Equity begins with education. For too long, Florida's African-heritage students have received an inequitable education. As the state fails to educate our children, it cuts them off from avenues of opportunity.
Instead of leaving our children to languish in low-skilled positions, Florida must focus on preparing the next generation of scientists and inventors to work at NASA and doctors and health professionals to save lives at our local hospitals.
We can provide a strong and globally competitive education to all children if we combat educational inequities with a collaborative approach, not more of the same.
The state submitted a waiver to the U.S. Department of Education to measure Florida's schools against four annual education goals. Together, these four annual measurable objectives will replace the education goals set in the No Child Left Behind act, and create an ambitious framework that elevates learning for all students.
The current discourse in Florida has centered on the expectation that all schools increase the percentage of students, including African-heritage students, that are proficient in reading and math by 50 percent in six years. This has been interpreted as different goals for different groups, and thus sounds unfair and feels uncomfortable to many.
That's understandable, but it's important to know that these goals expect much more progress for those students starting further behind. For example, the expectation for the state's white students is to improve 2.7 percentage points a year in reading, while the expectation for African-heritage students is to improve 5.3 percentage points. This is a system that demands meaningful improvement for all students, but faster progress for those who are lower performing — the only way to close the state's achievement gap.
To give a sense of just how rigorous these expectations are, and just how much work we have to do to meet them, consider this: In the first year under these new goals, only 28 percent of schools that reported scores met their "all student" goal for reading and only 40 percent met their "all student" goal for math.
Districts are faring even worse: Only four (6 percent) met the goal for reading and 21 (30 percent) met it for math. Even fewer districts met their goals for African-heritage students: only two in reading and 12 in math. These numbers show that schools and districts need specific, targeted interventions to ensure that all students are learning.
Similarly, to close its achievement gaps, Florida must also close its learning opportunity gaps — and it has a long way to go. Currently, low-income students are more likely to be taught core academic subjects by out-of-field teachers than are more affluent students. And African-heritage students are more likely to lose valuable learning time as a result of suspensions and expulsions than their white peers.
In 2010-11, African-heritage students represented about one-quarter of enrollment in Florida schools, but received 42 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 37 percent of expulsions.
We appreciate the ambitious goals Florida has set for students and the efforts it has made to provide information about students' progress toward these goals. However, it can provide better access to clearer information about progress. We suggest Florida publish a report that gives an overview of the state's progress on annual measurable objectives. Florida's accountability system is complex, but it is also important for students, parents and communities to have access to transparent data.
We know Florida can do better on behalf of all students. We want Florida's ambitious goals to work for children, but if they are not coupled with the necessary support and resources, we fear Florida will repeat the mistakes of NCLB and fail to raise the achievement of children in our state. It is only with the full engagement of communities that we can push closer toward our goals of ensuring more and better progress for all of Florida's students.