By: Jeb Bush
I have five suggestions, implemented together, that will give the communities that embrace them a leg up.
They are higher and more rigorous standards of learning, robust accountability, a healthy injection of competition through school choice, rewarding teacher effectiveness and an embrace of technology.
Rigorous academic standards are the foundation of a quality education. Academic standards define what students are expected to learn.
My experience with developing standards is that educators focus on their niche and demand their inclusion. The resulting compromise has created a system of too many standards that are a mile wide and an inch deep, making it harder for teachers to effectively teach to all of them.
In the United States, the good news is that during the last two years, 48 states got together to develop a set of common core standards for language arts and math with the ultimate goal that if students graduate from high school, they will be truly college and career-ready.
To achieve that important goal, standards must be rigorous and ambitious.
Standards are the important first step. Next must come assessments that accurately reflect how students are faring. Ideally, the assessments would be given intermittently during the school year to identify and reverse failure early. The final annual assessment should be given nearer the end of the year to accurately measure whether students achieved a year’s worth of knowledge.
Grade all schools
Successful institutions of all stripes embrace accountability. Schools should be no exception.
In Florida, since 1999, we have graded schools ‘A’ to ‘F’ based 100 per cent on student learning. Let me tell you, no one – and I mean no one – has to explain the difference between an ‘A’ school and an ‘F’ school.
When we first graded schools, we had more ‘D’s and ‘F’s than ‘A’s and ‘B’s. Today, the number of ‘A’s and ‘B’s has quadrupled and ‘D’s and ‘F’s have plummeted.
When schools organized themselves around the singular goal of learning – which meant earning an ‘A’ or improving a grade – student achievement went up. Under this system of accountability, as measured by the NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card, Florida’s fourth graders went from 29th out of 31 states in reading to sixth best out of 50. And the greatest gains come from minority and poor students.
Florida’s accountability system uses both a carrot and a stick. Our experience is that you need both.
Schools that earn an ‘A’ or improve a letter grade earn $75 per student to use how they want. More than $1 billion have been awarded during the last decade, and 85 per cent of the money went to bonuses for teachers and staff.
As a stick, Florida offers an array of alternatives to traditional public schools. While some call this a consequence, most families consider choices an opportunity or even a lifeline to a better education and a better life.
The fact that there are consequences creates an environment where new strategies naturally are applied. Reading coaches in schools teaching all teachers how to teach reading is an example. Ending social promotion in the third grade, so when students start to read to learn in fourth grade, more of them actually know how to read. More mentoring programs to assist teachers with the hardest to teach students. And on and on it goes, because a good accountability system makes every child important for the school’s success.
As you have learned through the good work of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, disclosing results identifies the great work being done with like-kind students and points out where improvement is necessary.
Simply put, there are no more excuses!
Give parents choice
In today’s world, we have unprecedented choices in nearly every area of our lives – where we live, where we shop, what we drive. In every area except what could be the most important – that is in education.
Knowing what we know – that a quality education is the proven path to prosperity – how can we deny a child that lifeline to a better living and a more secure financial future? How can we doom a child to a school that we know will not prepare them for success in life?
It is time to give parents a choice and a voice in where their children go to school, arming them with quality information and requiring their engagement.
Florida provides the greatest array of choices to parents. Our pre-k program is the largest voucher program in the United States, with more than 140,000 four-year-olds going to private schools with public money. We have the largest corporate tax scholarship program, the largest number of students attending virtual schools, more than 137,000 students attending charter schools, the largest voucher program for students with disabilities and one of the largest dual enrollment programs.
Research over the last decade has shown that Florida public schools have done better because of our array of school choice programs. Not surprisingly, competition improves all schools. School choice is like a catalytic converter accelerating the benefits of other education reform.
Along the way, some myths – like, school choice will only be taken advantage of by the wealthy, that public schools will be devastated financially – have been shattered.
Like you all, I believe all children can learn. Poverty, broken families, disabilities, and language barriers – all are challenges to learning. But all of these challenges can be overcome by effective teaching.
Research pioneered a decade ago found that students of the most effective teachers learn almost four times more than students of the least effective teachers, and these effects can be seen for at least three years.
What makes an effective teacher?
First, great teachers have a bedrock belief that every student who walks into their classroom can learn. These teachers don’t make excuses. Instead, they go to extraordinary lengths to overcome whatever obstacle stands in the way of their students’ learning.
Second, great teachers create a safe and engaging environment for students to learn. That doesn’t necessarily mean a neat and quiet classroom. Orderly chaos might be a better description! These teachers make school fun but meaningful.
Third, great teachers are both great learners and great leaders. A strong grasp of the subject matter and the ability to adapt instruction to meet the needs of each student makes these teachers – and their students – successful.
Finally, great teachers use data as a means to measure student learning and assess their own instruction. Great teachers focus on teaching the content in the standards.
Learn more, earn more
To find and foster great teachers, we need to modernize the profession.
Teachers should be evaluated and compensated based on how much their students learn, and teachers whose students learn more should earn more.
There should be differentiated pay to attract individuals from the private sector with skills in high-demand subjects, such as math and science; those teaching positions should pay more.
Teaching in a high-poverty school is more challenging than teaching in an affluent school. To attract great teachers to our toughest challenges, teachers who work in high-poverty schools should earn more. That’s our best hope of closing the achievement gap.
Finally, in this competitive global economy, no one should have a lifetime guarantee of employment – and that includes teachers.
To really transform education, we need to embrace the fundamental concept that education should be custom-designed to maximize every child’s God-given ability to learn.
How could we possibly do this for thousands or millions of students? We can do it, by harnessing technology to tailor lessons to each child’s ability and learning style. This concept was only a dream a generation ago. Now it can be accomplished.
When you think about the possibilities, today’s online courses are really just the beginning.
We have the ability to create the iTunes of the education world, where teachers and students could access rich and rigorous content from different sources to create a learning experience that meets the individual needs of the students.
We know students learn differently and at different paces. Yet, most schools teach students roughly the same.
If you walked into a classroom in Miami or, I would venture to say, Halifax or Moncton, chances are it would look pretty much the same – students at desks with textbooks and pencils with a teacher in the front of the room. The only difference might be that the chalkboard is now a whiteboard and a television or computer might sit in the corner of the room.
This is all the more extraordinary when compared to all of the changes that have occurred outside of school during the last 10, 20 or 30 years.
Imagine a repository of rich and rigorous content from multiple sources that could be accessed by teachers and students to build a personalized education plan. The potential for such a system is endless. Exercises and homework could be customized to a student’s interests. Adaptive and customized learning already exists on a massive scale in the entertainment and job training fields. It should be expanded to our schools.
With a personalized education, more students would achieve.
Transforming the “delivery system” would make some existing policies obsolete. In fact, some of the more contentious issues would become moot. Class size would cease to be an issue. A student, armed with a computer, could learn from anywhere.
Learning at your own pace would end the need for social promotion. Students would move on when ready, not before. More students could graduate high school with college credits and fewer students would be frustrated and feel compelled to drop out.
Providing the highest quality of instruction online could eliminate the disparity in instruction that currently exists in high-poverty or rural schools. Students would have access to the same curriculum and quality instruction that is available in the best schools.
Technology wouldn’t replace the teacher but it would redefine their role. Lectures might be given online to thousands of students, while classroom teachers might become more like coaches or tutors available to provide one-on-one support, again based on whatever the student needed.
Funding could be based on completion or achievement, rather than attendance or seat-time. This expansion of virtual education would likely create the economies of scale to reduce costs, even as quality dramatically improves.
Jeb Bush is founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a not-for-profit education think-tank headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., and was a two-term governor of that state. These remarks are excerpted from a speech delivered Tuesday at a dinner for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.