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Florida offers a blueprint for real education change
Jones on Georgia

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 has 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 advanced only nine. Low-income students 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 noneducation majors as teachers.

Republicans gained dominance in Florida before they did in Georgia, giving them an 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 the part of 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 extend the voucher program to all children, or at least 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 grades provide 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.

Gov. Nathan Deal announced during his campaign last year that he favors ending social promotion, and he's likely to sponsor legislation in January to do that.

One of the most significant pieces of education legislation on the horizon, updating the funding formula, isn't expected for another year when a 20-member commission makes its recommendations.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter@MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, November 10, 2011

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