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Study says fear of vouchers drives Fla. schools to improve
By Marilyn Brown
Florida public school improvement can be traced to the threat of vouchers, and that's "particularly relevant'' because of similar plans for the nation by the governor's brother in the White House, according to a high-profile study released Thursday.
The report by Jay Greene, a Harvard University research associate and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the latest in a series of news events calling attention to the state's importance on the subject of education reform.
Last week, President Bush met with new state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, who has inherited oversight for the changes pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush. And today in Bradenton, the changes will be touted at the first of several congressional hearings to be held across the country.
The president has proposed testing of all students in grades 3 through 8, with vouchers for those in chronically low-performing schools. That closely follows his brother's state reforms.
Greene said his study in Florida found "The effect of the voucher program is that it clearly produced improvement.'' He also said the report gives "reason not to ditch FCAT,'' Florida's high-stakes testing program that assesses student and school performance.
But Greene has a pro-voucher record, and his study was funded by the state Education Department through a $49,000 grant to Florida State University. The National Education Association and other opponents quickly discounted it.
"Once again, the Manhattan Institute and Jay Greene have joined forces to devise a `study' in which the results are predetermined,'' said NEA President Bob Chase. "Any fair test of the `voucher impact' would make comparisons among schools in other states that have accountability systems but do not have vouchers.''
Vouchers provide public money for private tuition to families thatmove their children out of schools deemed failures. In Florida, that has affected only two schools in the Panhandle, but proposed legislation would expand the effort dramatically to include thousands of students at many overcapacity schools.
Proponents note the money also could be spent for transportation to other public schools. But foes say the concept merely drains needed funding from already struggling facilities.
GREENE SUGGESTED FEAR of vouchers has driven many schools to improve. Students at schools with failing grades on a state report card in 1999 - who would have been offered vouchers if those schools failed a second time - made test score gains more than twice as large as those achieved at other schools, he said.
Richard Feiock, an FSU professor who assisted with the study, said the work also discounts a common criticism of the governor's program.
Since Bush's A-Plus plan was introduced, teachers have said the emphasis on state exams forces them to alter lesson plans and spend more time simply preparing students to test.
Feiock said research found that fear was unwarranted. The study compared student improvement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to performance on other standardized tests. Scores in low-performing schools improved not just on the FCAT but on the others, too.
"This suggests the FCAT results are unlikely to have been distorted by `teaching to the test' or other artifacts of a testing system,'' Feiock said.
"This should be very inspirational to failing schools,'' Greene said.
Other researchers disagreed strongly with the conclusions reached in a study that used information easily obtained through public records. Among those was Walter Haney, criticized by Greene for research that found fault with education reforms in Texas.
Haney, with Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, found from two years of research that long-term effects of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills are not the "miracle'' touted under the governorship of the man now in the White House.
Haney cited increased dropout rates and flat or lower scores on the nationally familiar college-entrance Scholastic Assessment Test.
Greene acknowledged in an interview earlier this week that Texas SAT scores had not improved, but he said they should not be used to evaluate the state's testing program. Increasingly, more students of various backgrounds take the test each year, he said.
Also, "Dropout data is not be be believed,'' especially in Texas, because of poor record-keeping, he said.
Greene, now a resident of South Florida's Broward County, is a former professor at both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston. He said he has three children, the oldest of which is 7 and attends a private school for children with special needs.
HANEY SAID GREENE "badly mischaracterized my research'' in Texas and "is obviously not even familiar with my most recent publications.''
"This study funded by the state of Florida with a vested interest by the state may be replicated by what we saw in Texas,'' Haney said. "There was a lot of research paid for by the state at the University of Texas that helped propagate the myth of the Texas miracle.''
Part of Greene's conclusion in Florida is that the FCAT is a valid way to measure student progress because students perform similarly on its math and reading portions as they do on the national Stanford 9 test. No actual comparison of student scores on the two tests has been done, however, he said, and FCAT measures specific skills Florida wants measured.
Greene's study also did not include 10th-grade reading results from the 2000 FCAT, which the state invalidated because they were abnormally low.
Still, the governor praised the study's findings as "comprehensive.''
"This comprehensive study provides just the latest evidence that the students who are benefiting most from our reforms are those children who, in the past, had been most likely to be left behind,'' Bush said.
Crist embellished on that point, saying the fact that low-performing schools showed the most improvement came as little surprise, given they had the greatest room for improvement.
"It would have been disturbing and disappointing if that had not been the case,'' the education secretary said. "It's not a surprise, but a very pleasant outcome.''
Crist had said after his meeting with the president last week that they spoke specifically about the importance of Florida's example in building support for the elder Bush's education plan.
©2001 Tampa Tribune
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