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Canada, Let Florida Educate You

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A nation is only as successful as its ability to educate its population and bootstrap its less fortunate children.

Interestingly, it has taken a Republican, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to reform the public education system successfully and achieved impressive results.

Both countries (U.S. then Canada) spend more than any others on education, as a percentage of GDP, but get fewer good results for the investment than do many others. Math and language arts scores have declined. Drop out rates have increased.

But Governor Bush, during his term from 1999 to 2007, tackled educational issues head-on and reversed his state's steady drop in results. Other states have adopted some of his reforms to attempt to do the same. But all states and provinces should heed his actions.

"I learned through trial and error how to advance a reform agenda against opposition, and the process may have relevance in other jurisdictions where there is such a vested interest in the status quo," Bush told an audience this fall at the Economic Club in Toronto.

Here are a few of his innovative ideas:

The Florida state legislature set up a grading system for schools -- from A to F -- based on measuring both student learning gains and student proficiency. Schools with top marks, or the best improvements by students, were given $100 per student, most of which ended up as bonuses for teachers. Florida created the largest merit-based program in the U.S., tallying $140 million a year.

Vouchers were given to kids in failing schools, those graded "F", allowing them for two years to go to the public or private school of their choice.

Measuring students began in grade 3 and children who had not kept up with the curriculum were not promoted but held back until they had mastered the work. Florida thus ended the type of "social promotion" that guarantees student failure.

Florida set up a database that can track kids through their education to measure performance and results of their schools and teachers.

Emphasis was put on early literacy, allowing kindergarten and first grade teachers to intervene early enough to close gaps. Reading coaches were provided to teach teachers. Within ten years Florida's 4th grade report card, based on national standards, went from 39th out of 41 to 6th out of 50.

Mentors to coach students about homework and focus were also put into every school, some 206,000, from the private sector and charitable sector.

Vouchers were handed out for children with learning disabilities to go to independent or charter schools.

Tenure was eliminated for all teachers.

But more must be done, he said.

"Today in the United States, 25 per cent of the kids are college -- or career-ready. Twenty-five per cent! We spend more per student than any country in the world, including Canada," he said. "That only 25 per cent of kids pass that test is a tragedy of epic proportions for the long-term future of our country."

In Canada, there are similar concerns about declining test results, notably in math and sciences, compared with other countries. New groups have been formed to lobby for changes in curriculum. These, as in the U.S., are met with resistance by the educational establishment. In Canada, unions are considerably more powerful, and politically influential, so the battle, in some ways, is even more difficult in terms of forcing improvements to grade and improve the educators.

"We ignore education at our peril," he said. "Too many people have big dreams, but they have no clue about how to achieve them because our systems have not been designed for success, they've been designed, basically, to defend mediocrity and failure."

In Canada, organizations like the Society for Quality Education have been fighting for improvements. But Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have resisted efforts by them and others to return to traditional methods of teaching mathematics despite the fact that Canadian students are falling behind, according to OECD global results in 65 nations.

Bush is a Republican and would like to see education opened up completely to competition. On January 26 was National Education Choice Day.

But he's also a political realist and he re-worked and tweaked Florida's existing system for the benefit of students. "We must fundamentally rethink how we define public education," he said publicly.

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