Danedri Thompson
[email protected]

Matthew Ladner had some good news and bad news about Kansas’ educational system last week.

The good news: Kansas ranks 7th in a nationwide survey of state education performance.

“Kansas is a high performing state in a low performing nation,” Ladner, Vice President for Research at the Goldwater Institute, told a crowd of approximately 50 Kansas metro-area education professionals, parents and politicians Jan. 26.

When it comes to education in the U.S., Ladner will have what Florida’s having.

Florida ranks first nationally in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) national report card. Lander said the Sunshine State skyrocketed after dismal scores in 1998.

That year, 47 percent of Florida fourth graders scored at less than proficient – or functionally illiterate. After dramatic Florida education reforms that number dropped significantly. By 2009, less than 30 percent of Florida’s fourth graders were functionally illiterate.

By comparison, only 30 percent of Kansas fourth graders scored less than proficient in 1998. By 2009, Florida and Kansas fourth graders were in a statistical dead heat, according to the national report card. Seventeen percent of Florida fourth graders and 18 percent of Kansas fourth graders scored at the lowest level.

One major difference between Kansas and Florida students, Ladner explained, is the racial diversity in their schools. Statistically, African American and Hispanic students score near the bottom on the NAEP tests.

Kansas has a small minority population, while in Florida minorities make up the majority of public school students.

“They made extraordinary progress,” he said. “But there is no magic bullet.”

Florida’s dramatic test score improvements are the result of a number of changes in the state’s public education system, he said.

“(Florida) did a whole bunch of things at the same time – what I call the Florida cocktail,” Ladner said. “I can’t tell you which reform did how much. But they did these things all in concert and you saw all of these positive (results).”

First, the state created a lettered grading system that gave all schools scores from ‘A’ to ‘F’. The scores were based upon student achievement scores and learning gains.

Before 1999, he said, Florida suffered from what Ladner termed, “fuzzy labeling,” that parents and lay people couldn’t understand.

The labels didn’t come with a scale.

“But when a school gets, God forbid, an ‘F,’ – they know what that means,” he said.

People said low-scoring schools would damage communities.

“Did it ruin schools?” he asked. “No. People rallied to their schools. This is what happens when they treated parents like adults with some truth in advertising. Public schools did not wither up and die.”

As they began giving the schools annual grades, Florida officials also provided alternative teaching certification.

“Bill Gates would be allowed to teach computer science in Florida,” Ladner said. “But not in Kansas. You have to have a teaching degree.”

Florida’s system allows those with degrees in other subjects to take a test showing they know the content they desire to teach.

“After that, it’s up to the district,” he said.

The schools also instituted social promotion bans. Beginning in 2003, students who didn’t learn basic literacy schools by the end of third grade could not be advanced to fourth grade.

This served two purposes, Ladner explained. It has lowered the number of students who eventually drop out of school. Often, those are students who are advanced without basic reading abilities fall further and further behind their classmates and eventually drop out. Additionally, the added consequence of not learning reading inspired more parental involvement in education.

The Florida education reforms included incentives for teachers. If a school scores an ‘A’ or if a school moves up a letter grade, the district receives an extra $100 per student. The school itself gets to determine how the extra funds are used.

“The district doesn’t touch it,” Ladner said. “Typically, it goes to teachers in the form of bonuses.”

Teachers also earn bonuses for every student that passes an Advanced Placement course.

“We know that teachers are not interchangeable widgets,” he said. “Good teachers are underappreciated and ineffective teachers need to be doing something else in their professional careers.”

Ladner said he’s optimistic about the future of American education.

“The realm for possible improvement is large – very large.”