Jeb Bush: Florida’s Rising NAEP Scores Show Education Reforms Are Working for All Students in the State

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Last week, Americans received the Nation’s Report Card — the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress comparison of reading and math scores from fourth- and eighth-graders in every state across the country.

Unfortunately, the results were generally stagnant, a depressing reminder that despite our huge investments, we are making little progress in transforming our education system. In fact, for 10 years there has been little to no national growth in student achievement.

One of the few encouraging stories drawn from the data came from Florida, which showed improvement in all four NAEP assessments and significant improvement in three of the four tests. Thanks to the commitment and hard work of Gov. Rick Scott, education reform champions in the Legislature, incredible educators, and engaged parents, Florida made more progress in 2017 than any other state in the nation.

Given these substantial gains, many leaders, educators, and parents across the country are asking, “What’s happening in the Sunshine State?”

There’s no great secret. The key ingredients are persistence and an unwavering commitment to putting the needs and interests of students ahead of anything or anyone else.

Nearly two decades ago, I joined Florida lawmakers in introducing a suite of reforms — called the Florida A+ Plan for Education — that transformed a failing system through a student-centered approach that empowered families with more options and ushered real accountability into our schools.

Since 1999, Florida has continually adopted bold and innovative policies. In addition to embracing educational freedom and accountability, the state’s leaders and educators have placed a strong focus on early reading; rewarded, retained, and recruited great teachers and schools; and leveraged technology to customize student learning.

The results prove these reforms are working for Florida students.

More than 1.7 million Florida students now choose to attend a school or program that best meets their unique needs: public magnet programs, open enrollment at public schools, public charter schools, career and professional academies, lab schools, collegiate high schools, advanced placement programs, and private school scholarships tailored to help low-income families and students with special needs. Just 19 years ago, the number was close to zero.

Last year, more than 86,000 students graduated with job-ready industry certifications, preparing them for work in high-demand fields. A decade ago, that number was 800.

And failure is no longer an option for young students struggling to read. Early intervention has changed lives. In 1999, nearly half of Florida’s fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. Today, Florida’s fourth- and eighth-graders are above the national average in reading.

None of this was easy. It required a willingness to be bluntly honest about the state of our schools, gauge what was working and what was not, make changes, measure the results, and adjust with one goal in mind — constantly doing better for our students.

Despite Florida’s gains, there is so much work to do. The state’s success is encouraging but nowhere near where it must be to prepare every student to achieve earned success and live a life of purpose and meaning.

Thankfully, Florida’s current leaders know that success is never final and that we must innovate or else we will stagnate.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved House Bill 7055, a sweeping and bold set of reforms to address current needs while preparing for the future.

It expands the opportunities for students with special needs and for students reading significantly below grade level. And it provides hope for students who have been bullied by providing the option to attend another school where they can focus on their studies safely. This Hope Scholarship is the first of its kind in the nation.

Florida will also be the first in the nation to create Reading Scholarship Accounts, essentially financial support for parents to choose summer learning opportunities or therapy supports for students who are struggling readers. This program allows elementary students to find options during the summer to ensure they are reading at grade level at this critical time in their development.

Florida is not the only bright spot from the Nation’s Report Card. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Superintendent of Education Carey Wright have focused on funding priorities, implementing with resolve, and empowering Mississippians by sharing the results transparently with students, parents, and teachers.

Mississippi’s students are benefiting from these reforms.The state’s fourth-grade readers are now on par with Texas’s, and Mississippi’s eighth-grade readers are also closing the literacy gap, as they tied for the biggest gains nationally.

Opponents of reform say that today’s increasingly polarized political environment makes building consensus impossible. In times of political uncertainty, policymakers are often tempted to reject big ideas and cling to the status quo. Well, last week’s NAEP results should be a clear and urgent signal that our students don’t have time to wait.

Education should be the one policy area where leaders of both parties can find common purpose in the mission of transforming our education system, an imperative for the long-term security and success of America.

I hope the latest Nation’s Report Card is a catalyst for leaders in every state to examine their policies, understand what is effective and what is not, and take bold steps to positively disrupt their education systems so every child has the opportunity to succeed in work and life.

Jeb Bush served as the 43rd governor of Florida and is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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