Two decades ago, Florida planted the seeds of ambitious education reform that have proved fruitful. The Sunshine State has seen significant improvements in academic achievement and graduation rates – Education Week recently ranked the state fourth in the nation in K-12 achievement for the second year in a row — while simultaneously expanding opportunities for families to choose the education settings that work best for their children.

But even as the roots of success continue to take hold, the tree of knowledge requires further cultivation to ensure it thrives for all students over the next 20 years — and beyond.

That’s the conclusion of the “Horizons 2040 Project,” a report released Wednesday by the Florida Council of 100, a private, nonprofit organization of business, civic and education leaders (including the school superintendents of Miami-Dade, Collier and Orange counties). A roadmap for policymakers, it recommends a mixture of investments in traditional public education resources – including boosting teacher pay — and expanding choice opportunities that have coincided with the state’s climb up the rankings ladder.

The report establishes 11 values, emphasizing that resources must be “focused on the classroom, not administration,” and allocated “where they have the greatest impact.” Outcomes should be objectively measured, and superior results should be rewarded. All spending decisions should be “targeted and performance-driven,” with the key question being: “Where does the public investment provide the greatest student return?”

Choice is a vital component to finding those answers. Students must be provided with as many “learning environments and educational options” as possible so that education can be tailored to meet the needs of each student. That not only creates more diverse opportunities to learn and the ability to customize education. It also imbues a sense of ownership.

Indeed, the report argues that accountability begins with accepting responsibility, which requires students to “personally own” their education – “a path chosen is always more likely to be followed than one that is rigidly dictated.”

Members of the Council’s PreK-12 Education Committee spent three years visiting 23 public and private schools — 16 district-run schools, six private schools serving low-income students on state scholarship programs, and one charter school — to examine various “best practices” for 21st century learning. (The committee was led by John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up For Students, the state’s largest K-12 scholarship funding organization and which hosts this blog. In addition, Step Up President Doug Tuthill was an ex-officio member of the committee.) These included:

  • Evans High School in Orlando, a community school that provides students with wrap-around social services to improve overall learning.
  • Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, where students go to school 11 hours a day, six days a week. The report notes the school environment “feels like a second family.”
  • West Florida High School of Advanced Technology in Pensacola, which partners with businesses to provide students college- and career-ready education.
  • Hialeah Gardens High School in Miami, which pairs career academies with rigorous academics to create post-graduation pathways for all students.

“One of the most important things that we saw was how leadership established a culture of achievement at a school,” Kirtley said. “One of the best examples of this was the principal of Northwestern High School in Miami. This school is in one of the most challenging neighborhoods in the state. Its students face challenges outside of school that most of us can’t even imagine. And yet this principal took the school from an F to an A in just a few years.”

From those experiences the committee identified nine “Beacons” that illuminate “Paths to Prosperity.” The report calls pre-K through third grade the “make-or-break educational years in a student’s life.” Thus, the first beacon is to ensure that all students arrive in fourth grade adequately prepared. The path to that achievement includes heavy emphasis on beefing up VPK with more year-round support services and assessments, and providing parents with more information on programs and performance.

The report also recommends infusing schools with specialized support personnel to help academically (such as math/literacy tutors) and socially/behaviorally (not only counselors, but also community volunteers serving as morning door greeters).

Beacon 3 addresses the important role teachers have in shaping children’s lives and the difference a good teacher makes in academic achievement — as well as Florida’s struggles to recruit and retain quality educators. It notes that the state’s average teacher pay ranks 46th in the nation, about 20 percent below the national average. The report recommends changes in teacher training, certification, and support, but first and foremost advocates for better pay and benefits. That could include housing and childcare subsidies, and forgiving student loans.

It’s an issue that cuts across ideological and partisan political lines.

“One message that we heard very clearly, over and over, is that teacher salaries need to increase. It just has to be done,” Kirtley said.

Beacon 7 acknowledges that students learn in myriad ways, and come from many different (and sometimes shifting) backgrounds. Creating personalized learning environments would help meet the needs of every student. Adopting mastery-based education (MBE) is one method of allowing students to learn at their own pace, without being tied to a time-based, classroom schedule. Providing funding directly to students would facilitate more diverse, non-traditional learning environments, making education more portable and flexible, and equalizing opportunities.

Horizons 2040 presents an ambitious vision of education’s future, but it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s grounded in the track record of a 20-year experiment, with the attendant knowledge of what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s not a giant leap into the unknown so much as the next step forward.

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