The emotional debate that emerged after a well-intentioned researcher from the Goldwater Institute presented his analysis of Florida’s education revolution was perhaps inevitable.
The report depicted how Florida has dramatically increased the test scores of its students on a nationally standardized test. In 1998, Florida fourth-graders scored comparably on reading to Arizona students. In 2007, 14 percent more fourth-graders passed in Florida than in Arizona.
Florida’s ethnic minorities now outperform Arizona’s average student on the nationwide standardized test.
Florida enacted several reforms, from harsher consequences for failing schools to holding more students back, none of which researcher Matthew Ladner said he could extrapolate as the sole cause.
In the hour-long discussion following the presentation, local educators attempted to debunk the findings while other community leaders rejected their nuanced arguments.
About 30 educators, citizens and public officials arrived at the Payson library to hear Ladner, including county Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell and Kathy Kay.
Kay, who is now Payson’s curriculum director, used to work for the state Department of Education where she helped develop the standards in a system Ladner so passionately said isn’t working.
An activist citizen, Dan Adams, was excited about the potential of what some call Florida’s educational revolution and invited Ladner to Payson to speak at Thursday’s Citizens Awareness Committee meeting. Adams wanted Gila County to incubate the Florida changes for an Arizona pilot program.
Ladner, the vice president for research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, dissected the Florida phenomenon in a report that he presented at the CAC meeting.
The report’s basis is a comparison of the two state’s scores on a national standardized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A statistically representative group of students in each state takes the test.
The assessment is the gold standard, Ladner said.
Not so, said Kay. There are critics of the nationwide standardized test, she said. “If we’re building a discussion on one set of statistics, we may not be on strong ground.”
According to Ladner, when Jeb Bush became governor of Florida in 1998, he revolutionized education by holding back third-graders who could not read, beginning a robust method of alternative teacher certification and giving students at schools that failed twice in four years vouchers to attend different schools, among other things.
Ladner’s report focused on the NAEP reading scores of fourth-graders. In 1998, 51 percent of Arizona fourth-graders scored “basic or better,” compared to 53 percent of Florida students.
By 2007, however, 70 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored basic or better on reading, while Arizona students improved by 5 percentage points, to 56 percent.
“When it comes to educational reform, I’ll have what Florida’s having,” Ladner said.
Some of the methods Florida used, especially the dramatic increase in the number of students it held back, caused the author of another report to term the case “the Florida fraud.”
Walter Haney, a researcher from Boston College, decried what he considered Florida’s excessive retention of students, writing that the policy constituted “a tragedy in the making.”
“Flunking children to repeat grades in school is not only ineffective in boosting their achievement, but also dramatically increases the probability that they will leave school before high school graduation,” he wrote.
Others, however, believe that holding poorly achieving children back makes good policy. Ladner’s report cites studies finding that, as he said, “the kids who were held back learn to read.”
High school sophomores who fail the state standardized test are the same students who could barely read in the fourth-grade, he added.
Recently one Payson School Board member also advocated holding unsuccessful students back, adding that he retained his son who had a learning disability. His son now has a master’s degree.
Another portion of the debate centered on whether NAEP is the best comparison.
Ladner says NAEP is the “gold standard,” and the best way to compare education across states.
Kay said some areas covered by NAEP fall outside the realm of Arizona’s standards. Arizona is not required to teach everything NAEP tests, so long as the state continues to meet the standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind.
“We don’t have to teach what NAEP decides they want to test,” Kay said.
The standardized Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test meets federal guidelines.
Ladner said that Arizona made it easier for students to pass AIMS several years ago by lowering the passing scores, which also lowered the standard for excellence.
Local educators passionately defended their work.
“We are the soldiers on the ground,” said Kathryn Lewallen, an aide at the middle school. She stood to speak and sounded as if she were about to cry. “This school district is the best I’ve ever been in.”
County Supervisor Shirley Dawson was blunt. “We need to teach third-graders how to read and let’s get at it.” Florida, Dawson said, demonstrates one way of doing that.
“I do believe in my heart that every school district in the county is doing the best they can,” said O’Dell.
However, she added that educators should continually seek improvement.
At the meeting, O’Dell began to compile names of people willing to meet occasionally and strategize ways of improving education.
Adams had pushed for O’Dell to lead a discussion about what reforms Gila County could undertake similar to Florida’s. Instead, O’Dell and Kay issued a rebuttal.
Adams also corralled the help of at least two people in developing potential reforms to education in Gila County.
“You’re not off the hook so fast,” Adams told Ladner.
Similarly, O’Dell joked to the researcher, “he and I will become new best friends.”
O’Dell said that Arizona already does many of the same things as Florida, including alternative teacher certification, which allows those with bachelor’s degrees to enter classrooms without additional extensive university credits. Payson has expanded online learning, which was another reform Ladner had cited.
He added that Arizona’s alternative teacher certification is not as robust as Florida’s.
Arizona also has an annual report card like Florida, O’Dell said, and both states have teacher performance pay plans.
Educators — and Ladner — agreed that a huge impediment to improving education was the difficulty of firing ineffective teachers.
“It is the teacher in the classroom that makes the difference,” O’Dell said.
Perhaps Ladner’s other study, which figured a way for “rock star” teachers to earn six-figure salaries by firing ineffective teachers, would have caused less disagreement.
But that report, he said after the meeting, was a little too revolutionary for the presentation.