Ellen Weaver

Can Poor Kids Learn?

April 10, 2013

Ellen Weaver

The answer, based on the evidence garnered from Florida’s transformative education reforms is a resounding “Yes!” Demographics are not destiny.

No one would deny that there are critical factors of home life – parental education, family structure, poor nutrition and other variables that directly impact the educational readiness of children who enter school. But far too often, these external factors become an excuse for adults in the education system to dismiss lackluster performance and reinforce what has been correctly called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

To put it bluntly: the success of interrelated reforms in Florida – including the end of social promotion for 3rd graders and intensive reading intervention for those who are retained – have proved beyond a doubt that poor kids CAN learn when the adults in the system are equipped and incentivized to intervene at that critical juncture.

A comparison of the scores of South Carolina and Florida students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, widely accepted in the education community as the prime benchmark of learning, over the last 10 years is revealing. In 1998, pre-reform Florida lagged behind South Carolina on key learning measurements. But since enacting reforms:

Florida’s low income 4th graders (as determined by those who qualify for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program) now score a full percentage point better than the entire student population of South Carolina 4th graders on the NAEP 4th grade reading test.
Hispanic students in Florida now also outscore the entire student population of 21 states (including South Carolina) and the District of Columbia on 4th grade reading.
Black 4th graders in Florida – who in 1998 were well behind their South Carolina peers – now read at an average level that would be reasonably expected for a black South Carolina 5th grader.
Under the current federal graduation formula, Florida’s 2003 graduation rate was 56.5%. In 2012 it was 74%, growing 18 points in 10 years. This class of 2012 brought in a 3 percent increase over the class of 2011, representing Florida’s largest increase Florida since 2003. And the subgroup who saw the greatest gains in 2012 was African-American students.
The Class of 2013 represents the first set of third graders who were subject to Florida’s retention policy in 2002, and a multitude of other reforms Florida has passed. Research on Florida’s policy already confirms that students that were retained and received the extra year of intervention outperformed their socially promoted peers in reading in math by the time they reached 5th and 7th grade. It is indisputable that children who can’t read proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. We can no longer predestine children to fail by socially promoting them.

Of note, these marked improvements happened during a continued shift in demographics (Florida is now a majority-minority state with 57% of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch) and with Florida ranking last in the nation in increased education spending. In fact, Florida has consistently spent less per student than South Carolina to achieve these gains, demonstrating that targeting existing funds towards an intensive focus on basic skills is a key step on the path to education success.

Reform is never finished. And while Florida – like all states – still faces many challenges in education, it has provided hope that progress in the face of tremendous obstacles is possible. Student-centered reforms built on the principles of high standards, accountability and options show that Florida students at the bottom have been the biggest winners as well as a beacon of hope for their peers around the country.

Read more about the Florida reforms in Palmetto Policy’s report – Transformation:
What South Carolina Can Learn from Florida’s K-12 Reforms