"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

NEPC Review of Heritage Report

It's not difficult to find an edu-pundit or politician pushing reform proposals based on the so-called Florida model.  Jeb Bush pushed it as a governor and continues to push it through his foundation; Colorado Succeeds, the "business voice for education," wrote a policy paper titled, "Proving the Possible: A case study of Florida's K-12 education reforms and lessons for Colorado"; then-gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman boldly claimed "all roads lead to Florida" when it comes to education reform in bigger states; and the Education Equality Project teamed with Education Reform Now to author a review of all recent gubernatorial candidates that favored many of the same proposals.  The common claim is that Florida is closing the achievement gap with this "cocktail of reforms."

There may be some lessons to be learned from the reforms in Florida, but there's also reason to be cautious about the conclusions some have already drawn from the changes.  The Heritage Foundation, for instance, published a report, Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, praising Florida for making dramatic progress and urged other states to follow.  Here's a snippet from the abstract:
One state, Florida, has demonstrated that meaningful academic improvement—for students of all races and economic backgrounds—is possible. In 1999, Florida enacted far-reaching K–12 education reform that includes public and private school choice, charter schools, virtual education, performance-based pay for teachers, grading of schools and districts, annual tests, curbing social promotion, and alternative teacher certification. As a result of parental choice, higher standards, accountability, and flexibility, Florida’s Hispanic students are now outperforming or tied with the overall average for all students in 31 states. It is vital that national and state policymakers take the lessons of Florida’s success to heart. The future of millions of American children depends on it.
But, as you hopefully know, think tank research generally isn't peer-reviewed.  And that can lead to advocacy based on shaky grounds.  Proceed with caution.  It's always handy to keep Bracey's various literature around.  Another great resource is the National Education Policy Center.  Here's a description of Madhabi Chatterji's review of Closing the Racial Achievement Gap:
The Heritage Foundation report, Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms, endorses a set of policies from Florida: vouchers funded by tax credits, charter schools, online education, performance-based teacher pay, grading of schools and districts primarily based on test scores of students, test-based grade retention, and alternative teacher certification. The report claims that Florida’s student achievement trends improved and gaps were substantially reduced for Black and Hispanic students because of this package of reforms. Based on these purported successes, it recommends adopting these reforms in other states. However, the central analysis compares average test scores of students in the nation versus Florida without considering key group differences, an oversight that leads to erroneous causal interpretations on effects of reforms using purely descriptive data. The report further ignores group differences resulting from the state’s mandatory grade retention policy for the weakest readers in grade 3. This policy-driven increase in grade retention rates spuriously inflated the average scores of grade 4 students on state and national assessments, making racial achievement gaps narrower. The report also fails to examine test score data on all subjects and grade levels, instead relying only on grade 4 reading, which showed the most positive results. Finally, although a great deal is known about the reform policies the report promotes, it neglects this research literature. These serious flaws call into question the report’s conclusions.
Do read the full report.

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