On June 21, 1999, Governor Jeb Bush signed Florida’s A+ Plan for Education into law, beginning a systemic transformation that serves as a national model for raising student achievement. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this comprehensive strategy to improve public education, the Foundation for Florida’s Future is publishing a blog series featuring perspectives from the people that made it happen.
By: John Winn, former Florida Commissioner of Education and member of the Foundation for Florida’s Future Board of Trustees
To fully understand and appreciate the significance of the A+ Plan for Education reforms under Governor Jeb Bush, one must have some idea of the lessons learned over the decades preceding them. Many steps had been taken to improve schools, but none succeeded in significantly improving student learning or righting the many inequities that plagued our schools.
Before Governor Bush, there was never a champion with a vision and laser focus on children who could put together a systemic reform for all schools and students.
Unfortunately, I saw little systemic change in the 25 years following my first year of teaching in 1970. There were isolated efforts to improve schools serving high poverty and minority students. Far from being systemic they were composed of special projects with limited impact. Year after year these schools scored lowest on student achievement. Many students’ low education achievement seemed to be expected and accepted. Education leaders may have meant well but student success was trumped by their own biases, lack of real knowledge about instruction and reluctance to ruffle feathers of the adults in and outside the school system.
Lackluster achievement was not limited to schools serving underprivileged students. Student learning suffered in vast numbers of schools across the state. Indeed, poor education services became a national crisis with the publication of “A Nation At Risk” in 1983.
Florida tried to respond by taking control over course curricula for every school and district but produced no improvement in student learning.
In the early nineties, the state began requiring schools to set education goals and develop plans to improve student outcomes. Established goals were so minimal that virtually every school met them. Despite large scale initiatives to provide guidance to schools and school districts, little change was seen, especially among minority and underprivileged students. Education interest groups continued to stifle and evade efforts to improve schools. Something more powerful was needed.
Commissioner of Education Frank Brogan took the battle for school improvement to the next level. The state board of education approved state standards and Florida assessments to measure improvement in reading and mathematics. The lowest performing schools were identified by name. Reaction among educators was fierce, claiming that the state was shaming students. Just the opposite was true. Failing schools were called out to show where the most improvement was needed. The state began directing more funding and assistance to these schools.
The next step was to begin rating all schools based on their student achievement. Schools were given a rating of level one through four. Student achievement began to rise. The legislature approved potential accountability measures that focused on the core mission of education, student learning. The rating system was a huge step toward accountability, but not easily understood by parents and the public. Still something was missing.
When Jeb Bush was elected governor, he made student learning improvement his top priority. He knew that true education improvement was about people, not just curriculum. People need high expectations, incentives, support, clear goals and real accountability if they are to improve performance. People make schools what they are and can make phenomenal strides under the right circumstances.
He proposed and the legislature enacted laws that required all schools to be graded on an A to F scale. Interventions were required for continued underperformance. The public understood grades which heretofore were reserved for students. No longer could district and school leaders claim that all schools were fine. New and innovative steps focused on student success had to be taken.
The governor and legislature backed up the new accountability system with significant financial and human resources. They provided incentives for schools that improved a letter grade or earned an A grade. They established a statewide reading program, trained outstanding teachers as reading coaches imbedded in schools to mentor teachers daily. Mathematics coaches followed.
Parents who could not afford to transfer their children out of failing schools to private schools or buy houses in the ‘best’ school zones had always been relegated to substandard schools. Many included students with special needs that were not being met in traditional schools. These parents were finally given a fair chance at high quality education for their children through public school choice, public charter schools and scholarships to private schools.
Far from ‘destroying public education’ as many critics still suggest, these reforms made public schools stronger. They gave opportunities to parents that they had never experienced before. It became a moral imperative to give parents the freedom to send their children to schools that could better serve their needs.
These reforms were systemic and squarely focused on improving student learning and opportunities for better education services. Competition has forced traditional schools to improve learning and expand education opportunities for all students. Outstanding school leaders and teachers have produced tremendous results. Florida is now widely viewed as a model for education quality and student improvement.
Upon recently visiting schools around the state, I found a great deal of innovation with teachers working together to solve problems and help students. Technology is opening new ways of teaching and learning, and students are being given opportunities from early college courses to gaining industry certification leading to high paying jobs. The work of education improvement is never done, but with student-centered policies and talented educators, Florida has a bright future.