There is a big hole in the story Jeb Bush tells when he talks about school reforms he implemented in Florida during the eight years he was governor.
It matters because, as my colleague Nick Anderson wrote in this Post story, Bush has become something of a guru to a number of governors across the country who see his program as a model for reforming their own state’s education system.
Under Bush, who took office in 1999, Florida saw gains in standardized test scores and in closing the achievement gap. His influence did not wane in the state when he stepped down in 2007 but rather extended beyond its borders through two foundations that he founded and uses to push policy initiatives.
Bush, the brother of former president George W. Bush and the son of former president George W.H. Bush, travels the country talking up what he calls his “comprehensive” package of accountability and school choice reforms in Florida, but always emphasizes the institution of a test-based system to grade schools on an A through F scale.
That’s what he just did on a trip to Oklahoma this week, where he said that the grading system provided “immediate improvement,” according to The Oklahoman newspaper.
But is that really what happened in Florida?
Sherman Dorn, a professor at the University of South Florida, says the truth is more complicated.
Dorn, who has spent years researching and writing about public education in the Sunshine State on his blog, www.shermandorn.com, and elsewhere, argues that Bush likes to now ignore two important things that happened in Florida that probably had an important impact on test score improvement.
The first is Bush’s own creation of the Florida Reading Research Center, a state technical assistance agency solely focused on providing reading assistance -- complete with reading coaches -- in elementary schools so that kids could read by the time they graduate third grade.
It would be hard to argue that this wasn’t a big reason for the rise in Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the grade and area where the state saw the highest gains under Bush.
The former governor also never mentions any possible effects from a class-size reduction referendum in the state which he opposed but was approved anyway by voters early in his tenure.
Dorn, in a Q & A I did with him late last year, also noted that Bush was governor during a real-estate boom that allowed per-pupil expenditures in Florida to rise 19 percent. That allowed schools to hire hundreds of reading coaches. But, said Dorn: “That kind of money is not available in any state right now, and I suspect a number of states will be in for a rude shock when they try the symbolic step of assigning letter grades to schools without supporting instruction.”
Not only is it likely that states won’t see the test score success Bush saw as a result of his school grading system, but such schemes seem certain to make things a lot worse, which, at the moment, is beyond frightening.
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