If you were on vacation earlier this month—lucky you—you may have missed the release of the 2017 NAEP results. On the whole, you didn’t miss much. With NAEP results flat in much of the country, the prevailing narrative is that education progress has stalled. There were some exceptions around the country, like Florida, that continued to make impressive gains. Unfortunately, Ohio wasn’t one of those exceptions, as my colleague Aaron Churchill has explained.
Don’t take my word for it though, here are some data comparing Ohio and Florida’s NAEP performance.
In summary, Florida is now cleaning Ohio’s clock on NAEP. But that wasn’t always the case: Notice how in 2003 Ohio had better NAEP scores in both fourth and eighth grade reading and math for black and low-income students. In 2017, Florida was superior in EVERY one of those categories. Florida’s most disadvantaged students made tremendous gains while Ohio’s languished. The progress hasn’t been limited to historically disadvantaged students, either. In fourth grade, improvements among Florida’s white students also noticeably outpaced Ohio (though eighth grade appears to be more comparable).
If you’ve followed Ohio’s education reforms closely, you might be saying “wait a minute.” Ohio adopted many of the same reforms that Florida implemented during Jeb Bush’s tenure as governor—things like instituting A-to-F school grades, providing incentive funding for performance, requiring third graders to read on grade level before promotion to fourth grade, raising expectations for high school graduation, and implementing vibrant public and private school choice. Why is Florida making progress but Ohio is mostly treading water?
To put it simply, success rests on both sound policy and robust implementation. Florida is a positive example for both. Ohio, conversely, despite good intentions, has repeatedly faltered on either policy details or its commitment to implementation.
Before we dig in, though, one caveat is necessary. Education is both complex and complicated. It’s difficult in all but the rarest of circumstances to distinguish between causation and correlation. That disclaimer aside, it’s also fair to say that the reforms highlighted have dominated education policy in Florida for the better part of two decades and student academic outcomes have never been higher.
A-to-F school grades
Issuing every school a summative A-to-F letter grade was one of the first reforms in Florida. Since implementation, the state has been unwavering in its commitment to school grades to make certain that parents and the public knew which schools were performing well and which needed help. In fact, at several instances along the way, Florida increased the level of achievement necessary to earn an A, a clear example of using school grades to both raise expectations and drive increased school quality. Living in the Sunshine State at the time this reform was implemented, I can attest to the controversy that it created and that the resolve of Florida’s leaders didn’t waver. Ohio, on the other hand, came later to A-to-F school grades and adopted the policy in late 2012. The Buckeye State opted to take it slow and implement the grades over time, adding additional graded measures each year. By the 2016–17 school year, there were fourteen separate graded categories but not a single summative grade—that critical piece of the accountability system was delayed for several years, and will finally appear this September.
The difference between the two states here supports the old adage that you really can, as we’ve written, have too much of a good thing. Assigning as many as fourteen school grades to a single school or district assures that virtually every school will earn a failing mark in one category or another, thereby playing into the false claim that the purpose of school grades is to make schools look bad rather than to drive improved academic performance. This has led to a major push in Ohio to jettison A-to-F grades before they’ve truly taken hold. Moreover, the delay in assigning a single summative grade to schools has made it a far less useful tool for parents seeking to use it a source of information for choosing their children’s school, let alone using it to drive an increase in school quality.
Incentive funding for academic performance
For almost twenty years, the Florida School Recognition Program has awarded bonuses to any school that earns an A on the state report card or improves its letter grade from the prior year. The funds, $100 per pupil, are awarded to the school and can be spent on staff bonuses, educational equipment, or temporary personnel to assist with improving student performance. The policy’s real genius is that staff and school advisory councils jointly decide how the dollars are allocated. In 2017 alone, more than $129 million was distributed to 1,723 schools.
In the last few years, Ohio has experimented with its own version of incentive funding by providing additional funding for schools with high third grade literacy and graduation rates. Unfortunately, the provisions are structured in a manner that is unlikely to have any impact. Ohio’s framework spreads a little money ($35 million in fiscal year 2016) to each and every school, which effectively minimizes the likelihood that it will act as an incentive for anyone. Finally, unlike their colleagues in Florida, Ohio teachers have no say as to how the dollars are allocated. Ohio could learn much from Florida’s approach in this area.
Third grade reading
Florida ended social promotion for third graders who couldn’t read on grade level in 2002. Research has largely reinforced the importance of ensuring students can read proficiently before entering fourth grade. The Sunshine State held back fourteen percent of third grade students in the policy’s first year. Working near the capital at the time, I still recall the tearful testimony of parents imploring legislators not to enforce the requirement. To their credit they didn’t take that advice; instead, Florida leaders provided summer reading camps, created a system of reading coaches and mentors, and established a framework allowing for mid-year promotion for students who caught up with their peers the following year.
Ohio, like many states around the country, has followed Florida’s lead and adopted its own version of the policy it’s dubbed the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. The law spurred a statewide emphasis on identifying and assisting struggling readers in grades K–3. Attempting to soften the effect of the new policy, Ohio legislators asked for the state board to adopt a promotion score below the proficiency threshold at the outset and to raise the required score over time until the two scores were aligned. The first year saw only 4 percent of third grades students retained. Now in its fifth year, Ohio still promotes students with reading scores below proficient. In fact, in 2016–17, 18 percent of third graders were promoted, even though they scored below proficient.
If Ohio continues to put off aligning its promotion and proficiency scores, it’s hard to see how the policy will boost third graders’ reading level any further. Florida, in both word and deed, believed that it was critical its third graders read on grade level before advancing to fourth grade. Ohio does in word but time will tell if it does in deed.
Rigorous high school graduation requirements
Florida and Ohio have followed a similar path on graduation requirements. Both states have long mandated specific coursework and passage of required examinations to receive a high school diploma. Florida has transitioned more seamlessly to using robust end of course exams (in algebra I and tenth-grade English language arts) as a graduation requirement. Ohio has found itself mired in controversy as it moved from the very basic Ohio Graduation Test to more rigorous end of course exams. A feared drop in the number of students likely to graduate generated an outsized response aimed at undercutting the increased expectations even before implementation. In what’s become an all too common response to such concerns, the Ohio State Board of Education urged the legislature to adopt a watered-down high school diploma pathway for the class of 2018 that didn’t require students to pass a single assessment in order to get a diploma. The state board has again asked for alternative graduation pathways, this time for the classes of 2019 and 2020. It’s hard to determine if students are ready for post–high school success when expectations are repeatedly lowered. Again, failure to stick with this reform threatens to derail Ohio’s effort.
Vibrant public and private school choice
Both Ohio and Florida are rightfully thought of as national leaders in school choice. Ohio has five private school choice programs, more than 300 charter schools, and open enrollment is allowed in more than 400 school districts. Once again, though, Florida has gone a couple of steps beyond the Buckeye State. Florida’s four private school choice programs serve almost three times as many students and include a tax credit scholarship which makes every low-income student—regardless of where they live—eligible for a scholarship. In the charter school space, Florida hasn’t been plagued by the same quality questions as Ohio and, potentially as a result, has grown more quickly with more than 650 charters. Moreover, recent legislation in Florida has given charter funding a big boost and contributed to closing the charter-district funding gap that exists in much of the country. Finally, Florida has made statewide open enrollment the law. This allows students to attend school in any district as long as it has open seats. Meanwhile, Ohio’s opt-in open enrollment model has resulted in districts near the state’s neediest districts closing their schoolhouse doors to non-residents. While there is much to praise in both states, the opportunities available to low-income Floridians far eclipse those enjoyed by their Midwestern brethren.
The message for Ohio policymakers and those around the country is clear: If you really want to change the way things are done, passing good laws isn’t enough. You may breathe a sigh of relief—especially if the measure is controversial—when your governor signs new education policy into law, but don’t think for a moment that the work is complete. As this analysis of Florida and Ohio demonstrates, similar policies can—if NAEP is to be believed—result in very different outcomes depending on implementation and the political resolve shown by a state’s leaders. If you believe a policy will help students learn, you need to have the courage of your convictions and not walk it back at the first sign of controversy. After all, anything worth doing should be worth doing well.
 For context, a ten-point gain is roughly equivalent to a grade level.
 Ohio has made a limited number of low-income students in specific grade levels eligible for vouchers. Eligibility won’t apply to all grades until the 2025–26 school year if the program continues to expand. That is not a certainty given it’s funded each year via a line item appropriation in the state budget. Even with its long-term future uncertain, demand has outstripped available funding in each of the last two years.