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.
Florida’s Educational Renaissance
By: Pam Stewart, Florida’s Commissioner of Education from 2013-2018.
We will not test ourselves into greatness.
That’s something I frequently said while serving as Florida’s Commissioner of Education, because I firmly believe it. However, the rest of that statement is always: We will not become great without testing. We have to know what the strengths and weaknesses are, both in our students’ individual performance as well as by district, school and classroom. That is the start to any improvement.
A year ago, the organization that issues the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) invited me to come to Washington, D.C., for the release of the latest NAEP scores. I was asked to what I attribute Florida’s tremendous success. I stated that we first have to establish rigorous academic content standards – which Florida has done. Next, we have to ensure that our test measures what is taught (the standards) – which Florida has done. And then there must be an accountability system that holds the adults accountable for ensuring that all students (and I don’t mean in the aggregate – I mean each and every student) reach on-grade level performance – which Florida has done.
Although I do not believe that we can test ourselves to greatness, I do believe that testing is a civil right. If we don’t test and if we don’t have a strong accountability system, then students from low-income families and students of color will not receive the instruction and resources needed to be successful.
We only have to look at the performance of Florida’s free and reduced lunch students and students of color to see this. Florida has narrowed the gap between white and African-American students and between white and Hispanic students more than any other state in the nation. In addition, Florida’s free and reduced lunch students outperform their peers throughout the nation.
Florida has also increased the number and percentage of African American and Hispanic students taking AP tests—and the performance of those students on the tests improved exponentially. All that while being the number one state in the nation for the percentage of students participating in AP and 4th in nation in the percentage of students earning a 3 or higher on AP.
This tremendous performance can be attributed to rigorous and aligned standards, as mentioned above. But I want to focus here on the importance of a strong accountability system that values those things we believe to be important in education.
The strongest demonstration of this is Florida’s inclusion of the learning gains of students in the bottom quartile. This motivates everyone to focus specifically on those students who most need high expectations, additional resources and strong instruction. This is instrumental in narrowing the achievement gap, and it happens while the performance of all students is improving.
Another important demonstration of the power of a strong accountability system is the inclusion of acceleration in the accountability system. That inclusion is what increased the percent of participation in AP and also AP performance, bringing Florida to 1st and 4th in the nation.
Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Florida has become fourth in the nation in K-12 student achievement, and its strong accountability system can be credited with this ranking. We will not test ourselves into greatness, but using the test in the appropriate way, as Florida has done, will be instrumental in bringing Florida to greatness.
Now let me speak personally about this accountability system. At its origin, I was not a believer in the accountability system. At the time, I was the principal of a high-poverty, low-performing school: Reddick-Collier Elementary School. I was a new principal assigned to this rural school, because back then that’s what we did – put our new or weaker principals in rural, high-poverty schools. In fact, Reddick-Collier was a critically low-performing school, which was the label attached by the state based on performance. We accepted this designation; after all, we were a low socio-economic school.
I believe we would have stayed a critically low-performing school forever if there had not been grades attached. You see, Reddick-Collier was an F school the first year that grades came out; and, while we were seemingly/somewhat okay with being a critically low-performing school, we were not okay with being an F school.
Well, we got to work, even though we didn’t know too much about using data and improving schools (remember, this was early in the use of Florida’s rich data system). We got help from the state and the district; we worked in the summer and throughout the year and moved Reddick from an F to a C in one year. Keep in mind this was back when performance was the only data that was in school grades – no learning gains in the system at the time.
This was a tremendous accomplishment that was wonderful to celebrate. But more than celebrating the school’s success, we also could celebrate so many students performing at a level we previously didn’t think was possible.
This opened my eyes to the importance of accountability. For too long we had essentially patted students of poverty and students of color on the head and claimed they were “doing the best they could.” Turns out we were wrong. And through Florida’s accountability system, we provided those students with their civil right of rigorous content, high expectations and high achievement.
I will forever believe that we will not test ourselves into greatness—but maybe more important than that, I will forever believe that without measurement and accountability, we would flounder somewhere between 40th and 50th in the nation, and our students would be the casualties of that.