us nothing more than what we already know. The number one predictor of standardized tests like the ACT or SAT is socio-economic status - primarily the education and and income of the parents. There is no scientific research that supports the efficacy of charter schools. That is a fact based on science - not political jibber-jabber!
Ron French
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 5:47pm
Hi Bob, thanks for reading. State standardized tests do indeed vary a lot between states. But the NAEP is not a state test. It is a national test - students in Florida answer the same questions as students in Michigan. Whether that test reflects student learning - that's a fine discussion for education researchers. But the NAEP is considered the gold standard for cross-state comparisons, and is referenced and used for data purposes by many researchers, and i'm guessing they wouldn't do that if they felt the results were bogus. As far as this article not measuring up to the standards of scientific research - I'm sure you're correct. Bridge isn't a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. Bridge is a publication of in-depth news and analysis.
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 2:02pm
But not all students in each state take the NAEP so we can not compare the outcomes from this test because it wasn't a random sample it was just what ever schools take the test. Not all school in Michigan take the NEAP. So this does not show which state is better. Maybe the schools in FL that the NEAP data was taken from were a more affluent district than the data from Michigan? Comparing apples to oranges.
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 5:16pm
Michigan College Act Readiness 21%. Florida 18%. But they outpace us on their nonobjective self administered tests. They are doing just as well as the EAA on those self administered tests. Wow. Congrats.
Ron French
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 5:41pm
Hello Jon, thanks for reading. The NAEP is not a self-administered test any more than the ACT is self-administered. The NAEP is administered nationwide to randomly selected students in every state and is considered The Nation's Report Card. It's the only measure we have at the moment to compare student learning across states. Florida didn't design the NAEP test, and the test taken in Florida is the same test that is given to randomly selected students in Michigan, Tennessee, Alaska, etc. Comparing ACT scores is another way to compare cross-state, but comparisons are more problematic because the percentage of students taking the ACT vary wildly. Your numbers are a bit off, too. The link below takes you to the ACT website. Michigan's average composite score is 20.1 and Florida 19.6.
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 2:04pm
And in Michigan every 11th grader has to take the test. Seems like Michigan is doing much better than FL.
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/30/2014 - 11:22pm
I know what worked well in our household: Running like hell in the other direction whenever "key leaders" whose major talent was winning elections or sucking up to others who do, decided they knew better than thirty-year-professional educators what children ought to study in the classroom, and how much time they should spend doing it. Every time we follow the money trail of these ideas, it invariably leads to the friends and/or relatives of the "key leaders" collecting a boatload of cash for less-than-stellar results. If real achievement is what you want, don't depend on politicians to show the way. They're good at "how to get"; it's the "what to want" part where they are sorely deficient. If you want a good barometer of how devoted someone is to pulling the wool over your eyes, just count the number of times they refer to themselves or their administrators as "leaders."
Wed, 10/01/2014 - 6:25pm
I have to admit I am not so interested in the details of the 'numbers' as I am in the trends and different approaches. My experience with 'benchmarking', comparing practices with other peer organizations, was to identify different practices to see if you could learn from them, as a starting point to take a fresh look at your practices, as a means to get outside the accept past practices and look at things from a different perspective. Mr. French seems to have uncovered some practices that are different from the educational 'wisdom' in Michigan. That suggests to me that there should be some work doen to better understand the Florida practices, that there should be an open discussion about how those practices might be modified to benefit Michigan students, and a relook at our current practices to verify that they are as effective as they are expected to be addressing the issue Florida practices are focused on. The fact that Florida results appear better than MIchigan's should create sufficient impetus to start the discussions.
david zeman
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 3:07pm
Duane, Thank you so much for that email, you have it exactly right. What matters about Florida is that they are seeing tremendous growth, particularly among low-income students, while Michigan has basically been treading water for years. As we mentioned earlier in this series, we chose to visit the four states we visited for different reasons: We went to Florida and Tennessee because they were both low-achieving states that have made dramatic gains on the NAEP over the past decade or so. If they haven't passed Michigan in some categories, they've at least caught up while we've stood still. We visited Massachusetts and Minnesota because their students have produced excellent scores for years. It would be impossible and arrogant for Bridge writers or anyone else to declare with certainty that policies X, Y or Z in these states produced a precise result in NAEP scores. But it would be equally unwise to not explore a possible connection. The point of this exercise is to look at promising policies elsewhere (what each of these states began to do differently, or refused to change) for common themes, ideas or innovations, and consider whether they may make sense in Michigan. For some folks to simply put their heads in the sand and say, forget changes, let's just keep allowing our schools to do what they do best, ignores the fact that Michigan is now among the bottom tier of states nationally in student achievement. It ignores that our scores have barely risen over the past decade while other states have shot past us on the NAEP, which is the only legitimate test we have in common. It ignores that students of all incomes and colors in Michigan are falling further behind their demographic peers across the nation. The status quo is not working. Of course, there's no guarantee that what education leaders are doing in Florida will necessarily work here, but to not give these policies a look, whether it's in Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee or Massachusetts, states that differ in so many ways but are achieving in ways more promising than Michigan, seems crazy. That's why Bridge set off on this journey. David Zeman Bridge Editor
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 10:11pm
Dave, I have the impression that the status quo is working for many people both in and around Lansing, and in many of the communities around the state. It just isn't working for the students. It seems there is no document (well defined) purpose for our education system that can be a contributor to the confusion and conflict of what and how learning can be achieved. I say that because a few years ago the Superintendent of our K-12 said his purpose was teacher employment. When there isn’t that commonly understood and referenced purpose practices and programs can drift and be driven by short-term events or interests rather than the long-term purpose. It is also true that without a well-defined purpose people apply their definition/perception so when they are talking about programs, systems, education they are quite likely thinking of something different than who they are talking to. This is likely to be true of 'experts', educators, politicians, parents, the public. With that multiplicity of definitions there is no reason to believe that we can come together on anything about education and student learning. I appreciate Mr. French's research and reporting, however, if it doesn't lead to conversations and actions I am afraid it will have gone for naught. I would encourage Bridge to extend the impact of this article by have a reader conversation with an expectation of developing a description of purpose for our education system, one readers could use as a reference when reading or talking about schools and student learning.
Al Churchill
Tue, 10/07/2014 - 7:08pm
Mr.Zeman: You make the same mistake that your alma mater, Education Trust Midwest, made in Bridge a while ago. They compared Michigan raw test scores over time and concluded that Michigan was doing worse over time because the most recent scores were lower. That cannot be done because the demographics or socio-economic circumstances for the two groups are different. Basically, you are comparing apples to oranges. If you do not believe that it matters, please explain to me why, year after year, the wealthiest communities in Michigan do extremely well on Meap tests and the poorer communities do terrible. That fact is cast in concrete. Tell me the income status of a community ( a proxy of socio-economic status ) and I will tell you the position of that community on a listing of the raw scores on the Meap. I would point you to way your publication, Bridge, evaluates each school district in Michigan. Both Bridge and the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy integrate income and the amount of free lunches ( proxy for socio-economic status ) into their evaluations of schools. You get a completely different ranking of schools when you do that. Indeed some poorer districts do very well when income is integrated into their evaluations. Aside from that, why do you limit your examination to education and reform in America. Why not look at countries that do well on PISA. What are they doing that we aren't? They do nada that reformers in this country want done. Finland does a standardized test once in students entire school experience and they are a top performing country on PISA. So much for testing kids every two weeks.
Tue, 10/07/2014 - 11:10pm
Al, Looking at your classes, is each student different, aren't their kids from the same socio-economic situations that succeed and that fail? What is the difference, why do they learn differently? Why is it a kid from a single illerate mother in the Detroit public schools able to rise to global prominence while the kid setting next to him fails? Socio-economic situations can create barriers, wealth can create barriers, to learning. Doesn't the student have choice? Could their attitude toward learning determine their level of success? We need to look at see from the students' perspectives and identify specific barriers to learning they face to understand how learning happens and to understand how they overcome those barirers and succeed.
Al Churchill
Wed, 10/08/2014 - 4:21pm
Duane In a sense, you are right about individual students being able to rise from the depths of poverty. There are concrete examples all around. But those are very specific and limited. Most of the data you see about education involves generalizations rather than specific examples. As generalizations, they are valid. Aside from that, the term 'socio-economic status" is very broad in scope. It involves not only income, but family stability health, family educational level and other factors. The Michigan Department of Education posits that the degree that parents involve themselves in the childs education is the most reliable predictor of student success in school. Other educators think that a mothers educational level is the primary ingredient in achieving success in school. Both factors are included in a broad understanding of socio-economic status. That being said, you make a good point
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 6:03pm
Al, " ...individual students being able to rise from the depths of poverty. There are concrete examples all around. But those are very specific and limited. Most of the data you see about education involves generalizations " Why? Do you believe learning is an individual thing and each student learns differently or is learning homogenous and all we need to figure out is the proper format for teaching? Why don't we try to understand how the individual learns, what the barriers are, why and how those those barriers are effectively addressed by kids? Dr. Ben Carson and his brother are successes and yet they were in the socio-economic situation you seem to feel prevents success (single, illiterate mother struggling financially, in Detroit). Why shouldn't we try to learn how he succeeded and offer that to those in what was his situation as part of a set of tools they can use and modify? Should we use the predictors as a reason not to investigate why kids setting side by side in the same classroom for many years have different learning experiences and successes? I am skeptical of predictors when there are so many obvious exceptions andwhen those predictors have become the foundation of controlling 'wisdom'. These predictors seem to fail at accounting for the successes in the lower socio-economic situation and I suspect they fail to predicted the failures in the upper socio-economic situations. If learning is by individual choice then why should we drive our educational system with predictors that ignore the individual and force reliance on general or broad view approaches? Could the reliance on the generality driven predictors be creating barriers to individual successes?
Ron French
Wed, 10/08/2014 - 11:31am
Mr. Churchill, You raise a valid question - can you compare overall scores of one state to another state, if the socioeconomic makeup of those states are different. That's why the article, and the searchable charts embedded in the article, reference how Florida's poor students perform compared to Michigan's poor students. "Poor" is defined the same way in both states - children eligible for free and reduced lunch. In every category, Florida's low-income students are scoring higher than Michigan's low-income students. As far as why Bridge limited its comparisons to other states as opposed to other nations - we'd love to do that. But it's been done in this book If you have trouble working our searchable charts to look for yourself how Florida kids compare to Michigan kids, please let me know and I'll be happy to walk you through it.
Al Churchill
Wed, 10/08/2014 - 5:37pm
Mr. French; The fact that there is a book that explains what other countries are doing educationally does your readers no good. You may want to discuss what others are doing and getting good results because they are doing nada of what we are doing. They have no charters, Opportunity Scholarships that used to be called vouchers, or very, very expensive and time consuming tests that take time away from actual teaching. Let me digress for a moment. At some point you or I might want to write a column about the usefulness of testing. There is a national blowback going on concerning Common Core and excessive testing. Both the NEA and AFT are on board. Rightly so. I have recently read a study done collectively by MIT, Harvard and Brown Universities. They conclude that standardized tests do not measure critical thinking, perhaps the most important part of the curriculum. In a call to the Assessments and Accountability Dept. of the Michigan Dept. of Education, I was told that the MEAP measured curriculum content. I took that to mean no critical thinking evaluation. If that is so, MEAP and other standardized tests are incomplete and therefore useless. Critical thinking, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, along with creativity, higher level thinking skills generally, clearly need to be at the top of any educational goals. Perhaps I need to do more column writing myself. I am going to be 79 in January and my energy level picks the spots that I can. Following the excellent job that the Free Press did relative to charters, Phil Power, in one of his articles, questioned the wisdom of publically financing them. Me too. If you haven't already, please read an article I wrote in Bridge that defended public education. Simply because not many people do, it may be worth looking at. The fact that there were 36 responses also gives it some value. Keep up the good work. What people get from the Center cannot be had anywhere else in the state.
Wed, 10/01/2014 - 6:31pm
Did anyone notice student-teacher ratios in FL??? No where near that in my MI school district!!!! Would be easier to focus on 15 rather than 30...
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 10:42pm
Vicki, I am no as confident as you are in those class sizes having an impact in the way you sugggest. I would encourage you to read David and Golaith by Malcom Gladwell, pages 39-44, 55-62. It includes research reviews and pratical situations that address the issues of class size and relative student performance. In talks about how too small (30) can affect performance. How too small and too big can affect the students and their participation, how it can affect the teachers. It is not a research paper it is about key points that we found in the research and real-time experiences. The message from this book is that conventional wisdom has many risks in it, one of which is discouraging consideration of results.
Thu, 10/02/2014 - 10:38am
My understanding is that Michigan tested 100% of their students while Florida tested just 81 %. That 19% would surely effect the total score depending on who the 19% were.
Fri, 10/03/2014 - 11:30am
So what is our goal? To provide instruction for Michigan Standards, Common Core or the NAEP? There is no guarantee that these three are even close to the same standards and so the testing is not close to testing the same type of materials. That's our problem. What are that standards that we are trying to get our children to meet? Right now it would be like playing darts but having three different dart boards to throw at on the wall.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Fri, 10/03/2014 - 2:01pm
Doug, October 3, 2014 at 11:30 am I think you raise a most important issue! I do not think Michigan has a common goal for educating the 1.7 million or so, students in its schools. I don't even think Michigan has a common definition for what a Goal is. [I think such a definition, if it proves workable, should be preserved as a Standard.] [I would use: 'A Goal is a long range objective one intends to achieve.'] [For purpose, I would use, 'A Purpose is short range objective one intends to achieve.'] I think it may be true that people have ignored, or avoided, and sometimes even nullified, the obvious for so long that any number of less valuable 'goals' have been substituted and then pushed by certain groups, each intending to exclude all others. We need to get behind our students in what they basically want to do and what they basically intend to achieve. Now a lot could be said about that, and lot could be clarified. I have written several articles for Bridge that remain unpublished. I call them 'Why Johnny Can't Work.' They describe why a student could become unwilling to work and how a student could become willing to work. As far as our Society, or the Michigan Economy, this may be the most important question for us to first understand then answer as a group.
Connie Glave
Sun, 10/05/2014 - 12:32pm
Long term studies have shown that early childhood education has a dramatic influence in learning especially among low income children. Teacher training in other countries result in more effective and respected teachers. I would like to see those two implemented without any change in testing. But no one profits from those changes. It would be interesting to see how much is due to increased testing and how much is from early childhood education, teacher training and targeted testing looking for areas where each student is missing a concept.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 10/05/2014 - 1:06pm
Too many variables. Too many moving targets. Too many people looking to make money on education. Too many experts.
Mon, 10/06/2014 - 2:40pm
I'm a teacher and a left-winger. DeVos and Snyder make me squirm. Standardized testing promotes nearly as strong a reaction. That said, I'd never accuse the Bridge of being their tools. Or those of my side. Consistently, they do the best, least-biased, most nuanced reporting on public policy issues of any source I read--and I read most of them. Sometimes my biases are challenged and sometimes I am forced to rethink my stance. I think that's what good journalism is supposed to do. If The Bridge has any bias, it's toward results and things that will move Michigan forward.