Jeb Bush Has Been Overselling Florida Education Policies

Review of his presentation finds numerous unsupported and unsupportable claims

Contact:

William Mathis, NEPC
(802) 383-0058
William.Mathis@colorado.edu

BOULDER, CO (June 30, 2011) – A great deal of money and effort is being spent to promote a package of reforms known as the “Florida Formula.” But this policy push, being led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, rests on overstated and ungrounded claims about the existence, extent, and causes of improved achievement, according to a new review of the Foundation’s contentions.

These contentions have been presented in various forms, but among the most prominent are high-profile presentations by Mr. Bush himself, accompanied by PowerPoint slides. A June 15, 2011, presentation by Bush to Michigan legislators was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Dr. William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).  The review is published by the NEPC, housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education.

Jeb Bush established the Foundation for Excellence in Education after completing his second term as governor of Florida. The foundation’s stated mission is to conduct a state-by-state campaign to “support reform, primarily based on the success of the Florida Formula on Student Achievement.”

The premise of Mr. Bush’s argument was that Florida fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state reading tests experienced large gains. These purported gains are then attributed by Mr. Bush to six broad reforms that were among the policies Florida enacted over two decades. The favored Bush reforms are:  assigning letter grades to schools; high-stakes testing; new requirements for promotion and graduation; bonus pay for educators; new teacher credentialing alternatives; and vastly expanded school choice.

In his review, Mathis notes that the presentation itself resembles and shares graphics with a Heritage Foundation report that has been repackaged for various states. Moreover, the Heritage report’s lead author is now on staff at the Bush foundation, and that Heritage report was itself the subject of a highly critical review in November of 2010. [http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/learning-from-florida]

According to Mathis, instead of a comprehensive and objective consideration of the impact of Florida’s policies, the Bush presentation “is clearly an advocacy tool designed for advancing a particular set of reform proposals.” This has resulted in a misleading presentation, with Mr. Bush promoting several policies that rigorous research has shown to be ineffective or even harmful.

“Fundamentally, Mr. Bush’s presentation is based on the fallacious causal claim that his selected set of loosely coupled reforms introduced in Florida between 1992 and 2011 caused fourth-grade reading score gains,” Mathis writes. “No evidence is provided to sustain this linkage. Further, this claim ignores the fact that some of the favored reforms were implemented as late as 2010, and some are not yet implemented.”

Examining each of the policies trumpeted by Mr. Bush, Mathis’s findings include:

  • The increase in fourth-grade results on the NAEP reading test, which is foundational to the entire Bush presentation, is largely an artifact of a mandatory third-grade retention policy that initially eliminated low-scoring children from the fourth-grade test and then delayed those children’s exam dates until they were more mature, thereby exaggerating any gains.
  • Claims that fourth-grade NAEP reading scores improved because of the test-based retention policy also ignore the likely influence of a number of reforms downplayed or ignored by Mr. Bush. These reforms include a state reading initiative, mandated class-size reductions, the provision of reading coaches, and an emphasis on early education.
  • The policy of assigning letter grades to schools has been followed by “a growing gap and greater inequities between higher- and lower-rated schools.”
  • Mr. Bush offers no evidence that alternative teacher credentialing has done anything to improve teacher quality. Other changes in seniority, tenure and test-based teacher evaluation won’t even be implemented until 2013-2014 – meaning that no credit can be assigned to them for any past Florida improvements.
  • Mr. Bush’s favored school choice measures are also advocated without sound evidence that they substantially influenced test scores.

Mathis notes that “significant bodies of both Florida-specific and national research literature ...  document the limitations—or the outright failure—of many of the proposed reforms.” He further points to evidence that “the effect of the Florida reforms will likely prove to be a more inequitable and inadequate educational system.”

The result, Mathis says, misleadingly claims the favored reforms have produced fourth-grade reading achievement gains by ignoring contradictory data, alternative explanations, and credible warnings about the hazards the suggested measures pose.

Policy makers would be well advised to ignore Jeb Bush’s salesmanship and look instead to solid, objective research evidence.

 

Find William Mathis’s review on the NEPC website at:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-florida-formula

 

The Michigan PowerPoint is available from the review’s author. A similar PowerPoint from Mr. Bush is available on the web at:

http://www.excelined.org/docs/Oklahoma%20Education%20Presentation.pdf

The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org), a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound, reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

This review is also found on the GLC website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/