A ProPublica analysis shows Florida gives poor students a better chance for success.

Journalism in the public interest.
July 1 2011 1:50 PM

How Florida Gives Poor Students a Chance

And what Maryland, Kansas, and Oklahoma are doing wrong.

Click to launch propublica.org.

Florida is a state of stark contrasts. Travel a few miles from the opulent mansions off the coast of Miami Beach and you reach desperately poor neighborhoods. There's the grinding poverty of sugar-cane country and the growing middle class of Jacksonville. All told, half the public-school students in Florida qualify for subsidized lunches. Many are the first in their families to speak English or contemplate attending college.

Around the nation, students like these have often been left behind.

But a ProPublica analysis of previously unreleased federal data shows Florida stands out where many other states fall short. It leads the nation in the rate of high-school students enrolled in high-level classes—Advanced Placement and advanced math. That holds true for rich and poor alike.

Studies repeatedly have shown that students who take advanced classes have greater chances of attending and succeeding in college.

Our analysis identifies  several states  that, like Florida, have leveled the field and now offer rich and poor students roughly equal access to high-level courses.

In Kansas, Maryland and Oklahoma, by contrast, such opportunities are far less available in districts with poorer families.

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That disparity is part of what experts call the "opportunity gap."

"The opportunity to learn—the necessary resources, the curriculum opportunities, the quality teachers—that affluent students have, is what determines what people can do in life," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Our analysis offers the first nationwide picture of exactly which advanced courses are being taken at which schools and districts across the country. Previous studies and surveys have tracked some of these courses, but never with so many variables and covering so many schools. (More than three-quarters of all public-school children are represented in our analysis.)

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The analysis was drawn from a nationwide survey by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which collected school-by-school reports on a range of offerings, including physics, chemistry and Advanced Placement courses in high schools. The department did the survey to assess whether states and other localities are discriminating by race, gender or disability. State and local education administrators, of course, are responsible for most funding and policy decisions. (Visit ProPublica.org to search for your school and see how it compares, for example, with poorer and wealthier schools nearby. It also shows the percentage of inexperienced teachers in schools. Here ' s Beverly Hills High compared to a much poorer school in Southern California. And here's a stark example from New Jersey.)

We compared the survey results to poverty levels. (We measured that by looking at the percentage of students who receive free- or reduced-price lunch—which the government offers  [PDF]to students from low-income families.)

While our analysis found a link between race and lack of access, poverty was the predominant factor in determining the proportion of students in a school or district who were enrolled in higher-level instruction.

The department plans to make public additional data in the coming months on graduation rates and test scores for these schools. From the data released so far, Florida stands out. Its results follow a decade-long initiative to broaden educational opportunity launched by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and his education commissioner, and now fellow former governor, Charlie Crist.

"The fact that some states have eliminated these disparities proves that if we make this a priority of policy it can be done," said Pedro A. Noguera, an education professor at New York University.

Other states show just how complex the problem is. Take Mississippi: Richer and poorer schools there provide roughly equal access, but that masks the reality that very few students are enrolled in the classes overall. We called Mississippi's department of education, but a representative was not immediately available for comment.

While most experts agree about the value of giving students expanded opportunities, many caution that offering advanced classes is not a solution on its own to deeper-rooted gaps in preparation and achievement. They say students often need additional support.

"We're making AP a reform strategy in and of itself," said Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. "When it comes to a struggling turnaround school, why in the world would you think that somehow plunking down an AP program would improve that school?"

But with the right support, even the most disadvantaged students can thrive, according to Jose Huerta, the principal at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

The school was the basis for the 1980s classic, Stand and Deliver, the story of a determined high-school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, whose single-minded conviction that kids from poor and minority backgrounds could succeed, led to many of his students' passing the demanding Advanced Placement calculus exam.

Garfield still provides many rigorous courses—with extra help for some students. And Huerta said that this year his students are heading to colleges such as Yale, Brown, and Harvard.

"This is an extremely poor area. These are kids whose parents can't speak the language, and they're going to the top college in the country," said Huerta. "We raise the bar and our kids are going above it."

How Did Florida Do It?
Florida's schools once mirrored the inequalities seen in many other states. In 2003, the NAACP sued the state, arguing that it had an "unequal education system."

"A decade ago, few minority students were taking PSAT / PLAN tests of AP courses, and even fewer were going to college," said former Gov. Jeb Bush, via email, referring to testing programs that have been used to predict which students will succeed in AP courses. "Florida schools and teachers were not incentivized to provide or teach AP courses—particularly in low-performing schools," he said.

Bush introduced a combination of measures to foster AP courses, including a partnership with the College Board, the national nonprofit group that manages AP courses and exams. The partnership kicked off in 2000 and was later written into state law. Its stated goal was to "prepare, inspire, and connect students to postsecondary success and opportunity, with a particular focus on minority students and students who are underrepresented in postsecondary education."

As part of the program, the College Board is now focusing on schools in rural districts, such as Okeechobee in central Florida, where students are often the first members of their families to seriously contemplate attending college, according to Toni Wiersma, principal of Okeechobee High School.

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