California’s new education boss, Tom Torlakson, has his work cut out for him. He might start by explaining to parents why Florida, a demographically similar state, continues to outpace California in student achievement. On that score, the Golden State still sputters around the bottom of national rankings.
California apologists of the status quo are fond of blaming overall low achievement on low-income and minority students. Yet in Florida, those very student groups continue to propel meteoric achievement gains. Consider the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
In 1998, four NAEP scale-score points separated California and Florida, 202 and 206, respectively. These scores ranked near the bottom, with Florida 34th out of 40 states participating in the NAEP reading assessment, and California 37th. However, after a decade of comprehensive reform, Florida fourth-graders rank among the country’s highest performers. Meanwhile, the reading performance of California fourth-graders remains near the bottom. If students can’t read, they can’t learn.
From 1998 to 2009, Florida fourth-graders achieved gains equivalent to two full grade levels in reading ability, 20 NAEP scale-score points. In contrast, California fourth-graders gained eight points, not quite one full grade level.
On the NAEP reading assessment, Florida’s low-income, Hispanic and black fourth-graders now outperform all California fourth-graders, along with all fourth-graders in a growing list of states.
Florida also leads the nation in the rate of Hispanic students passing Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
These achievements flow from a decade of common sense reforms combining accountability, transparency and parental choice with other far-reaching K-12 changes, such as alternative teacher-certification and financial incentives for school success.
Florida pursued those reforms from the top down through state testing and from the bottom up through parental choice — and they did so with strong bipartisan support.
On the other coast, California has refused to adopt large-scale reforms that would allow students to attend schools their parents — not bureaucrats or special-interest groups — think are best. The time has come for change. California’s new crop of legislators should learn from Florida’s success and enact reforms based on equal access for all students to great teachers and high-performing schools.