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Reply to Matthew Ladner

Dr. Ladner has posted a reply to my earlier post.  At the risk of going around in circles with Dr. Ladner, who promotes Jeb Bush's Florida policies as a full time job (that is, I know going in I'm not going to last), I'll clarify my points.

1.      As Professor Chatterji's review states, the failure of Ladner's work to address the clear and obvious artifacts of grade retention does not mean that Florida hasn't shown gains. It simply means that the stated amounts of gains are misleading.

2.      Similarly, by focusing on specific tested subjects and grade levels, the gains have been misleadingly inflated. Why 4th grade reading rather than 8th grade writing?

3.      Dr. Ladner states, “I have always held that the exact cause for the improvement is impossible to know, because Florida’s reformers enacted multiple reforms simultaneously. The logical response to this is not to do none of the Florida reforms, but to do all of them.” But he also stresses that he’s ruled out the possible causes he doesn’t much care for.  So we’re told it’s not increased spending or class size reduction; instead it must be the A-F grading of schools, the increased school choice, the grade retention, the virtual education, etc.  The Ladner arguments for ruling out some possible causes and promoting others are weak and unconvincing (with the exception of a specific preschool initiative that hadn’t taken effect until about 4-5 years ago).

4.      For example, while Sherman Dorn points to a 19% increase in school funding during the Jeb Bush years (19% in real terms, between 1998-99 and 2006-07), generated by a real-estate boom, the Ladner EdNext piece says that funding can’t account for any outcome improvements because there was only a 7% increase from 1998–99 to 2004–05 (two years earlier). Assuming both figures are correct, the big jump appeared to take place after the spring of 2005. But certainly that can be part of the success story.

5.      Dorn also says, “I judge the evidence to be strongest in elementary reading, which suggests that the Florida Reading Research Center and reading coaches were the most important part of the Bush education policies.” Has Ladner ruled this out? Is he promoting it as part of the national sales campaign for Bush’s Florida reforms? I can’t find it on the “Foundation for Excellence in Education” website, but perhaps I missed it.

6.      In sum, the “plausible” theory that Dr. Ladner is requesting is essentially this:

a.      Florida likely has shown real improvement on some important measures, but that improvement is substantially less than Ladner and Bush have contended.

b.      It is also very likely that the actual improvement in measured learning in states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey surpasses that of Florida. Yet the policies in those states have hardly mirrored those of Florida; they haven’t adopted the so-called Florida Formula. Why isn’t the Foundation for Excellence in Education promoting those states’ approaches instead of, or in addition to, Florida’s?

c.      Among the policies and reforms existing in Florida, some of them are likely having a meaningful positive effect, others are likely a wash, and still others are likely having a significant negative effect. From the work of Ladner and Bush, we do not know which policies and reforms to put in each category.

7.      If “a” is correct, then the positives of Florida policy outweigh the negatives.

8.      The argument that the entire package can be considered a success so it should be adopted by other states is sloppy and disingenuous, particularly since the promotion machine is not in fact selling all parts of the package. Further, we’re not working here on a clean slate. We have tons of research about policies shown to improve student achievement; we don’t need to turn to Florida, accept the inflated performance claims, and blindly guess at what may have caused those gains. To offer a colorful analogy, if we know an antibiotic works, why set it aside and treat a bacterial infection with the minced kidneys of a goat that once fought off an infection?

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar foun...