Florida’s Public Education Programs Continue to Show Real Benefits Through Legitimate Reform

By Christian D’ Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Florida has long been held as the prime example of how widespread and innovative reform can transform a state’s educational system. Over the past 20 years, only Maryland has produced stronger educational gains than the Sunshine State. While some pundits have refuted that these results are actually helping students, a new study published in EducationNext shows that the benefits are very real.

Dr. Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, conducted a review of Florida’s educational outcomes in response to criticism that the state’s educational programs were merely gaming the U.S. Department of Education’s metrics without providing any real change for students. That criticism suggested that the state’s policy to end social promotion for underachieving students in 3rd grade – effectively holding back students that couldn’t read well – created an artificial bump in student grades. Students that went through the same grade twice, critics reasoned, would have greater knowledge than their peers and perform better on tests thanks to that experience.

However, Winters’s research suggests that this theory’s impact has been greatly overstated. While students that are retained do have a greater range of improvement than their regular classmates, the improvements for both groups of students is both substantial and significant. These benefits aren’t just endemic to third grade, but carried on as students matriculated through elementary and secondary school.

Third graders – the students subject to the highest rate of detained students – do see the greatest benefit from Florida’s reforms in math and reading skills. The largest improvements come in math studies. Between 1998 and 2009, these students gained roughly a full year of academic progress when compared to the average student.

But that isn’t the only benefit; fourth graders also see significant increases when it comes to their achievement scores. From 1998 to 2005, these fourth graders made significant progress on Department of Education metrics like NAEP testing. In 1998, students at this grade in Florida tested at one grade level below the national average. In 2005, these same students exceeded the U.S. standard. While retention may have had a strong effect on the students in the grade that they are repeating, data shows that this effect also carries on into future grades.

In short, the benefit doesn’t end for the sole year that a student is repeating. In Florida, students are improving at a significant rate, and it can’t just be tied to the idea that repetition is the root cause.

Pinpointing the exact source of this renaissance is more difficult. Florida swung for the fences over a decade ago, enacting a shotgun blast of reforms to overhaul the way that public schools were run in the Sunshine State. Special needs scholarships, comprehensive school grading programs, enhanced reading programs in early education, and modest merit pay systems all played a role in one of the country’s biggest turnarounds when it comes to state education.

Florida swung for the fences over a decade ago, and educators there are still reaping the benefits of the programs that it enacted. This reform has stood as an example for other states that have fallen in danger of losing touch with a dynamic group of students and families that need greater flexibility and accountability than traditional programs had been providing. Wisconsin has even borrowed heavily from this model with their Read to Lead and school accountability reforms.

The Badger State will look to follow Florida’s lead in order to become a national leader in K-12 education once more. However, Wisconsin’s reforms fall far short of what Florida undertook years ago. Will the steps that the state has taken in recent years be enough to create a turnaround model for the Wisconsin’s lowest performing students? Though only time will be the judge of that, there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to creating meaningful change in a state where educational growth has stagnated.