Florida may have answers for failing Georgia schools

ATLANTA -- When it comes to schools, the Georgia Family Council says the state should look down.


Down to Florida, that is, because the Sunshine State has notched 10 years of improving scores for reading among fourth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test administered across the country. The state’s fourth-grade reading scores had foundered near the bottom of national rankings, well below Georgia, until it administered a series of reforms.

The Council’s Center for an Educated Georgia credits those policy changes with the steady rise in scores and standings Florida experienced for a decade.

The foundation issued a report Oct. 26 based on Florida’s 1998-2009 performance. In that period, Florida’s scores rose 20 points while Georgia’s only advanced nine. Low-income students there showed the most dramatic climb, vaulting ahead two grade levels and essentially matching Georgia’s average for all children.

However, last week, the NAEP released the 2011 scores, and Florida’s progress had stalled two years running.

Jerri Nims Rooker, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, is undeterred by the halted trajectory.

“It prompted a few questions,” she said. “Overall, it doesn’t change our perspective that Florida had great improvement since 1998.”

So, what did Florida do that the foundation says Georgia should copy?

It points to four gems in the crown of conservative ideology: school choice, accountability, elimination of social promotion and hiring non-education majors as teachers.

Republicans gained dominance in Florida long before they did in Georgia, giving them an earlier opportunity to install these prescriptions in the place of the traditional Democratic orthodoxy that always calls for smaller classrooms, teacher pay raises and fewer tests.

When it comes to school choice, Georgia has been a leader in the charter-school movement, but a May ruling by the state Supreme Court set it back by outlawing the mechanisms that authorized and funded schools started up by parents over the objections of local administrators. The Family Council opposes the court decision.

Florida, though, was ahead of Georgia in another school-choice avenue, vouchers. As Republicans gained control of Georgia’s General Assembly, they copied Florida’s voucher program that funds part of the private-school tuition to handicapped students whose parents are dissatisfied with public school. The foundation wants the Peach State to go further by extending the voucher program to all children, or at least Florida’s program for low-income children.

On the accountability front, Florida gives each school a letter grade, boiling down the many measures showing up in Georgia’s annual report card. Such stark grades provide real incentive for change, so the thinking goes.

Both states provide alternative paths for aspiring teachers besides the traditional education major. Although the education majors who make up the majority of administrators and teacher organizations say converting an accountant or engineer to a math or science teacher is rarely effective, the foundation believes practical experience and subject-matter expertise trumps the classroom theory that education majors focus on in college. Half of Florida’s new teachers come from the alternative route, according to the foundation’s report.

Perhaps the most surprising recommendation is the ending of social promotion as Florida has. Third graders who can’t read are held back.

Critics say that step alone boosts the fourth-graders’ NAEP scores by thinning the ranks of weak students. They also say the benefits of repeating a grade fade in a few years, which may explain why Florida’s eighth-grade reading scores don’t mirror the dramatic increases of the fourth graders.

Rooker can’t explain why that state’s middle-school scores are lackluster, although she says Florida doesn’t flunk deficient seventh graders as regularly as it does third graders. What she is certain of is that Georgia makes social promotion too easy, such as when a parent requests it.

For a conservative organization to recommend disregarding a parent’s wishes may seem contrary to a basic value. After all, “family” is its middle name, and the logic behind vouchers is to give parents the ultimate say in their children’s education.

Rooker said, “At the end of the day, it is the role of our government to make sure our children know how to read and know how to do math.”

Gov. Nathan Deal announced during his campaign last year that he favors ending social promotion. The son and spouse of educators, Deal says hold third graders back until they can read, and promote them when they can, even mid year.

He’s likely to sponsor legislation in January to do that, although Rooker said her organization isn’t backing any particular bill. Bills addressing the charter-school decision are also likely.

Of course, one of the most significant piece of education legislation on the horizon, updating the funding formula, isn’t expected for another year when a 20-member commission makes its recommendations.

In the mean time, the foundation hopes its report convinces lawmakers to look down when they’re casting about for school-reform ideas.



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