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TN Looks to NC, FL for Education Reform Ideas

Florida and North Carolina offer a variety of nontraditional school options, including charter schools, “virtual schooling,” and opportunities to earn a diploma and simultaneously gain significant ground toward college graduation. Both states compare to Tennessee in per-pupil spending and family characteristics, but outperform in student test scores.

There aren’t any silver-bullet reform measures to solve all education problems in Tennessee, but with the right combination of policy and school leadership, student achievement can be improved without increased spending, a new state report suggests.

Assigned to study states that’ve shown education progress without breaking taxpayers’ pocketbooks, Office of Research and Education Accountability Director Phillip Doss told the House Education Committee during a presentation last week that school systems in Florida and North Carolina tended to perform well “regardless of what we were analyzing.”

Both those states also show shared similarities with Tennessee’s per-pupil spending and family characteristics, and both have shown consistent gains in student test scores, OREA’s study indicated.

However, Florida and North Carolina were both given A’s for the percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level when accounting for state expenditures. Tennessee received a C on the same report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In Florida, which passed its “A+ Plan” in 1999, schools with higher scores get more funding and autonomy. Schools with poorer performances are required to implement state sanctioned reforms.

In addition, the state offers a variety of nontraditional school options, including charter schools and its “virtual school” program, which allows students to take distance and online courses.

Florida is among states in the vanguard of the school-choice movement, and is ranked third for number of charter schools and second for charter-school enrollment.

Like Florida, North Carolina offers non-traditional options, too. Students there can earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit simultaneously.

“They focused on teacher policy as well,” said OREA Assistant Director Russell Moore. “Beginning teachers are required to participate in a three year induction program.”

North Carolina conducts teacher working conditions surveys, Moore said. Results showed “effective leadership” is essential for recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Another North Carolina program provides outstanding high school seniors with college scholarships in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

“Policies may look similar from state to state, but we believe the implementation is where the difference is made,” Moore said.

He also cited a study on the Chicago education system, which included a look at schools with disadvantaged student populations. The study notes five key elements required for student success: school leadership; parent-community ties; faculty and staff capacity; safety and order; strong curriculum; and instructional support.

“Those supports have to work in combination, in tandem. They have to be interwoven, and schools have to be strong on all of these to show improvement,” Moore said. “(The researchers) likened it to baking a cake –without the right ingredients the whole enterprise falls flat.”

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said his goal for Tennessee education is to lead the Southeast, and incorporating policies that work in North Carolina and Florida into the Volunteer State’s system would seem an appropriate strategy for success.

“I think the targeting of North Carolina and Florida is critical,” said Brooks “If we can exceed their competency and output, we will accomplish substantial gains in this state.”

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