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.

Happy 20th Anniversary to the A+ Plan

By: Carolyn D. HerringtonFlorida State University professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and co-editor of Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

It has been 20 years since Governor Jeb Bush presented the 1999 Florida Legislature with a new blueprint for educational reform for the Sunshine State. What has since come to be known as the A+ model, it was (and still is) based on accountability. Its defining components are high standards for students, regular testing to see how the students are doing, public disclosure of results in meaningful language (A-F) and follow-up on whether students and schools need help or need options. This accountability-based strategy has proven to have staying power.  

It’s tricky business finding a set of strategies that can find welcome soil across a state that stretches from Pensacola to Key West and citizens that come from all over the United States and the world. The A+ Plan drew a blueprint to do just that. It outlined a clear role for the state, clear expectations for students and direct accountability to Florida citizens.  

The undeniable success of the A+ Plan in improving student learning over the last 20 years is due in no small part to two features: coherence and persistence.  

Coherence set the foundation.  

Goodness knows, Jeb Bush wasn’t the first to try to improve Florida’s schools. Florida had been struggling for decades with low student achievement and high dropout rates. The broad outlines of an accountability-based strategy had emerged in the 1970s as the state started requiring testing of all students and public reporting on the results. At the same time, the state enacted a funding formula that ensured equity in student funding for all students – regardless of ZIP code or local property values.  

These actions formed a basis for an accountability strategy – clear standards for what is expected, a common metric to measure attainment, relevant and meaningful data available to all – parents, teachers and all other Floridians – and a level playing field through equitable funding.   

Over the 1980s and 1990s, Florida, as did many states after the release of the A Nation at Risk report, enacted a flurry of reforms. Some were focused on curricula, some on coursework and some on teacher credentials. Other initiatives focused on the length of the school day or graduation requirements. What was lacking was coherence 

Simplicity can be its own seduction. But I am convinced that the power of the A + Plan was its internal coherence. The basic components were coherent across themselves – each establishing a foundation on which the next could be built out. Its tenets were powerful, but it also acknowledged and respected the role of local communities and local school districts.  

It is a long stretch from Tallahassee to making a difference in the lives of millions of kids and thousands of schools across Florida. Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do. The A+ Plan defined a clean but powerful role for the state: clean because it was a strategy and not a program; powerful because it relied on motivation (not on rules) and was authentic in its respect for local control.  

The second feature was persistence 

Because once the law was put in place, the work had just begun.  

The Bush administration went about systematically developing supports for the model with the objective of translating a set of policies into greater student learning. It suggested modifications and tweaks as appropriate. It monitored implementation at the state and local levels, staying the course when advisable, seeking better ways when found.  

Likewise, the Foundation for Florida’s Future was established. Even after Jeb Bush was no longer governor, the work continued. The Foundation is an advocate for the model in Florida and around the country. It monitors its implementation, checking on adherence to the basic principles of the model and on evaluating effectiveness as it rolls out in different settings. Far too often in educational reform, one ends up never knowing if a model worked or not, because implementation is not monitored or shelf life is too short.  

Finally, let me add a coda. For the most part, the A+ Plan stayed away from prescribed curricula or practices. However, it did identify one area of schooling too important not to look at. Early on, it established a laser-like focus on reading. 

Reading – arguably the single most important skill a child needs and that is requisite to learning in all other subjects – was central to the A+ Plan’s success. Drawing upon an R & D model borrowed from agriculture, the Bush administration established an R & D capacity in the state that included a dedicated office in the state education department and dedicated centers at two universities (the one focusing on research – the FSU Florida Center on Reading Research, the other on getting the research into the hands of teachers – at the University of Central Florida). Federal funding helped kick-start these reading initiatives, which were then sustained with state funding.  

While twenty years is too early to declare success and freeze the model in place, there is no question that Florida students now sit at the very top in terms of performance. To me, what is remarkable is how the A+ Plan has stayed intact. I chalk it up to persistence and coherence, unbelievably rare in the world of education policy.  

The A + Plan was a good idea at the beginning. It has withstood the test of time. A strategic investment in reading probably didn’t hurt either.  

Overall, the A+ Plan is still looking good after 20 years! It must have good bones!