School Reform That Works

One-third of American fourth-graders are functionally illiterate.

Read that again. That’s 33%!

schoolbooks with an appleThese are the findings of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Not surprisingly, other studies have shown that students who cannot read but are still promoted to the next grade — something that happens all too often — will continue to fall more behind each year. After all, that is when kids go from learning to read to reading to learn. The schools may feel they are doing the kids a favor — keeping them with their peers, preserving their self-esteem, etc. — but the result is just the opposite.

And the problems of illiteracy and other educational shortcomings have far-ranging effects, threatening American exceptionalism and even the sustainability of our nation. As Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, exhorts in his recent Wall Street Journal piece:

“Providing a quality education to every student will strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the world economy. The export of knowledge-driven industry is a far greater threat to our prosperity than is illegal immigration….”

But, what can be done? How can we make sure our children are not just literate but well-prepared for success? How do we stop losing competitive ground to other nations in the global economy? We have to start with reforming the school system, and Bush recommends using Florida as a case study.

In 1998, almost half of Florida’s fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. Then, Florida instituted a new policy that graded public schools themselves on a scale of ‘A’ to ‘F’, based solely on standardized test scores. Highly-rated schools got more money for programs; poorly-rated schools got less, even had some funding taken away. Parents and communities in general didn’t like it when they realized their kids were getting sub-par educations. They got fired up and demanded change. Now, the school system — administrators and teachers — had their collective feet to the fire. They were being held accountable for their performance.

A decade later, Florida’s functional illiteracy rate for fourth-graders is down to 28%. Those of Hispanic background can go toe-to-toe (in reading) with the average student in 31 other states and D.C. Florida’s African-American students now tie or outscore the average student in eight states. Contrary to what some might think, Florida didn’t throw scads of money at the problem, either. Florida did increase per-pupil spending by $1298 from 1997/98 to 2006/07, but the nationwide average was $1983. Florida ranks sixth in the nation on the crucial fourth-grade NAEP reading exam, even though 35 states spend more.

What did they do? Well, it was a multi-pronged approach. In addition to the A-to-F grading of schools and associated strengthening of school curriculum and assessments, Florida also:

*  got over 80,000 students into an online, virtual-school program (the nation’s largest)

*  expanded charter schools to over 350, serving 100,000+ students

*  created a corporate-tuition scholarship program that gives parents of 23,000+ low-income students more choice of schools

*  operated the McKay Scholarship program, which sends 20,000+ special-needs kids to the public or private school of (their parents’) choice

*  banned the automatic “social” promotion of functionally illiterate third-graders

*  developed a teacher-recruitment program that allows adult professionals who desire to teach to become state-certified.

Still a lot of room for improvement, but quite a bit of progress, too.

The key? It began with accountability and the “responsibilities of educators [being] clearly defined, easily understood and uniformly enforced.”

school choice demonstrationOf course, you will notice above that another big part of the reforms was increasing parental choice of schools where they could send their kids, thereby continuing with the idea of competition among schools. But the teachers unions — which are more concerned with things like tenure and pensions and building a financial war-chest for political activism than with students — fight tooth-n-nail against any legislation that might empower parents with choices, because it threatens the unions’ monopoly and they know they can’t compete in a fair system.

Makes sense to me. If more school systems follow Florida’s example, maybe we’ll start seeing a real upswing in student performance across the nation. Maybe we can halt the loss of competitive edge that we are already seeing in our economy. It’s just one area that’s ripe for reform, but it’s a start.

As it happens, this week (Jan. 23-29) is National School Choice Week. Go here to find out more!

Also, go here for a livestream webcast with Michelle Malkin, tonight (1/25) at 6:30pm MST.

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