The education establishment is pushing back against common-sense education reforms that have proved successful in Florida. Dr. Madhabi Chatterji, a professor at Columbia Teachers College, has written a paper critical of a Heritage  study of these reforms by Matthew Ladner, Vice President of Research at the Goldwater Institute and I. Last week, The Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet, devoted itself to presenting Dr. Chatterji’s critique.  We are now responding.

To review: Our study concluded that education reforms implemented under then-Governor Jeb Bush have produced significant academic gains, particularly among minority students. Florida’s Hispanic students, for example, are now outperforming or tied with the overall reading average for all students in 31 states.

The change-averse may wish to quibble over the details or agonize over just what reform did how much of what. But the bottom line is that in 1998—the year before Bush instituted his reforms—47 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored “Below Basic” on the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] fourth-grade reading test. In 2009, that number was down to 27 percent. That is a 42 percent decline in the fourth-grade illiteracy rate in the span of a decade.

Dr. Chatterji suggests that Florida’s policy barring social promotion of third-graders artificially inflates Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores. Ironically, she criticizes our paper for not conducting a literature review even as she fails to do so herself. Had she reviewed the literature, she would have found that former Heritage Foundation Senior Analyst Dan Lips and Ladner had already addressed this, her main claim, over a year ago in the pages of Education Next.

The reality of the Florida policy reforms is far more complex and positive than Dr. Chatterji would have you believe:

  • Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores improved almost a full grade level between 1998 (when Bush began implementing portions of his reform agenda) and 2002. The third-grade retention policy had no chance to impact these scores; it was not yet in place.
  • The maximum number of children retained—16 percent of all third-graders—came in the first year of the policy. The total number of students retained declined by more than 50 percent between 2002–03 and 2008–09. Chatterji’s own data show massive declines in the percentages of Florida minority students who ever wound up as illiterate third-graders in the first place.
  • If retention were driving Florida’s post-2002 improvement as claimed, we should have expected to see Florida’s NAEP scores peak and then decline when the number of students being retained substantially declined. Instead, what we find is that scores continued to improve even as the number of students being retained fell substantially.
  • Chatterji attributes Florida’s improved scores to aging (retained students are a year older when they take the NAEP). Two statistical analyses of the third-grade retention policy compared students retained to two very similar groups of students: those who barely scored high enough to avoid retention and those who scored low enough but avoided retention through an exemption. These analyses revealed that the retained kids outperformed these two control groups after one year and by an even wider margin after two years.
  • Florida lawmakers also created a mid-year promotion policy, retaining children only until they achieve an FCAT 2 on reading with multiple attempts, whereupon they rejoin their cohort. In other words, many of the “retained” children now rejoin their classmates after improving their reading skills.

Dr. Chatterji also argues that other policies such as class size reduction and preschool vouchers—both enacted in Florida by ballot initiative—may have caused the improved scores. There is little or no reason to believe these policies helped improve Florida’s reading scores.

There is a five-year delay between attending preschool and reaching the fourth-grade. The preschool program was passed in 2002, but it wasn’t open to all five-year-olds until 2005. The earliest year it could have an impact on fourth-grade reading scores is 2011.

Florida’s class size amendment, passed in 2002, had a very slow implementation. Any effects from this measure would have shown up only in the later years, if at all. Moreover, a review of the literature shows that the empirical evidence on class size reduction is overwhelmingly negative.

The bottom line is that Florida’s education reform model, particularly the retention policy, incentivized schools to place a greater focus on early childhood literacy in grades K, 1, 2, and 3. That is why the number of students scoring low enough to be retained in the first place has been cut in half and Florida’s NAEP scores have improved.

As for us, we recommend that policymakers look to Florida as an example of successful education reform with its proven mixture of transparency, accountability, and parental choice.

Co-authored by Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., Vice President of Research, The Goldwater Institute.