Terry Golden
November 22, 2016

Making Florida Number One in Education

Making Florida Number One in Education

Governor Scott aspires to make public education first in the nation. This brief reviews the work of Florida KIDS COUNT which determined how outcomes would need to change if the state was to meet this goal.  Are Florida policy makers prepared to take the steps and make the investments necessary to achieve those outcomes?

CNN recently asked Governor Rick Scott whether he would join the President-Elect’s administration. The Governor replied that he intends to stay in Florida and, among a list of priorities, make Florida first in the nation in education.

What does it mean to make Florida first in the nation in education?

Florida KIDS COUNT answered that question. Using the education components of the national KIDS COUNT data, Florida KIDS COUNT identified four discrepancies between Florida educational outcomes and those of the highest ranked states to quantify the differences.

In Florida, half of our three- and four-year-olds do not participate in nursery school, preschool, or kindergarten.

While there are many factors that influence student performance in school, their earliest educational experience is the most profound. These formative years are crucial for a child’s social, psychological and intellectual development. Individual growth in early education is crucial for long-term success in elementary and secondary school. High-quality programs foster children’s growth and the development of interpersonal and cognitive skills.

The issue here is not the availability of early learning programs. Floridians added the provision of free prekindergarten programs to the State Constitution in 2002. Instead, the issue is that parents do not or cannot avail their children of these programs. Children who don’t participate in these valuable programs miss the opportunity to learn fundamental social and academic skills that prepare them for school. Deficits in these skills compound over time, rendering the children less prepared to master the reading, writing, math, and critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in school.

In the highest-ranked state, 66 percent of three- and four-year-olds participate in early education. For Florida to take first place, an additional 71,300 children would have to participate. Rather than requiring political will, this race to the top of national rankings simply requires parental will. To the extent that parents are unaware of the availability of early education programs, local early learning coalitions could redouble their outreach efforts to ensure that parents can make an informed decision about the best interests of their children. If there are barriers to participation, the early learning coalitions should collect and report this information through the Office of Early Learning

In Florida, 61 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

Reading proficiency is the most important academic skill and non-proficiency is the precursor of serious ongoing academic struggles. Much of education is text-based. With each progressive grade, the reliance on reading increases. Students read textbooks and supplemental documents for most subjects. They are expected to read this text independently and with comprehension. When students’ reading proficiency does not keep pace with their grade level, they fall farther behind with each successive grade.

In kindergarten through third grade, the curriculum emphasizes reading fluency and comprehension. Third graders must demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency to be promoted to fourth grade. Florida has extensive interventions in place for students who have difficulty reading, as demonstrated on the Florida Standards Assessments in grades three through ten.

It should be noted that the measure of reading proficiency applied here is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the sole assessment that compares fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide. In the highest ranking state on fourth-grade reading proficiency, 50 percent of students did not read at grade level. In order for Florida to take the top spot, an additional 21,900 fourth graders would have to read with grade-level proficiency.

In Florida, 74 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in mathematics.

Fluency in mathematics involves another crucial set of intellectual skills. Historically, students nationwide start to flounder in mathematics as the concepts grow more abstract and less concrete. Mathematicians expressed concern that the math curriculum was “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

In rethinking the standards for public school students, Florida took a very different approach to mathematics. It reduced the number of math standards, but increased the depth of each standard. Agreeing with the mathematicians, Florida adopted standards through which students learn the standards deeply and apply the concepts in a variety of settings. As the skills increase in complexity and abstraction, the state believes that students will be significantly better prepared to learn higher-level math. In the highest ranking state on eighth-grade math proficiency, 49 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in mathematics.

In order for Florida to rank first, an additional 44,900 students would have to demonstrate proficiency. This increase requires that the state monitor the supports provided to help teachers teach the new standards. It also requires that administrators monitor student performance to determine which students and teachers would benefit from additional math supports.

In Florida, 24 percent of students do not graduate on time.

Increasing graduation rates is crucial for Florida’s economic future. Students who do not graduate from high school limit their employment opportunities and earnings potential, both of which are fundamental to a thriving economy.

High school graduation requires all of the supports in the first three items. Students must have a solid foundation on which to build, starting with early childhood programs. If students are struggling, school personnel must intervene and find supports that reach the students.
Students drop out or flunk out of high school for a variety of reasons – social, economic and academic – and the approaches for retrieving these students must vary accordingly. State funds appropriated for dropout retrieval would pay for themselves multifold in a very short period.

We do not have the luxury of letting our high school students fall through the cracks before graduation. We must employ every tool at our disposal to identify them and help them understand the importance of earning a diploma. We would also benefit from additional adult mentors to serve as trusted models and guides so that these students know that there is at least one adult who cares about their future.

In the highest ranked state, seven percent of students do not graduate on time. Florida would have to graduate an additional 34,000 students from high school to be first. A state investment in dropout prevention would be well worth it.

Florida aspires to be first in the nation in public education. Florida public school funding still hasn’t reached pre-recession, inflation-adjusted levels. The indicators identified by Florida KIDS COUNT will require additional resources to fund the increased voluntary prekindergarten enrollments, enhanced student support services, and a renewed effort to prevent and retrieve dropouts.

To make the Governor’s stated goal a reality, state policymakers will need to take additional steps and make additional investments in our educational system.  A bright future for our children and our economy depends on them doing so.

Florida KIDS COUNT. What would it take Florida: Florida’s education well-being. 2016. Accessed via: http://floridakidscount.org/docs/wwit/EducationWWITFINAL.pdf

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