New PIRLS (reading) and TIMSS (math and science) international test score data out. Florida’s performance on PIRLS is getting a lot of attention – the state participated as if it were a country and scored basically at the top and performed well across multiple dimensions. It’s an interesting outcome given that Florida has done many of the things you’re “not” (in the educationally politically correct sense) supposed to do – labeling low-performing schools, tough accountability, expanding choice, and so forth. Other states popped up as well.
I recently interviewed former two-term Florida governor Jeb Bush about education (you can read much of the interview via TIME here) and asked him about Florida specifically and here’s what he said:
Federal data and independent analyses credit your Florida reforms with improvements, what worked? Why?
There was no single magic bullet. Robust accountability, higher standards, tying financial consequences and benefits, carrots and sticks, around accountability so there was a consequence between failure, mediocrity, improvement and excellence. Elimination of social promotion and strategies to deal with the crisis that could have existed if we’d done nothing [else]. Ambitious school choice, not just public but including private school choice. Expanding higher quality coursework to larger numbers of kids. So it wasn’t just accountability it was a lot of other things including a partnership with the College Board where we had stratospheric increases in the number of kids who took AP courses and passed them. And the early learning component of what we did will prove to be pretty effective. You put these hard-edged measures, we tried to make them really tough, but we didn’t stop there.
If you go back to the affirmative action debate, we eliminated affirmative action when I was governor, and we have more African-Americans attending college today, why would that be? What’s the difference between Florida and California? The difference is that a hard-edged policy may be a correct one morally in California but it’s the only thing they did. They just eliminated affirmative action. OK, great. Then you had this massive drop-off in access to higher education by Hispanics and African-Americans. We created a strategy that said affirmative action defined as lowering standards for one group at the expense of the other is wrong. But we also said that you need to be race conscious so we created a “talented 20 percent,” we created the very ambitious AP program in the urban core high schools that never had AP. We made practice SAT [available] for 10th graders – we funded it. Before that no one ever cared or even noticed 15 percent D and F schools had practice SAT for 10th graders and 85 percent of A and B schools [did]. That’s what you call the soft bigotry of low-expectations. So we funded all of them.
My point is that all of this hard-edged accountability forced strong policies to rectify the consequences and the system responded, and it responded pretty significantly. So you eliminate social promotion we probably would have had a third of our kids stay back had we done nothing. But we required a different approach. We put reading coaches in every school to teach teachers how to teach reading because our schools of education don’t do that. We launched the universal pre-K efforts. We changed how schools operated and they were compelled to do it.