Another Order of Florida Reforms, Please

July 3, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In 2007, a family of four needed to earn less than $20,650 to qualify for a free lunch. In Arizona, the median family income for a family of four is over $65,000.

Here’s the surprising news: Low-income students in Florida—namely, those who qualify for free lunches—outperform all students in Arizona. That’s the insight to be gleaned by sifting through the treasure trove of data generated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Figure 1 shows fourth grade reading scores for Florida students whose family income qualifies them for free lunch compared to all students in Arizona.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of Florida’s low-income children scoring basic or above on fourth grade reading and all Arizona students scoring at the same level.

You don’t need to take my word on these scores. You can go to the National Center for Education Statistics website and see them for yourself.

The point here is not to bash the underperformance of Arizona schools. Sadly, they have plenty of company. Rather, these data point to the enormity of the opportunity for improvement which we can and must achieve. Florida has found a way to significantly boost the performance of low-income students. Others should examine how and borrow everything we can.

What’s the Matter with Oregon?

May 28, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)



So, true story, last year I turned 40 near the end of a Phoenix summer. My fantastic wife, who I don’t deserve, told me that she had bought me a mystery trip for my birthday. “You’re leaving Thursday, I’m not telling you where you are going, but the high temperature there is around 78 degrees. You will be staying in a nice hotel and meeting an old buddy. Your pal has all sorts of fun things on the agenda.”



I said, “You had me at 78 degrees!”



So that Thursday I got on a plane for Oregon. I met my old pal Kevin, my partner in crime from my hipster-doofus days in Austin. We hit the Northwest Music Fest and sampled the local cuisine. We rented a car in downtown, and the kid behind the desk informed us that they only had a Jaguar.



Kevin and I looked at each other, and said “Usually we hate Jaguars, but if it the only one you’ve got…”


Twenty minutes later we were going 100 miles per hour headed out of Portland to see the wine country. I told Kevin “You can hit on the Asian women, I’ll be neurotic about merlots…”



Anyway- I noticed two things about Oregon while I was out there. First- the kids all have tattoos. Second, the place is very Anglo.



All of this is a prologue to wondering: why is a place as well to do as Oregon score so poorly on the NAEP?

Florida’s K-12 population is majority minority (50.4%) while Oregon is not (26.4%). According to the Census Bureau, they spend about the same amount per pupil.

One of these states is making substantial progress, and one of them is not. So, what’s going on Oregon? Where is the progress part of being progressive?

I’ll Have What Florida is Having

May 18, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In a recent article for the Goldwater Institute, I found that Florida’s Hispanic students outscore Arizona’s statewide average on fourth grade reading exams. Some readers emailed and wanted to know if this could be attributed to the fact that Florida’s Hispanic population is predominantly Cuban. The short answer is no, because the Hispanic population was also predominantly Cuban in the 1990s when scores were much, much lower.

Other inquiries involved questions about student poverty. Statewide averages for low-income students for Arizona and Florida are broadly similar, but I decided to investigate using the NAEP data. What I found was extraordinary.

Using the data analysis features on the NAEP website, you can get fourth grade reading scores broken down by both race and income. It is not only the case that Florida’s Hispanic students outscore the statewide average in Arizona, Florida’s low-income Hispanic students outscore the average Arizona student.

Arizona is not alone in this. Florida’s Free and Reduced lunch Hispanics also outscored the statewide average for all students on 4th grade reading of California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico. They tied the statewide average for Alaska and South Carolina, and fell one scale point below Oregon and West Virginia.

In 2007, a family of four needed to earn $20,650 to qualify for a free lunch, $38,203 for a reduced price lunch. Nationwide, approximately 80 percent of free or reduced lunch children qualify for a free lunch.

Median family income in California, by comparison, is $64,563.

I appeared on a conference panel recently, and a fellow panelist noted the difference between a problem and a condition. A problem, she said, was something you tried to fix. A condition was something you had given up on and just grown to accept.

Low academic achievement for low-income and minority children is a problem not a condition. Florida under Jeb Bush put in testing and accountability with real consequences, implemented parental choice, reformed reading instruction, curtailed social promotion, liberalized teacher certification, and put in merit pay.

The results speak for themselves. To paraphrase that famous line from When Harry Met Sally: I’ll have what Florida is having.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal weighs in on the historic vote by Florida Democrats to expand the Step Up for Students tax-credit program.

Florida’s NAEP Scores

April 21, 2008

(Guest post by Matthew Ladner)

Like Greg, I have also been looking at Florida lately. My interest was prompted by Sol Stern’s notion that we ought to give up on school choice and focus on instructional reforms. In City Journal’s debate on Sol’s article, I and others essentially argued that we could walk and chew gum at the same time, pushing both incentive and instruction based reforms. Florida under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist in fact did this, and the results are breathtaking.

In 1998, the year Bush won election, a stunning 47 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored “below basic” on the NAEP reading test, meaning they couldn’t read at grade level. By 2007, 70 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored basic or above — a remarkable improvement in less than 10 years.

Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African-American students helped to drive the overall results. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second-highest reading scores in the nation; and African-Americans score fourth-highest when compared to their peers. Both groups have a great deal of momentum on their side.

The average Florida Hispanic student score on NAEP 4th grade reading tests (conducted in English mind you) is now higher than the overall average scores of all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Florida’s African Americans outscore the statewide average for Louisiana and Mississippi, and are within striking distance of several of these others.

Free and Reduced lunch eligible Hispanics in fact outscore the average for all students among some of these states, including California.

I can’t tell you precisely how much of these gains can be attributed to testing and other such reforms, and how much to choice and other incentive based reforms. What is very obvious is that some of these gains are the result of choice- that much is clear from Jay’s study, Greg’s new study, and from the Urban Institute study. There are also a number of states that have instituted testing and have flat NAEP scores.

The lesson of this is clear- far from being in competition with each other, tough minded testing and choice reforms are quite complimentary to each other.


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