Systemic change calls for empowering educators

In a recent guest column, Michael Martin, a research analyst at the Arizona School Boards Association, asked why large reading gains in Florida from 1998 to 2002, years corresponding with Gov. Jeb Bush’s first term, began to taper off after 2002.

My answer is that while Bush was able to convince school districts to make improving achievement for high-poverty and minority students a priority during his first term, he failed to make the systemic improvements necessary to sustain large yearly achievement gains for low-performing students.

Florida’s public education system is a highly regulated, command and control, assembly-line system that underutilizes its human capital. Educators, parents and students are the system’s greatest assets and yet their knowledge, skills and motivation are undervalued and underutilized. The solution is to move from a one-size-fits-all assembly line to a public education system organized around entrepreneurship, customization, and continual improvement. In this new system, educators will be empowered to create and manage schools, and parents will be empowered to match their children with the schooling options that best meet their needs.

Consider the story of Yvonne C. Reed, a former public school teacher in St. Petersburg, Fla., who retired from the county school system after 34 years and opened her own private school two days later. She reached out to an economically depressed, and predominately black, community in south St. Petersburg and built a reading curriculum designed to get young students coming from impoverished households reading at grade level – and staying there. While she kept tuition low, dozens of her students wouldn’t benefit from her lifetime of enterprise and skills if Florida leaders hadn’t allowed low-income students a publicly funded private alternative through a tax credit scholarship.

That gives us a glimpse into a new system that gives even poor families, to borrow a recent phrase from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “a menu of great options.” Instead of allowing the political needs of federal, state and local elected officials to drive education policy and practice, the needs of students will drive the system and parents will vote with their feet. If their children’s needs aren’t being met at a school, they’ll move to another school.

When Bush was first elected he had to use the tools at his disposal, so he used more government regulation– from ending social promotion to grading schools – to drive more learning gains for low-performing students.

But more government regulation will not drive higher student achievement over the long-term. A well-regulated, market-driven system is the key to sustained excellence in education.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how school choice impacted the achievement of low-performing students during Bush’s two terms and how that impact continues today.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.


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