Schools and teachers need to be made accountable for student success, says ex-Fla. governor

Jeb Bush, two-term governor of Florida, brother to former U.S. president George W., and son to other former president George H.W., is coming to Moncton.

He’ll be the keynote speaker at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ (AIMS) 15th anniversary dinner on June 1. The Maritime think-tank puts out an annual high school report card, and is pushing for greater accountability for Atlantic schools. As governor, Bush started the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida’s Future. He is now seen as a leader in education reform and improving student performance. Florida jumped from third-last place in the U.S. to within the top 10 for elementary school literacy during his administration.

Jeb Bush spoke with the Times & Transcript yesterday about how he sees lessons learned in Florida helping students here:


Times & Transcript: Will this be your first time in New Brunswick?

Jeb Bush: It is.

T&T: How do you plan to apply the lessons learned in Florida to the education system here in the Maritimes?

JB: Well, basic aspects of reforms are really universal. I think there’s a lot of commonality irrespective of what jurisdiction we’re talking about. I’m pretty confident I won’t sound like I’m parachuting in.

T&T: Tell us about what you perceive to be some of the biggest gains that your administration achieved in Florida.

JB: I think it’s student achievement. Because ultimately the best measure of success is ‘are more children garnering a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time?’ and that can be measured pretty effectively. In Florida we have a test called the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test. There were significant gains in reading and math in Grades 3 through 10 because of the system we put in place. If you measure Florida compared to other states — and there’s one benchmark that is used to do that — Florida was, in 1998, 29th out of 31 in fourth grade reading. And in 2008 we were sixth out of 50. We closed from there the achievement gap based on family income, we lowered the achievement gap based on race. It’s still a long-term struggle but there have been significant gains.

T&T: As you may know, New Brunswick has one of the lowest literacy rates in Canada. Looking back on the literacy gains that were achieved during your governorship, what advice do you have for this province to increase literacy?

JB: Have high expectations for every child irrespective of their family conditions. Have an accountability system that rewards improvement and excellence and has a different consequence for failure and mediocrity. Focus on the fundamentals. So if literacy is the highest objective, which I think it should be in the earlier grades, really strive for a complete command focus on that. That might mean teaching teachers how to teach reading. Because reading can be taught in a science class or a math class. But if a science teacher doesn’t know how to teach reading it can be very hard to do.

T&T: How do you ensure that schools are being held accountable? Especially schools that are consistently under-performing?

JB: I think if you have a transparent system that is similar across the region, or across the province, or the provinces perhaps, that’s not for me to say, but if you have a grading system that everybody understands you’d get community involvement and you take away the excuses. We grade schools A, B, C, D and F. It takes away all the mystery. You have to really focus on every child. You can’t excuse away ‘well some kids can learn and some kids can’t.’

T&T: What happens if the school continues to under-perform year after year?

JB: Sometimes those schools will have to be reconstituted. New leadership and new teachers. There should be more (school) choices for parents. It creates a climate of competition where all schools improve.

T&T: How important is standardized testing to this process? It hasn’t really been emphasized here in New Brunswick. Should it be?

JB: I think an accurate assessment, or an assessment that accurately measures how students do to the standards that have been established, is critical. One that accurately measures what professionals in the community deem are essential for that grade to be successful as students. Attempts at measuring how students do to those standards is essential because otherwise you’re just guessing.

T&T: One important goal here in New Brunswick is self-sufficiency. How important is a strong and accountable education system to that goal?

JB: I think it’s increasingly critical. A generation ago people could make a good living using their hands and working hard. Today, if you attempt to make a living with your hands you also need to have skills that come from solid education. There are very few jobs that have high sustainable wages that don’t require knowledge. So to me, if you’re trying to achieve sustainability for the region, nurturing a robust, world class education system that yields significantly better results will be perhaps the most important thing.

* The AIMS event — “Choice Works: Educating our way to self-sufficiency” — will be held Tuesday, June 1 from 6 p.m. at the Delta Beausejour in Moncton. Tickets are $200 and available on AIMS’ website.