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  1. Opinion

Reforming school reform

After 17 years of pushing, prodding and tweaking, reformers have thoroughly remade Florida's education system. Over time, in legislative sessions like the one that begins Tuesday, they erected a hulking infrastructure: a high-stakes test, the FCAT, to measure students' progress.

School grades, based on that test, to tell good schools from bad.

Teacher evaluations, based in part on the test.

Charter schools and vouchers to spark innovation and expose public schools to competition.

Rewards to promote success; sanctions to prick failing schools toward change.

Incentives to push more high school students into college-caliber courses.

And underpinning it all — a belief that these ideas, not more money, would make Florida an education leader.

Today that same system, crafted in large measure by former Gov. Jeb Bush, is under major reconstruction. It sounds silly to say it, but the reformers are reforming their reforms.

Florida, joining 44 other states and the District of Columbia, has adopted the Common Core State Standards, an entirely new education framework that soon will bring yet another round of change to Florida classrooms.

Lessons in all subjects will be infused with instruction to make students more literate, even in science and math class. From the earliest grades, the curriculum will reflect what kids will need to know for college and beyond. Teaching will be less formulaic and prescriptive. It will aim more often to increase understanding and less often to drill students on facts they should know for a test.

Overall, the coursework will be more rigorous, and heavily reliant on online materials. Like an aging space shuttle, the oft-maligned FCAT will be shelved, replaced by a new online test called PARCC.

These latest reforms will figure prominently in the upcoming legislative session, not because of major opposition but because many insist the state cannot possibly organize, align and implement them all as planned by the 2014-15 school year. Just the process of outfitting schools with enough new computers and bandwidth is causing local leaders to sweat.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents has called the Common Core timetable "overly aggressive," unrealistic and "so problematic as to jeopardize student success."

Legislation has been introduced to slow the process, although Senate President Don Gaetz says he hopes the Common Core standards will be fully implemented on time. The reform movement, which counts him as a major figure, has never been big on waiting around.

Here in the limbotic space between old and new, it seems appropriate to review where Florida's education system stands.

"I think we've made tremendous progress by instituting and sticking with the Jeb Bush reforms, but we can't be a one-trick pony," says Gaetz, a Republican and onetime school superintendent from the panhandle town of Niceville.

"We can't rely on accountability as our only tool. Under Gov. Bush we learned how to measure ourselves and do better every year. But now I think we have to compete on a broader scale. And that's why Common Core standards are so important."

Florida's standing in the education world depends on how, where, when and what you measure, says Ruth Melton, the longtime director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

"My quick answer is Florida is doing better than most people think and not as well as most people would like."

Bush's advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, trumpets the reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s as "perhaps the greatest public policy success story of the past decade."

The foundation often zeroes in on Florida's fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP, a series of tests often referred to as "the Nation's Report Card."

From 2002 — when much of Bush's accountability machine was finally in place — to 2011, Florida's fourth-graders soared from 32nd to 14th nationally in reading. Only two other states improved at a faster clip during that period.

In January, the annual "Quality Counts" report by the respected journal Education Week ranked Florida sixth in the nation using a scale that measures education policy and performance. With a score of 81.1, the state snagged a B-minus.

It was another impressive showing that only burnished Florida's reputation as a major player in education.

But a look at other measurements reveals a less flattering picture.

Florida's Quality Counts grade when it comes to financing education: D-plus, among the worst ratings in the nation.

And, in 2011, the same Florida fourth-graders who scored so well in reading on the NAEP test were still below the national average in math. Florida's eighth-graders, meanwhile, fell in the NAEP rankings between 2002 and 2011. Today, they rank 36th in reading and 43rd in math.

The eighth-graders' scores improved, but at half the pace of their peers in many other states, including Texas, which theoretically is hampered by many of the same big-state issues as Florida.

Gaetz's attention is particularly fixed on numbers that he says reveal serious trouble in Florida's state college and university systems.

Florida ranks 31st in the nation in the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college. It ranks 38th in the rate of students who continue from high school to college.

At most all of its universities, 40 to 50 percent of students who graduate with bachelor's degrees leave school with average debt ranging from $16,000 to $22,000.

Gaetz vividly recalls the Oct. 16 debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in which the candidates discussed reports that more than half of those who graduated from college last year in the United States were unemployed or working jobs that didn't require a degree.

"To me, that is the most alarming economic security fact," says Gaetz, who pairs that statistic with numbers showing that scores of jobs go unfilled in Florida for lack of qualified candidates. Somewhere along the line, he contends, the state's postsecondary education system is failing to prepare students for the realities of the modern American workplace.

He has joined House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, in proposing a sweeping set of reforms to be presented in three Senate bills.

Those measures include language that would:

• Drastically increase the availability of online classes at Florida state colleges and universities.

• Flood classrooms from kindergarten to 12th grade with computers and other digital tools.

• Require the state to distribute an annual "Economic Security Report" aimed at students as young as middle schoolers. It would list occupations, show the demand and starting salaries for each, and detail which Florida colleges and universities offered programs in those areas.

• Ensure that the Common Core's rigorous new standards don't shut down college and job opportunities for students who aren't "chalkboard learners" and are more inclined to learn a trade. The measures would establish "alternative pathways" to graduation for these students with rigorous career courses certified by industry organizations. New courses would allow them to earn college credit while in high school, just like advanced placement and IB students.

• Give hefty financial rewards to state colleges and universities that excel at offering degrees in fields such as computer engineering and information technology, and that match their graduates with jobs in those disciplines.

Gaetz considers these the centerpiece education measures of the upcoming session — more so than the Common Core issue and other reform proposals. He also is keenly aware how some people will view them.

"I'm sure there will be a debate: Is Don Gaetz proposing a retreat from intellectualism? And I'm not," he said.

"I'm proposing useful intellectualism. If you read Thomas Jefferson, you'll find that he believed that education had to enliven the spirit, provide skills that people could use in their everyday living and also agitate the mind intellectually to be curious about all things. That's what I think education ought to do."

Contact Tom Tobin at