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Sherman Dorn: Different Ways to Think About the “Florida Package”

My second email Q&A over Florida’s recent reform history is up at Valerie Strauss’s blog. I’m flattered that she calls me an expert on Florida reform. I’m more of a scholar of accountability who was also a local observer for 18 years, and one of those who have written about the state’s education reforms. (See a January 2013 blog entry by the Shanker Institute’s Matt DiCarlo for a discussion of and links to much of that body of research.) Many of my comments in that blog entry are going to strike readers as similar to another email Q&A with Strauss from 2010. We have more data from NAEP this time, and the use of a smoother graph-cutting tool available on the NAEP site. I very much appreciate that Strauss printed the caveats I wrote about using NAEP point estimates; it’s rare when reporters let us get in our quibbles. Strauss was also patient with the weeks when I was too crazy-busy to respond to a question, including a stretch when I realized I had a few errors in a table introduced by rounding errors and asked her to hold off posting anything until I could cross-check it against the tables that NAEP’s server could generate.1

My story on the Florida reform is pretty simple: Governor Bush and other conservative education reformers ignore the best part of his reform efforts and have pushed all the other parts, instead. My view: the consistently positive results in fourth-grade reading contrast with less impressive results. The parsimonious explanation? The most effective part of his administration’s policies was the creation of the Florida Center for Reading Research and the concurrent hiring of hundreds of reading coaches across the state. Instead of highlighting the work of the center, Governor Bush has persuaded other states to enact other policies: labeling schools publicly with A-F grades, holding third-graders back in reading based on test scores, and miscellaneous other pieces including vouchers.2 Under Bill deBlasio, New York City has reversed its previous enactment of A-F grades, but most states who adopted policies from Florida have held onto their adopted “Florida” policies for the few years they’ve had them.

Matthew Ladner has a different story: we don’t know which parts of Bush’s policies mattered, so states should do them all. About five years ago, he and other conservative writers began arguing that because we see meaningful improvement in some parts of achievement in Florida, that means the Florida package as a whole is important. With the conservative electoral wave in 2010 in state legislatures, conservative education advocates saw an opportunity to push various policies, from attacks on teachers unions to vouchers to value-added measures tied to teacher evaluation. Some of those were also pushed by center-left Democrats who identify as education reformers, but a significant part of the advocacy of state-level changes in the past five years have been from conservative activists. The argument in short: states should do what Florida has done. Yes, policy change is messy. So don’t skip out on potentially important parts. (See the piece by Ladner and Lindsay Burke in 2010, the criticism by William Mathis and Madhavi Chatterji, and this link for a pop-culture-flavored rebuttal by Ladner.)

Here’s one problem with Ladner’s approach: in almost all cases, major education policy changes are tangles of different approaches. Imagine applying his philosophy to all policy changes. If you followed Ladner’s approach, whenever we saw major improvements, we should keep layering on every single thing that a school district or state did, because you can’t take the chance that you’re missing the key ingredient. Do everything Massachusetts did in the mid-1990s. Do everything Maryland has done more recently. Keep doing that with everything every successful school, district, or state has done. This is mimickry gone wild, and it’s neither possible nor desirable. If we can draw a plausible conclusion about which pieces of a policy package were more effective, we should do so.3

The legitimate point Ladner made when we talked a few weeks ago is that there is a double standard when folks on the center-left talk about Florida in contrast with Massachusetts. On occasion (not all the time), people ignore some of the complexities in 1990s school reforms in Massachusetts. It was all the curriculum, you sometimes hear. Um, no. Ladner’s right on Massachusetts; we should be more discerning. And I’m right on Florida.



  1. The blog entry showed some of the NAEP figures comparing Florida scale score means to the country’s, and I have added all of them below: reading and math in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. You can also look at reading in 8th grade and math in 4th and 12th grades. And the NAEP gap tables FL 4th grade reading for reading 4th grade.

NAEP Reading Grade 4 FL vs US

NAEP Reading Grade 8 FL vs US

NAEP Reading Grade 12 FL vs US

NAEP Math Grade 4 FL vs US

NAEP Math Grade 8 FL vs US

NAEP Math Grade 12 FL vs US
Source: NAEP “Nation’s Report Card” website section on reading and math scores by state. [↩]

  1. In my email correspondence with Strauss I argued that Bush essentially never mentioned the center. I understand that is not quite correct: Bush has encouraged other states to borrow materials from the FCRR. That is different from encouraging other states to build their own technical assistance centers for teachers. [↩]
  2. “Doing whatever they did” is the policy equivalent of superstitions baseball players follow; wear the same thing you did and keep to the same routines from the start of a streak. “Do everything I tell you Florida did” is like wearing beards until the end of a season. Yes, I know: Reports are that the Red Sox beards from 2013 were more about bonding than superstition. But there are quite a few superstitions in clubhouses. [↩]

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor...