Executive Summary*

Over the last 15 years, students in Florida have demonstrated remarkable improvements in average fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized exam often referred to as “the nation’s report card.” Meanwhile, during the same period, the same NAEP test scores in Michigan have improved only slightly or not at all. This study examines both states’ results, describes the education policies that likely contributed to Florida’s success and suggests how Michigan could improve student achievement based on the Florida model.

Florida’s NAEP gains from 1992 to 2011 were the second-highest in the nation, yet they were achieved with the country’s lowest per-pupil spending increases. The contrast with Michigan is particularly stark. For example, from 1998 to 2011, Florida students’ average test scores increased by 9.1 percent in fourth-grade reading. In Michigan, these same scores increased by just 1.3 percent, and the national average increased by just 3.4 percent. In fourth-grade math, Florida students improved their scores by 11.2 percent from 1996 to 2011, while Michigan students improved by only 4.5 percent and the nation by 8.1 percent. 

Yet many people would have expected Michigan to post higher average test scores than Florida. Every year from 1990 to 2009, Michigan spent more per pupil than Florida and spent more compensating teachers. From 2000 to 2011, Michigan also had a smaller share of low-income students — that is, students whose family incomes were low enough to qualify for a federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunch.

Florida outgained Michigan in eighth-grade NAEP scores, as well. Florida’s results in eighth-grade reading improved by only 3 percent from 1998 to 2011, but Michigan’s did not improve at all, and the national average increased by less than 1 percent. In eighth-grade math, Florida boosted average scores by 5.4 percent from 1996 to 2011, while Michigan inched up by just 1.2 percent, and the national average improved by 5.2 percent. By 2009, Florida eighth-graders had passed Michigan in both subjects, though Florida fell slightly behind Michigan again in 2011.

Similar trends hold when comparing the test scores of low-income students in both states. Altogether, then, Florida’s initial test scores were lower than Michigan’s in a total of eight different grade, subject and student family income categories, but rose quickly enough to pass Michigan’s by 2009.

Immediately prior to and during Florida’s remarkable improvement, the state made substantial changes to the policies that govern its public education system. These included a new school accountability system, clear limits on social promotion, considerable expansions in the schools that parents could choose from, resources

focused on literacy, and alternative routes to certification for aspiring teachers. Some of these policies have been rigorously studied and shown to have a positive impact on student achievement in Florida.

In light of Florida’s success, Michigan policymakers should consider the following reforms in this order:

  1. Present voters with a proposal to remove Michigan’s constitutional prohibition on using tax credits to support the enrollment of students in private schools

  2. Eliminate geographical boundaries to parents’ ability to choose from a variety of public school options, including online courses and online schools

  3. Implement an easy-to-understand, A-through-F school accountability system that creates genuine rewards and consequences for schools — not districts — based on their performance

  4. Expand the pool of capable teachers by increasing the ways in which aspiring teachers may become certified

  5. Limit the ability of schools to socially promote third-graders who are not proficient in reading

  6. Focus resources on teaching literacy.

Following the Florida model might not produce results quite as dramatic in Michigan, but even a modest portion of Florida’s gains would be significant. Many of the Sunshine State’s policies have a track record of success and provide a promising path for Michigan policymakers to follow.

* Citations are provided in the main text.