P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a research
associate at the Program on
and Governance at Harvard University. He recently completed an evaluation
of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School-Choice Program,
which is available on the Manhattan Institute’s
Jean Lopez: How has Florida’s A-Plus education plan been
The A-Plus plan has been successful by providing incentives to schools
to improve the academic
performance of their students. Simply by measuring student performance
with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and publicizing
the results, the A-Plus program has placed pressure on all schools
to improve. Failing schools faced particularly strong incentives
to improve or they would have vouchers offered to their students.
The evidence from Florida shows that schools respond to these incentives
in the ways one would expect. Florida schools generally made gains
between 1999 and 2000 and those gains were larger for schools that
performed worse the year before. That is, the pressure to improve
grew stronger for those schools that had previously received lower
scores. Failing schools responded to the prospect of having to compete
to retain their students with vouchers by making especially large
gains. The improvements at failing schools were twice as large as
the gains shown by other schools in the state.
Lopez: Was there anything that especially
surprised you in evaluating the Florida plan?
Greene: I think the thing that surprised
me the most was the evidence supporting the reliability of the FCAT
as a measure of student performance. As I am sure your readers know,
many people have voiced concerns about whether state tests accurately
reflect student performance, especially when those state tests carry
with them “high stakes.” The fear is that the high stakes of the
tests will induce educators to teach to the test, cheat, or otherwise
distort the results of the testing system so that they misrepresents
student achievement. Since I am inclined to believe that people
respond to incentives, whether in positive or negative ways, these
concerns about the reliability of the tests seemed plausible.
But the evidence from Florida does not at all support the claim
that the FCAT is an unreliable measure of student achievement. I
was able to determine this by comparing the results of the FCAT
to the results of a nationally respected standardized test, the
Stanford 9, that was administered around the same time. The Stanford
9 was a low-stakes test, it did not carry with it significant consequences
for schools, teachers, or students. If the results of the low-stakes
test correspond with the results of the high-stakes test, we should
have confidence that the high-stakes test results have not been
distorted in any significant way. As it turns out, the Stanford
9 and FCAT results were very highly correlated (at around .9), which
is much higher than I would have expected. Officials in Florida
have clearly devised a system for implementing the state test that
safeguards against the types of distortions that critics feared.
It is important for others currently administering state tests or
considering doing so to similarly ensure the integrity of their
Lopez: The New York Times, making
clear that your study was done under the auspices of the Manhattan
Institute, " a pro-voucher research group" quoted a policy analyst
from the NEA complaining that your study "excludes any other potential
explanations for the results except for vouchers, cheating and chance."
He also said, "Our view is that the school improvements, the efforts
that were made in those schools, made the difference, not the vouchers."
How do you respond?
Greene: I would no sooner go to teacher
unions for advice on how to conduct research properly than I would
on how to reform our system of education. Their strong and self-evident
desire to protect the financial interests of their members distort
their thinking on these matters. But since the New York Times
sees fit to consult teacher unions on education research and since
you ask . . . While reasonable people may disagree about how to
interpret the causal processes here, I would suggest that the teacher
union’s causal argument is faulty. To the extent that failing schools
in Florida improved because they received additional attention and
resources, one would have to ask why those additional resources
and attention were not lavished on schools before they faced the
prospect of vouchers. Part of the effect of threatening chronically
failing schools with offering vouchers to their students may be
to inspire school districts to reallocate their funds in the hope
of improving those schools.
It is clear that we need to ensure that schools have adequate resources
to improve. But the evidence from the A-Plus program suggests that
we also need to ensure that schools are provided with the appropriate
incentives to obtain and use those resources effectively. While
the teacher unions reflexively focus on the resources side of the
equation, any strategy for school reform that focuses on resources
while neglecting the incentives to use those resources well is a
strategy unlikely to succeed.
In addition, the claim that the Manhattan Institute is a “pro-voucher”
research group is neither accurate nor relevant. On the board of
the Manhattan Institute are some people, including the head of the
Anti-Defamation League, who are very much opposed to vouchers. And
even if this were not the case, the views of the Manhattan Institute
would not change the facts from Florida one bit. FCAT scores are
publicly available and anyone is free to replicate my study to determine
if the facts reported in it are true or not.
Lopez: How much of the president’s
plan is based on the Florida model?
Greene: The president’s education proposals
are modeled very closely after the A-Plus program in Florida. Both
involve systematic testing of students, the results of which determine
grades that are assigned to schools. And President Bush has insisted
that students at chronically failing schools need to be offered
alternatives, as the A-Plus program currently does.
Lopez: Bush is, of course, encountering
vociferous opposition from the usual suspects for the voucher component
of his accountability plan. How did his brother overcome the opposition
in Florida? Are there lessons for the president?
Greene: The secret to success in Florida
was probably quite similar to the path that led to passage of school-choice
legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio. In all three places a chief executive
who believed strongly in the program worked hard to assemble bi-partisan
and cross-racial coalitions to support the programs. The Florida
A-Plus plan was passed with support from the Urban League of Greater
Miami and key African American legislators, such as Democratic Representative
Whether President Bush is similarly devoted to his proposal, whether
key minority interest groups and legislators are amenable to persuasion,
and whether the Republican base can remain committed to supporting
passage all remain to be seen. Even if federal legislation does
not pass during this Congress, it is clear that school choice is
not an idea that is going away. It will likely continue to be proposed
in state legislatures, where most education decisions are really
made, and can be re-introduced in future Congresses.