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Bush's School Plan: Why We Know It'll Work

February 21, 2001

By Jay P. Greene

To assess the merits of President Bush’s education proposals, you don’t have to enter the world of speculation and theory. Bush’s proposals are closely modeled on Florida ’s. A-Plus accountability and choice program -- and the evidence suggests the Florida approach is working.

In Florida as in the president’s plan, schools get a grade based on the performance of their students on a test of academic skills. The result: well-distributed information on how students and schools are faring. Aware that their performance is being monitored, students and schools have clear incentives to improve.

Under the A-Plus program, Florida schools that get failing grades have even stronger incentives to turn things around: If a school keeps on failing, the state offers its students a. chance to escape -- a voucher to attend a private school or the option of attending a different public school.

The thinking was simple. Either the school gets better, or the kids can move on: Either way, the children win -- and the only schools that lose are those that consistently fail their students.

A-Plus has been operating in Florida for a few years, and this system of accountability and choice is working exactly as intended. As reported in a study I released this month, Florida student test scores have improved across the board. And failing schools, under the threat of losing their students, produced test-score gains more than twice those of the state’s other schools.

In short, a system of testing students and publicizing the results -- the model for the Bush plan -- inspires students and schools to improve in general.

And critics were proved wrong on other fronts: They had long warned that vouchers would demoralize public schools or drain them of talent and resources. But the Florida evidence suggests that public schools are more than capable of rising to the challenge of vouchers: Of the 80 schools that had previously failed (including two schools that had vouchers offered to their students and 78 schools that faced vouchers if they did not improve) all 80 received passing grades on the state’s 2000 test.

Those results suggested another problem: Were the schools just “teaching to the test,” say, or cheating? Had they really improved?

Yes, they had. As it turns out, students throughout Florida took a nationally respected standardized test, the Stanford 9, around the same time they took the state test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

The FCAT was a “high stakes” test -- poor performance was bad news for the school. The Stanford 9 was “low stakes” -- scores had no significant consequences. Whatever incentives schools or students would have to distort the FCAT results would not be present for the Stanford 9. Yet FCAT and Stanford 9 results correlate very highly, in every grade.

So the improvement by Florida’s failing schools was real.

So, as debate proceeds over President Bush’s education proposals, know this: Testing, accountability and choice are powerful tools to improve education -- and, in particular, to turn around chronically failing schools.

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