Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jeb Bush Speaks at NCSL on Education Reform

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke this morning to the National Conference of State Legislatures on the subject of educational reform. While that subject is worthy of attention for its own sake, Republicans in attendance may well have been distracted by thoughts of what might be if his last name were something different.

For this writer, who had never seen Mr. Bush in person before, it was striking how different he is from his brother and his father. In terms of appearance, speaking style, mannerisms, and voice, he bears little resemblance to the other members of his family. His speech before the NCSL was delivered rapidly while reading occasionally from a printed manuscript. He came across as both knowledgeable and passionate on the issue of educational reform.

According to Mr. Bush, any effort at educational reform must begin with the premise that all children are capable of learning. While it can be admitted that factors such as poverty and family background play a role, they cannot be used as excuses when students and schools perform poorly. Indeed, students from challenging backbrounds have the most need of quality education, since there is little chance that they will escape poverty otherwise. He particularly emphasized the first three school years, arguing that since in the first three years students "learn to read and thereafter read to learn", children who cannot read at or near grade level after third grade have little chance of catching up. As such, he implemented a policy of eliminating social promotions after third grade. While that initially increased the numbers of "retentions," data indicate that it paid off over the long term.

Saying that entrenched interests must be challenged, Mr. Bush argued for a series of reforms that he implemented while governor of Florida. He placed particular importance on improving teacher quality, and he contended that teachers of high priority subjects such as math and science, as well as quality teachers taking positions in high poverty areas, should receive higher pay in order to get the best teachers to the highest areas of need. Accountability is also crucial -- he favors periodic testing (not just annual, as periodic testing allows results to be evaluated and reacted to over the year) and cash payments to schools that show high performance or improvement. While he favors school choice, he pointed out that vouchers alone are not sufficient as educational reform, as the majority of eligible students will not take advantage of the opportunity.

Mr. Bush presented some impressive data showing that the reforms in Florida had been effective, particularly among minority populations.

For those wondering, Mr. Bush said later that he had no plans to run for President. It is just as well. His name would be difficult to overcome, regardless of his virtues.

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