Helen Aguirre Ferre

School choice has improved student performance

No one wants to celebrate the end of the year with bad news, so it is not surprising that most of us missed the results of an international study that shows we have expensive but underperforming schools where our students do not learn math.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of which the United States is a member, 500,000 15-year-olds took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam and found that American students placed 21st in science and 26th in math out of 34 nations that participated. It is not an issue of money, the United States ranks fifth in spending per pupil. The problem lies deeper than that.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been sounding the alarm that, despite our recent efforts at educational reform, most American schools are still falling behind. Duncan rightly argues that if our children are not learning we have to change the way we do things.

As obvious as that sounds it requires the political will and courage to challenge the status quo that in many school districts nationwide still favors bureaucracies and teachers unions over the needs of the children they should be serving.

Some states have started to make a difference in the right direction, and Florida is one of them.

When he led the state, former Gov. Jeb Bush was not afraid to tackle big issues. and education was one of them. It was likely more difficult than he ever anticipated. Working in tandem with the Legislature, Bush pushed for dramatic education reform that included a strong emphasis in early literacy, which has been particularly helpful to children who come from impoverished homes or are not proficient in English. They receive more attention to become proficient readers. Back in the day nearly one third of third-grade students were promoted to the fourth grade despite the fact that they were unable to read.

Today, “social promotion” has been eliminated, and the number of children who are unable to read at grade level has been cut in half in the early years.

The importance of teaching as a profession received a long-overdue recognition that included additional funding for increased teacher pay and performance. Since students were graded, schools were graded, too, which made many school systems howl with horror. But parents wanted to be smart consumers for the benefit of their children and relied on the grading system as a measure of accountability of the school systems performance as well. Families as well as schools were held accountable for the educational success or failure of our children.

Finally, Jeb Bush pushed school choice so that all parents regardless of economic background have access to schools that best fit the needs of the child. School choice today means students can participate in various education programs found in, but are not limited to, charter schools.

Virtual schools, home schools, private and public schools have accepted the challenge to change curriculum and the concept of teaching. The use of technology in the classroom has been an important component in revolutionizing the way we teach and the way children learn, which is substantially different from the way we were raised. The world is infinitely different as well.

Still, other countries are gaining on and surpassing our students, which is unacceptable. Education is national security and needs to be a national priority.

School choice has measurably improved student outcomes in Florida and other states. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that Florida fourth-graders place 6 out of 50 in the national report card. Hispanics outperform their counterparts in states such as California.

Parents know that a good education is critical in helping their child succeed in life. Learning to make smart, safe choices, as well as rigorously mastering the fundamentals of science, math and language, is more important today in a more competitive global economy that requires employees and entrepreneurs alike to have more sophisticated skill sets to advance.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of income inequality. Much of that would be narrowed through increased educational dynamics driven by school choice. We have come a long way in education reform. We still have a long way to go.