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We Have the Answer to Education Failure

August 8, 2013 - 6:00pm

The Foundation for Excellence in Education today shared with Sunshine State News readers former Gov. Jeb Bush's remarks on education reform to the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual meeting this week in Chicago.

The following is Bush's Friday address in full:

Thank you for your kind introduction. It is good to be with my friends at ALEC.

ALEC has been at the forefront of education reform since the beginning, and I am grateful for your efforts and honored to be here.

In 1993, ALEC took the growing cost of education, divided it by the lack of results, and demonstrated that we cannot buy student achievement from unaccountable government bureaucracies.

Since 1950, the number of adults in public education has increased at four times the rate of students. The increase in administrators and other nonteaching personnel has been sevenfold.

Big Government turned the one-room schoolhouse into a massive jobs program. Kids were FTEs -- full time equivalents, good for a guaranteed payment regardless of outcome. FTEs also are the lynchpins for funding outsized pensions at the expense of current spending in the classroom.

If schools dont do a good job, we are told it is because they arent getting enough money. If spending increases and they still arent performing, it is because it isnt enough money.

America has become a global leader in education spending, while also becoming a global laggard in math and science achievement.

By helping shed light on this, ALEC helped lay the groundwork for our reform efforts in Florida.

Instead of throwing more money out the helicopter door and hoping for the best, we began demanding the best. And we became national leaders in learning gains instead of spending gains.

Now such reforms are being enacted across the country, thanks to conservative legislative leaders and governors who opt for bold action instead of timid politicking.

The progress demonstrated by states turned education reform from a grassroots conservative cause into a widespread bipartisan movement.

Just last year, in this city, a Democratic mayor confronted the Chicago Teachers Union, hoping to address the fiscal implosion and academic failures of the citys public school system.

I thought the unions called me some pretty bad things. Then I heard what they were calling Rahm Emanuel. That I disagree with Mayor Emanuel on almost every other issue does not mean that I wont welcome him to the cause on this one.

And he is by no means alone. Look at Detroit. As the city descended into bankruptcy, its public school system was mired in corruption and mismanagement, prompting Education Secretary Arne Duncan to call it a national disgrace.

The city spends more than $19,000 a year per pupil, and for that investment it produces some of the worst academic outcomes in the nation.

Is it any wonder charter enrollment is growing to take in more than a third of public school students?

What ALEC was talking about 20 years ago has sadly come to pass. In most places, we have an education system designed around the economic interests of the adults where academic achievement of the kids is secondary.

Cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago are closing dozens of half-empty, failing schools while parents line up for charters. We have a glut of schools that parents dont want and a dire shortage of those they do want.

I dont think the fate of children should be determined by the luck of the draw at a lottery.

Those vested in the status quo lash out with political and personal attacks. They hatch conspiracy theories about plots to destroy public education. They do everything but confront the reality that the system they are defending has failed.

Not reforming is not an option. Our students have fallen behind their international peers in math, science and reading. This isnt just our poor kids. Its all our kids.

It is good that we are focusing on high school graduation, and that we are seeing an increase in graduation rates. But high school diplomas must be backed by sufficient academic rigor so the students receiving them are prepared for the next step.

When only one-third of our students leave high school ready for college or a career, we are kidding ourselves, lying to them and positioning this nation for decline.

The result is that we are not producing enough scientists and welders, doctors and plumbers, nurses and mechanics, engineers and the list goes on and on.

Despite high unemployment, there are 3 million skilled jobs going unfilled because companies cannot find qualified applicants.

In the new economy, auto mechanics work with advanced electronics and complex drivetrains. Their toolboxes now come with computers. The assembly lines of old are being replaced with high-tech production processes.

Polls show Americans stand out in the world in their belief that individual initiative creates success.

But at the same time, a wide range of studies show social and economic mobility is declining. More than at any time in our recent history, children born into poverty are more likely to remain there as adults.

Studies done by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes show growing inequality in which the advantaged are becoming permanently better off and the disadvantaged permanently worse off. The prospect for economic mobility is becoming increasingly remote.

I recognize the added challenge of educating lower-income children. But that does not excuse us from making every effort to do so. Nobody has the moral right to look at a childs circumstances and, from that, prejudge his or her ability to learn.

Low expectations are a cancer in the classroom. The future of far too many children hinges on only the first four years they spend in school. Those who cant read after that point face dismal prospects for a future.

Just follow the statistical trail.

  • Almost 90 percent of students who fail to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in third-grade.
  • Eighty-five percent of kids who enter the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.
  • Seventy percent of adult prisoners cant read above a fourth-grade level.
  • Right now, we have about 17 million kids enrolled in K-3. About half of those students live in poverty and almost half of those will enter fourth-grade functionally illiterate.

Just how long do they have for us to turn this situation around?

Of course, Washington has an answer to this failure to educate. Make amends with ever bigger social programs.

And so instead of post-secondary education, far too many young people wind up in post-secondary dependency.

So where do we begin?

I have some suggestions that, implemented together, will create rising student achievement for all kids.

High standards are the most basic element of reform. Standards define what children are expected to learn over their school year, what they need to know to prepare them for success in each grade.

Ultimately, the quality of the standards determines whether a high school diploma is worth more than the paper it is printed on.

That means that every student who earns one is prepared for college or a career.

To compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century, we must produce competitive high school graduates.

That means we have to raise the bar to make sure the skills they are learning are aligned with what employers and college presidents expect high school graduates to know.

Most states have recognized this need and are taking action. Many states are implementing standards that focus on things that matter.

Fractions in elementary school. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Verifying work.

Now we ask children to write an essay about their favorite day. We ask them to express their feelings. Soon we will ask them to compare excerpts from two research sources to determine where the evidence adds up and where it doesnt.

Our kids are capable of this.

State leaders have, together, developed a set of academic standards in math and English language arts. These standards set an ambitious and voluntary goal line. The states develop their content or game plans to get into the end zone. State and local leaders call the plays. They remain in control of the results. They are free to drop out.

And then, what we will do is tap into the genius of American federalism and learn from each others results.

Like most reforms, doing the right thing will not be doing the easy thing.

There are critics of Common Core Standards from both ends of the ideological spectrum. I know there are some in this room. I respect those who dont share my views. What I cant accept are the dumbed down standards and expectations that exist in almost all of our schools today.

There will be a painful adjustment period as schools and students adapt to higher expectations. Just look at the results announced in New York this week. Remember, only one-third of our students are college or career ready and higher expectations, assessed faithfully, will show that ugly truth.

But the greatest mistake we make in public education is underestimating the capacity of our children to learn. Under the banner of self-esteem we whitewash failure. We demand more of kids on football fields and basketball courts than we do in classrooms.

Next, we must stop the practice of socially promoting illiterate children into fourth-grade. It is an exercise in avoiding the problem at the expense of children.

By the time they enter fourth-grade, children must have made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Those who dont make this transition cant read the text books. They cant do homework. They cant pass the tests. Every year they fall farther behind, get more frustrated and become more disruptive.

A decade ago, despite protests from all sides, Florida instituted a tough-love policy to retain these kids for intensive reading instruction.

That got everybodys attention. It started schools focusing on reading in kindergarten. My Moms foundation encourages starting even earlier by focusing on family literacy since parents are their childs first teacher.

Since 1998, the illiteracy rate for Floridas third-grade students has been cut in half and the number of retentions has dropped by almost as much.

Our fourth-graders have advanced two grade levels in reading and recently finished second in the world, and far above the American average, on a prestigious international reading assessment.

Do you want to know something sad about that? I didnt even see the Florida teachers' union recognize or celebrate that incredible accomplishment achieved by teachers!

The success of our students is a threat to union leaders because it means reform works.

My third suggestion is to embrace technology since it has redefined the way we live and work but as of yet, has barely changed the way we educate.

Kids come home from school, drop backpacks laden with 40 pounds of books and other items, pick up their iPads, tap on an app, and off they go into the digital realm.

Bam Bam Flintstone becomes Elroy Jetson.

We need to make education relevant to 21st century kids, and that means communicating with them on their terms. As digital natives.

Digital learning can customize and personalize education for each student.

Students can learn anytime, anywhere, in their own style and at their own pace.

In the classroom, digital learning provides real-time data so teachers can pinpoint weaknesses and differentiate instruction to address them.

Technology can increase the efficiency of education just like it has increased the efficiency of every other aspect of our lives.

With digital education, students in rural Mississippi can take the same Advanced Placement courses available to students in Boston.

They can advance to the next level or grade when they are ready, not when the class is ready. Advanced students would not get bored and struggling students would not get left behind.

Those opposed to reform hate digital learning because it is hard to collectively bargain for a teacher building content from Seattle for a student in Miami. In most states, protectionist laws retard the advancement of digital learning. But the fact is that digital learning provides us with endless opportunities to rebuild the education system for the 21st century.

Digital learning should be an option for students. And, we need an education marketplace that gives families myriad options.

The presence of a competitor forces you to focus more on quality and efficiency.

You cant just open the door and take the customers for granted.

Options allow parents to shop for a school that best meets their childs needs.

Kids are different. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have different ways of taking in information.

So why would we think one education model, which harkens back to the 19th century, can fit them all? The reason there has been little innovation is because there has been no necessity and little competition.

We are confronted with opposition from unions and bureaucracies because they fear the loss of Full Time Equivalents.

Can you imagine if newspapers had been allowed to block the Internet, or if the Post Office had been allowed to block e-mail?

We dont block progress because it is a threat to those vested in the past.

I applaud the courageous and principled members of ALEC who continue to fight for public and private school choice across the country.

Accountability is another key reform.

In Florida we began grading schools on a simple A-F scale based on the academic achievement of students.

And the result was a remarkable improvement in the academic achievement of students.

Imagine that.

Confronted with a public outing of failing schools, districts in Florida responded with new principals, better-trained teachers, tutors, new curriculum and a whole lot more attention from headquarters.

In a few short years, schools that had received Fs began celebrating As.

Let me give you an example of the power of school choice and accountability.

In 1999, Florida began a scholarship program for students with disabilities known as the McKay Scholarship Program. Parents of 26,000 students take advantage of this program and send their children to private schools.

Next, we began counting students with disabilities in the calculations used to grade public schools.

Lo and behold, they suddenly got a whole lot smarter because they suddenly got a whole lot more attention, and their parents were empowered with other options than just the assigned public school.

And now, Florida leads the nation in learning gains by students with disabilities.

You drive results, not by dollars, but by child-centered policies and the courage to stick with them.

And lastly, let me turn to teachers. Great teachers matter a lot. A child in the classroom of a great teacher gets a 50 percent bonus.

He or she gets 15 months of learning in 10 months time.

A student in the classroom of an ineffective teacher, on the other hand, gets a 50 percent penalty. He or she gets five months worth of learning.

So when school lets out in June, a student who had a great teacher walks out the door a full year ahead of a student who had an ineffective teacher.

Yet we pay both teachers the same.

If there were layoffs, and the ineffective teacher had been hired a day earlier, the great teacher would be sent packing.

If the great teacher got frustrated and quit, little if any effort would be made to keep him or her.

This may be a union-friendly model.

It certainly is not a child-friendly model.

It certainly is not a model designed to attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession.

We need to stop treating teachers like interchangeable workers on an assembly line, and instead recognize them as individual professionals who matter.

Great teachers must be recognized and rewarded. And that will happen if we eliminate tenure and evaluate and pay teachers based on their performance instead of how long theyve been on the job.

And, we must overhaul certification requirements that deter qualified professionals from changing careers and moving into teaching.

I will close with this.

Thank you for your work in states across the country.

Arizona has enacted an A-F grading system for schools that exposes failure and recognizes success. It also is a leader in setting up education accounts for qualifying parents to use on things like private school tuition, tutoring and textbooks.

Utah and New Mexico have begun grading schools to flag failure and recognize success.

In Wisconsin, the birthplace of school choice, the state is expanding a voucher program to expand options for low-income students. The state also has implemented a number of policies, beginning in kindergarten, to advance childhood literacy.

In addition to grading schools, North Carolina recently began a statewide voucher program for low-income students.

Louisiana has become a national leader in both school choice and school grading. Last year, the state witnessed a record number of students earning college credit in Advanced Placement courses.

Alabama is upgrading its academic standards so its children will graduate from high school equipped with the necessary skills in math and language arts to succeed in college, a career or in the military.

Many other governors and legislators are working at reform.

Its not been easy its only going to get harder but it is more important than ever.

If we dont completely transform education, we are defaulting on the American dream.

America was founded on the principle that every American has the right to rise according to his or her abilities and hard work. That has been who we are. It gives us our mojo.

Anyone can accomplish anything in America.

Our greatness is dependent on our ability to unleash the power of individuals to create wealth and opportunity.

It is why poor parents sacrifice to send their children to college. It is why people work long hours, start businesses and take risks.

It is why the best and brightest from around the world come to our shores.

The promise of economic mobility fuels innovation and entrepreneurship.

In my recent travels, I have been to incredibly dynamic cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Bogota and Dubai.

They want to beat us by becoming us. This is what our kids are up against.

I suggest we prepare them.

Thank you very much.

Jeb Bush, Florida's 43rd governor, is the founder and chairman of the Foundation, an organization igniting a movement of reform, state by state, to transform education for our 21st century economy.Excellence in Action, the organizations flagship initiative, is working with lawmakers and policymakers to advance education reform across America.

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