From Florida, school reform that works

Here's a template that a struggling Minnesota should follow.

Katherine Kersten

Katherine Kersten

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We can expect lots of political wrangling at the Capitol in the next few months.

But nearly every legislator, DFL or Republican, can agree on one thing: Narrowing our state's yawning racial and ethnic achievement gap must be a top priority.

We Minnesotans have always taken pride in our state's schools. But the truth is our white and middle-class kids aren't doing as well as they should be.

And our black and Hispanic kids -- and poor kids generally -- are performing abominably. Learning gaps here are often cited as among the country's worst.

This woeful performance is doubly frustrating because we've spent vast sums striving to improve it.

Since 2000, we've doled out about $4 billion in compensatory aid for low-income students and for "integration" revenue. We've got next to nothing in the way of academic improvement to show for it.

It doesn't have to be this way. As we grapple with our challenges, we can find a model in Florida, which made remarkable educational gains in the last 10 years under the leadership of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Starting in 1999, Florida adopted far-reaching K-12 education reforms with the goal of improving academic performance for all kids. It focused like a laser on elementary school literacy -- the gateway to all future learning.

Research demonstrates that kids who can't read by fourth grade have little chance of ever catching up.

In 1998, almost half of all Florida fourth- graders were functionally illiterate. Today, 72 percent can read.

Florida is also substantially narrowing its racial and ethnic achievement gap. In reading, the Sunshine State's Hispanic fourth-graders, on average, are now about three years ahead of their Hispanic peers in Minnesota. (Yes, you read that right.)

Florida's black fourth-graders are a year and a half ahead of their black peers here.

In fact, Florida's Hispanic fourth-graders now outperform or are tied with the statewide average for all students in 31 states, including Minnesota (whose average includes the scores of kids in Edina and Wayzata).

Florida's black fourth-graders now outscore or tie the statewide reading average for all students in eight states, including California.

If Florida can make strides like this, Minnesota can, too. In fact, Florida's challenges dwarf ours. There, minority students are a majority -- in Minnesota, they're only 25 percent. Half of Florida's kids are low-income, vs. 35 percent of students here.

How did Florida achieve its success? Through bold reforms like the following:

Grading schools: Each one is rated between A and F, based on student achievement scores and learning gains. At first, many educators called this unfair. But the grading process has incentivized schools to improve in myriad ways. In 1999, Florida had more D and F schools than A or B schools. Today, it has 10 times more A and B schools than D and F schools.

Ending social promotion: In 2003, Florida stopped automatically promoting third-graders who couldn't read. That year, 25 percent of third-graders were retained, sparking an outcry. But each retained child gets a new teacher and an individually tailored instructional strategy. As a result, in 2009, only 16 percent of third-graders scored low enough to be retained. Some claim it's heartless to hold illiterate kids back, but the real cruelty is to let them continue to flounder. Research shows that retained kids tend to "catch up" in literacy skills, while their socially promoted peers do not.

Incentives for success: In Minnesota, schools get the same funding whether or not their students learn. But Florida schools get up to $100 per pupil when their kids make gains, and most schools use the money for teacher bonuses. Teachers get $50 for each student who passes an Advanced Placement exam (capped at $2,000), with special incentives for low-performing schools. Since 2000, black and Hispanic students' AP pass rates have soared 361 percent and 365 percent, respectively.

Choice: In Florida, this undergirds all other reforms. Families can opt for public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, and vouchers for students with disabilities to attend private schools. Florida also has the nation's largest virtual school.

Alternative teacher certification: Today, half of all Florida teachers enter the profession through such routes. Fast-track programs for midcareer professionals minimize the time and financial burdens that can keep well-qualified people -- for example, NASA scientists who want to teach math -- out of the classroom.

The benefits of Florida's sweeping reforms become more evident every year. Not surprisingly, other states -- including Arizona, Indiana and Louisiana -- are moving to replicate its success.

Here in Minnesota, the time for education reform is ripe. All we need now is the political will.

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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Katherine Kersten