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STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESSES: Florida and Minnesota Governors Push High School Reform

"Too often in grades six through eight, there's a break between the intensive skill building of the early grades, and the challenges of high school," Bush said

Saying that the state legislature needed to take education reforms to the next level, Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) called for reforms that would give students a more rigorous and relevant high school education in his state of the state address on March 7. Unlike many other proposals that stress rigor and relevance in high school, Bush’s plan would begin in middle school.

“Too often in grades six through eight, there’s a break between the intensive skill building of the early grades, and the challenges of high school,” Bush said, “a break in which many students don’t build on the former, and aren’t prepared for the latter … We must transform Florida high schools to prepare students to compete in a global market, and to build successful futures of their own design.”

Under Governor Bush’s proposal, which largely echoes the recommendations of the Florida State Board of Education’s High School Reform Task Force, students would be required to earn 12 credits in math, science, language arts, and social studies before they are promoted to high school. His plan would provide summer academies to help struggling students who need extra help in the required subjects and intensive reading instruction for students who read below grade level. Students achieving at higher levels could take high school courses while they are still in middle school. To help make the high school grades relevant for students, Bush would also allow students to choose a major based on their career paths and interests.

Governor Bush also spoke a great deal about the progress the state has made in ensuring that every student can read at grade level. He proudly said that Florida enjoys the “the nation’s largest effort to drive reading instruction into classrooms.”

“I can’t tell you how many students in our schools were reading at grade level in 1997. Because no one had measured,” Bush said. “By 2001, we had tested every student in grades 3 through 10, so we knew that only 46% of them could read at grade level or above. Today, 53% of Florida students have this critical skill. We still have a long way to go, but we move forward every year.”

Governor Bush also talked the need for more rigor in high schools and stressed that too many high school students were graduating without the skills they need for college or work. In order to achieve a “stronger link between a student’s goal, and the preparation required to achieve it,” Bush would require an additional higher level of math credit and have students spend 15 of the 24 credits required for graduation on “rigorous core subjects.” He also promoted the state’s “Ready to Work” certification program, which helps vocational students earn the credentials they need to demonstrate they are ready for the workforce.

In his state of the state address on March 9, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) also offered proposals that would create more rigor in middle and high schools. Calling science and math the “currency of the new economy,” Pawlenty proposed that schools require students to take Algebra I by eighth grade and Algebra II and chemistry before they graduate from high school. Currently, Minnesota’s high school students must take three credits each in math and science, but Algebra II and chemistry are not mandatory.

“Education made Minnesota what it is today, and education will make us what we will become tomorrow,” he said. “We need to transform our high schools so we are better preparing our young people for the economy of the future. Academic progress in our secondary schools has flattened out.”

He also proposed two initiatives that would create up to five “pioneering high schools” and at least ten “pioneering districts.” Under his plan, pioneering high schools would overhaul the way they operate in order to focus on college preparedness or technical training. The pioneering districts would receive $7 million in incentives to create Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs for all students in all grades.

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