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Governor Jeb Bush
The State of Education in Florida
Remarks Prepared for Delivery

November 13, 2003

Education must be the number one priority for state government, because it is the number one long-term economic development issue in this state, as well as the top quality of life issue for Floridians.

Five years ago, Florida made a commitment to the students, parents, educators and taxpayers in this state to increase the quality of education in our schools. We backed that promise with a comprehensive plan to reform our education system — the A+ Plan for Education — and the resources to achieve it.

Today, almost one-third of our entire state budget goes to education (K-20). This year we invested $14.9 billion in K-12 public education, up 34% from education spending in 1999. Florida spends 20% more per student than it did just five years ago.

Florida is the State of Education these days. We're leading the nation in innovative and common sense reforms. We're driving accountability into our schools, and achievement standards up for our students. As a result, more children are learning in Florida classrooms than ever before.

We created the A+ Plan for Education based on the premise that all children can learn. Every reform in the A+ Plan is geared toward proving this simple fact and shattering the myths and excuses of low expectations. Our reforms range from common sense logic to innovation.

We believe that education should be based on high standards, and focused on helping each student achieve them. This student-centered approach includes effective use of diagnostic tools like the FCAT to track achievement, target instruction to specific needs, and create individual strategies for improvement. We also believe that children should master critical skills in one grade before being promoted to the next.

Florida holds schools accountable for the quality of education they provide, and we insist that schools hold all students to high standards. We drive this accountability by providing rewards for success, and creating consequences for failure.

Finally, we believe that parents should be able to make education choices for their children. Our student-centered approach to education must recognize different educational settings may benefit different students. Some students thrive in the public school system, but some will fare better in a private school environment. We are committed to ensuring that parents have this option.

Our success in implementing these reforms has been largely driven by our ability to track progress and areas of improvement for every child. Today, Florida has the most comprehensive student assessment program in the country. We test every child in grades 3 through 10 every year using the FCAT, a standardized test designed by Florida teachers based on achievement standards set by Florida teachers.

The FCAT was in use before we introduced the A+ Plan. However, we added the accountability needed to drive its use as an effective way to identify strengths and weaknesses of each student and to track improvement in our schools. Using this data, teachers can tailor instruction, or provide additional assistance as needed to help each child achieve. Struggling students are identified early, and given the support they need to master skills and succeed. This student-centered approach isn't just theory, we see it in action in schools across Florida.

Schools like Richmond Heights Elementary right here in Orlando. A Title I school with 99.7% minority enrollment, 97% of the students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch based on family income.

I'm going to share several stories from Richmond Heights today because the school's experience over the last year reflects the dramatic improvement we're seeing across the state.

In 2002, Richmond Heights was one of 64 failing schools in Florida, a fact that didn't sit well with Principal June Jones or her teachers. Ms. Jones realized the FCAT data pinpointed strengths and weaknesses in her students and her school. She says it's like a doctor diagnosing an illness and then writing a prescription. She and her staff committed to writing a prescription for success.

She and the teachers shared the data with parents — showing them where the school performance was and where it should be, and showing them the individual areas of success and need for improvement for their child. Ms. Jones is convinced this was the key to helping parents take ownership of the school and their children's education. Parents began to monitor their children's progress more closely and were able to provide assistance when needed.

Ms. Jones then met with each child to point out his or her strong areas and let them know what they would work on during the year to build skills in weaker areas. Parents, students, and teachers committed to support each other throughout the year to achieve their goals.

Ms. Jones meets with her teachers every week to track the progress and needs of each child in her school. They target their instruction to match these needs and make adjustments as required to make sure no child is left behind in a Richmond Heights classroom.

There's a renewed sense of mission among parents, teachers, and students at this school. They have seen the power of data driven instruction and parental involvement. Richmond Heights is no longer a failing school. This year it is a success story of tremendous progress, poised for even greater achievement in the future.

In 2003, 55% of Richmond Heights' students made learning gains in reading, and 73% made gains in math. One of the key measures of a school's progress is improvement among its lowest performers. Among the lowest performing 25% of students at Richmond Heights, 55% made learning gains this year. These are tremendous gains, made in a single year, with the help of data driven instruction and dedicated teachers.

Critics of the FCAT insist that data driven instruction forces teachers to "teach to the test" and stifles creativity in education. The teachers at Richmond Heights, like educators around the state, prove this simply isn't true. Ms. Jones and her staff focus on developing reading skills, because the FCAT data proved that was the greatest need among their students. And teaching children to read gives them the power to learn.

They got some innovative help from a volunteer last year. Andrea Haynes retired to Florida after a 34-year career as a librarian in Oklahoma. When she heard that Richmond Heights needed some help in its library last fall, she volunteered. The school's motto had become "changing the way we read." Ms. Haynes took that to heart and launched a 24-hour "read-a-thon" with volunteer readers from all walks of life sharing stories with students around the clock. She reached out to the Orlando Magic for a volunteer reader, and got much more. The team adopted Richmond Heights as its "Read to Achieve" partner — donating books and funds to refurbish the library and introducing a fun program that encourages children to read.

The read-a-thon included cooking classes where children read recipes before using them to whip up snacks for the event, and an outdoor tent where children read stories by flashlight. Ms. Haynes, known as "Mama Haynes" to many of her students, proved that reading was both fun and important. As teachers focus on the needs of their students, they get additional support from Ms. Haynes, who creates media center programs to reinforce classroom lessons in a fun, dynamic way.

This year, she officially came out of retirement as a full time media specialist to help Ms. Jones continue the school's transformation into a place of surprise, discovery, and adventure for students — as well as parents and community members who get involved.

Florida has made reading at or above grade level a primary goal. We want to have every child reading at grade level by 2012. We introduced the "Just Read, Florida!" initiative to drive reading in classrooms and at home.

Florida schools now have reading coaches, who use proven, research-based teaching methods to help children build critical reading skills. This summer we trained 8,000 elementary school teachers to effectively teach reading skills, and we plan to provide training to all grade school teachers by 2005.

This year Florida is investing $100 million in state and federal funds to support and expand the "Just Read, Florida!" initiative. We have tremendous support from our federal partners. Florida was one of the first states to receive federal funding from the Reading First program, $300 million to support reading initiatives in Florida over the next five years.

We now know that until 3rd grade, children learn to read. After that, they must read in order to effectively learn other subjects. Children must have this critical foundation before we can expect them to succeed in higher grades.

For that reason, Florida ended the practice of social promotion in our schools in 2003. We refuse to promote third graders who cannot read, because doing so ultimately dooms them to struggle throughout their academic career and beyond. Every child develops at his or her own pace. We must focus on their achievements, not their age, when determining when to move them forward to the next challenge.

This year, Florida retained more than 28,000 3rd graders who could not demonstrate basic reading skills (14.6% of class). Instead of being pushed forward before they were ready, they are now getting the support and time they need to master the critical skills they'll need to succeed over the long term.

These students are not repeating the third grade curriculum. Instead, each retained student has an individual strategy to help him or her improve. Many move on to 4th grade subjects, while working with reading teachers to catch up and earn full promotion during the year. Others receive individual attention throughout the year to prepare for 4th grade. Some schools place retained students in a single class, balancing curriculum from 3rd and 4th grades, adapted to help struggling readers. Our goal is not to hold students back, but to help them move forward.

Students like Adrian Wilson, one of Ms. Jones' 4th graders at Richmond Heights Elementary. Today he's one of the best readers in his class, but that wasn't always the case.

As a 2nd grader, Adrian struggled to keep up. By third grade he was falling behind his classmates. His grades were pretty good, but things were harder than they should be. His FCAT results pinpointed the problem -- he hadn't yet mastered the basics of reading.

Adrian's mom, Carole, and his teachers decided that he wasn't ready to move on to 4th grade and opted to retain him for a year so he could have the extra time he needed to build the critical reading skills he would need to succeed in higher grades. Carole remembers it was a hard decision, but the right one.

What a difference a year makes. Last year Adrian's teachers, supported by focused attention from the school's reading coach and volunteers like Ms. Haynes, worked one on one with him to improve his reading and comprehension skills. In the process, they not only shared their knowledge of reading, they shared their love of it. Adrian did his part by working hard all year.

When his teachers told Adrian reading could take him to a lot of places, he decided to pick up a book and go. Since then he's explored the worlds of Harry Potter, Black Beauty, and Goosebumps, and just recently tackled a book on the Titanic. This year Adrian, once a struggling reader, earned the highest FCAT reading score in his entire class.

Richmond Heights gave him the time and attention he needed to build the skills to succeed. His mom said she noticed a real difference this summer. Even though school was out and the pressure was off, Adrian usually picked up a book instead of his Gameboy. He's now a strong reader, which means he can be lifelong learner.

This year, Ms. Jones and her staff retained 18 third graders for extra help. Smart children like Adrian who just needed a little more time to build fundamental reading skills before moving on to greater success.

For the last five years, we've been using the FCAT data to measure school performance as well as student achievement to ensure schools are accountable for the quality of education they provide. We assign a letter grade from A to F based on achievement and improvement.

We reward high performance with school recognition money, but there are consequences for failure as well. Failing school receive targeted assistance including additional resources and help from successful schools. However, they also face the threat of vouchers as well.

A recent Manhattan Institute Study focused on the effect of vouchers on Florida schools. The researchers found that schools facing the threat of vouchers showed extraordinary performance gains year over year compared to other schools. The study concluded that vouchers are actually improving public schools in Florida.

Once again, Richmond Heights Elementary reflects statewide trends. The school struggled for three consecutive years, before dropping to an F in 2002, and facing the threat of vouchers unless performance improved. In just one year the school jumped two letter grades to a "C", and is poised for greater improvement this year as educators build upon the momentum of achievement.

Vouchers exist to give parents a choice of education options for their children. More than 24,000 Florida students are using a voucher this year for educational opportunities that would otherwise be beyond their reach. This year 11,462 students participate in our Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program; 12,113 receive McKay Scholarships; and another 619 receive Opportunity Scholarships.

Each of these families has a success story based on their ability to make the right school choice for their children. I'm extremely proud of our state for providing that choice and making that difference, And I'm committed to protecting, and expanding, these programs to serve even more Floridians.

We must create every opportunity for Florida students to achieve — from kindergarten through college. Not just to build a brighter future for our children, but to build a stronger economy for our state. A well-educated, highly skilled workforce is critical to our success. It's the number one priority for businesses looking to relocate.

We can offer the biggest incentives, friendliest tax code, and miles of beautiful beaches — but if we can't offer workers who can do the jobs, we're not going to get our share of investment and growth, and Floridians will suffer.

Florida businesses have created almost 100,000 jobs in the last 12 months. The recent addition of Scripps will drive our biotech sector exponentially, creating even more opportunities. We have a responsibility to ensure Floridians are prepared to do those jobs successfully, by making sure our high school graduates are prepared for future academic success.

We're making tremendous progress in our public K-12 program. Student achievement is rising, and more students are graduating. Since 1999, Florida's high school graduation rate has jumped from 60% to 69%. This number has risen despite the fact that we have raised the standards and graduation requirements.

As our graduation rates grow, so does enrollment on our college campuses. Florida has some renowned universities — but we've also got the best community college system in the country. Thirteen of Florida's 28 community colleges were recognized among the "Top 100 Associates Degree Producers" by Community College Week. In that survey, four of the top ten spots went to Florida schools, with Miami-Dade College taking top honors in the nation.

Our community colleges are currently preparing more than 800,000 students to enter the workforce with valuable skills or to attend a four-year college ready to succeed. More students are graduating from our community colleges than ever before. Enrollment is up by 8%, but graduation rates have increased by 12%.

More than 70% of our community college graduates successfully transfer to a public university, and 50% of all upper classmen on our public university campuses today started their college careers at a community college.

Our university enrollment is also up — especially among minority students. After four years of outreach and development to open the door for underserved students in our state through the One Florida program — we're seeing solid results in our universities. This year, more than 37% of college freshmen enrolled in Florida universities are minorities. This is a higher percentage than at any time since we began tracking this figure. Overall minority enrollment on Florida public university campuses has risen to 34% (up from 32% before One Florida - 1998).

The state of education in Florida is stronger than ever. We have emerged as a model for the rest of the nation, debunking myths and proving that the right reform is effective.

It's fitting that we are talking about education in Florida today, because the results of a national assessment were released this morning, and Florida got more good news. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is commonly referred to as the "Nation's Report Card," because it's the only continuous, national measure of education progress.

Earlier this week, USA TODAY called NAEP a "truth serum" because it measures all states against a common standard. Any state that has been manipulating its own assessment of student achievement will be exposed by the national results.

Since 1969, NAEP has measured what students know and can do in various subject areas. Today NAEP released the report card for reading and math skills among the nation's 4th and 8th graders. We're particularly interested in the 4th grade results, because our education reforms have focused on early intervention and remediation. Our statewide results show our reforms have the greatest impact on our younger students. Early intervention and research based teaching methods help them build a foundation that will carry them forward, and raise achievement in later grades as they progress

The 4th grade NAEP results released today make it clear that the A+ plan is working. For the first time ever, the reading performance of our 4th graders exceeds the national average.

While we're extremely proud of that achievement, what's more telling are the learning gains. Since 1998, the year before we introduced A+, the national average score among 4th graders has risen three points. However, the average reading score of Florida 4th graders rose twelve points — four times the national gain. We widen this margin more each year. In 2002, our learning gains were merely twice the national gain.

The map behind me highlights every state that showed significant improvement among 4th grade readers this year. Florida stands alone as the only state with significant progress in 4th grade reading this year, and the only state to make progress two years in a row. Our children are making tremendous learning gains compared to their national counterparts. Clearly, we're doing something right.

This national report card provides independent validation of the improvement we see in students and schools across this state each year. For example, in 1999 only 47% of Florida's 4th graders could read at grade level -- today 60% do, next year more will.

We have good news in 4th grade math as well. In another first for Florida, our students achieved the national average score in math.

The national scores also show rising student achievement among minority students in Florida. Between 1998 and 2003, the national average for reading scores among African American 4th graders showed a 5-point gain. However, Florida's African American students gained 12 points. Hispanic students posted a national average gain of seven points, while Florida Hispanic students gained 13 points during the same period.

The national report card echoes results we've seen across our state. In the last five years, African American students in Florida have shown an average improvement of 42% in the number reading at or above grade level across all grades. We've seen a 35% average improvement among Hispanics as well.

We're also seeing remarkable progress among minority students preparing for college. Florida has partnered with the College Board to increase access to advanced course work. We've looked for innovative ways to reach students who historically haven't had access to the full range of college prep activities. For example, Florida Virtual School offers online Advanced Placement courses to students in rural areas and other parts of the state who otherwise wouldn't have this option.

As a result of our committed outreach, Florida now leads the nation in the number of minority students taking AP tests. Since 1999, we've seen a 94.5% increase in the number of minority AP test takers, including a 116% increase among African American students and a 102% increase among Hispanics.

We also lead the nation in minority participation in other college prep activities. Last year, 16% of all African American 10th graders who took the PSAT were Floridians, as were 27% of all Hispanic test takers.

Whether you measure success by statewide assessment, national testing, or college prep activities, it is clear that children are learning in Florida schools and preparing for successful futures. Because we know they can. Because we expect them to. Because we make it possible.

We've replaced excuses for failure with expectations of achievement. Our A+ and One Florida reforms are creating unprecedented opportunities for Florida students — of all ethnicities, income levels and zip codes.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels, relax our principles, or lower our standards. Looking ahead, we must maintain our commitment to reforms that have been proven to raise student achievement and drive accountability into our schools. We must continue our policy against social promotion and we must continue to fully fund the school recognition program that rewards achievement and improvement.

We also need to address issues that threaten our continued progress as well as those that provide the next steps to our success. For example, we need to repeal the class size amendment because it will not create significant improvement in performance, but it will drain critical resources out of the classroom.

We should increase our focus on exceptional education students and also turn our attention to our middle schools. Over the next few months, we'll introduce initiatives to help us set and achieve our goals in these areas.

As we drive achievement in our schools, and greater learning among our students, we also need to prepare for success. As more students graduate from Florida high schools prepared for college, we'll need to make sure our community college and university systems are prepared to welcome them.

We have accomplished a great deal, but we are far from finished. Success is never final. Our work is never over because learning never ends.