Before Common Core: Jeb Bush’s 2005 Emails Show His Thinking on Standards

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 13, 2015 5 min read
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Earlier this week, Jeb Bush spoke about K-12 policy at “Keeping the Promise,” an event in Florida hosted by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education advocacy group he founded after his time as the state’s governor. He touched on a variety of topics, but made headlines for what he didn’t talk about: the Common Core State Standards. Bush has stuck by his support for the standards even as support for them among other Republicans pondering a 2016 presidential run has wilted or turned into opposition.

As he mulls a White House bid, Bush has also released thousands of emails he and his staff sent and received during his time as governor, ostensibly in an attempt to demonstrate his transparency. (Media reports quickly pointed out that the emails revealed private and sensitive information such as Social Security numbers—Bush quickly responded by saying such information would be scrubbed.) Bush has previously caused controversy over K-12 policy in an unguarded moment—during his first term, he was recorded stating that he had “devious plans” to undermine an ultimately successful amendment limiting class size in Florida schools that was on the ballot in 2002.

I’ve been looking over just a small batch of the emails to see what, if anything, Bush was saying about the issue of content standards during his governorship. Several emails at the start of 2005 provide an interesting opportunity to review his thinking.

Disputing a Future Ally

These January emails reveal that at the time, Bush was defensive about the state’s standards in the face of national criticism, but also not dogmatically opposed to reviewing and possibly improving them.

The subject was the 2005 rankings of states’ English/language arts and math standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that today is a vigorous supporter of the common core. Florida earned a C grade from Fordham for its English standards, and an F grade for its math standards—in the latter, Fordham even tagged Florida as a “state to shun” for contradictory or unclear content in math.

(Fordham’s review of English standards, by the way, was written by Sandra Stotsky, who wrote Massachusetts’ pre-common-core standards for English and is now, arguably, as vocal in her opposition to the common core as Fordham is in its support.)

Bush was informed of these grades on Jan. 4 by Patricia Levesque, Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education at the time and now the executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a national K-12 policy foundation Bush also led after his time as governor). She noted that Florida hadn’t changed its ELA and math standards since 2000, and that Fordham had downgraded Florida’s standards from its last report.

Then-Gov. Bush responded, “If our standards are so low, why do we do better on NAEP and SAT 9?” See an image of the email below:

Later in the day he expanded on that idea: “I think part of the response should have been where do we compare to the other states in Math and Reading results. If our standards are graded F, how could it be that we are in the middle of the pack and showing improvement in Math as measured by the NAEP and SAT 9 compared to other states that must have higher grades by Fordham. Same for reading.”

What the Numbers Say

So do the numbers back up Bush’s assertions about Florida’s comparative performance on tests? For brevity’s sake, let’s focus on Florida’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Looking at Florida’s NAEP scores in 4th and 8th grade reading and math from 2003, the most recent ones Bush could have known about at the start of 2005, Florida 4th graders scored higher than the national average in reading, but scored the same as the national average in mathematics. Florida 8th graders, meanwhile, trailed their national counterparts in both reading and math.

Another way to think about whether Bush was right? “Middle of the pack” is a subjective term, but according to the same report I referenced above, in 2003, Florida outperformed 36 percent of states in 4th grade NAEP reading; 37 percent of states in 4th grade NAEP math; 19 percent of states in 8th grade reading; and 25 percent of states in 8th grade math.

But what if we take a long-term view of what Bush is arguing here? A NAEP report on the nation’s five largest states was published in 2013, six years after Bush left office, and shows that Florida 4th graders’ improvement on scale scores topped their counterparts in California, Illinois, New York, and Texas in both reading and math. The increase of Florida 4th graders scoring proficient over that time period in both reading and math also topped the other four “mega states.”

Florida’s 8th graders didn’t quite reach the same comparative heights in math, losing out to their counterparts in Texas for the biggest scale score gains.

The span of the “mega states” study was from 1992 to 2011 in 4th grade reading and math, from 1998 to 2011 in 8th grade reading, and from 1990 to 2011 in 8th grade math. (Keep in mind that before 1998, the NAEP in reading did not make accomodations for students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.)

‘Let Us Strengthen Them’

"[H]ere are some DOE talk points on the Fordham Report,” Levesque wrote in response to Bush, also on Jan. 4. “They are going to add info. re: our score on the Ed Week rankings on state standards. We received good score—they will come out tomorrow.” (Those “DOE talk points” don’t appear to be included in the email Bush posted on his website.)

The “Ed Week rankings” he refers to were from the 2005 Quality Counts report from Education Week, and they show Florida receiving an A grade on “standards and accountability.” The Quality Counts report does note that at the time Florida’s standards had not gone through an external “alignment review” since 2001.

Bush’s final word on the matter that day, however, struck a different tone. “PS I really like the idea of evaluating our standards as part of daughter of A plus. If they are weak, let us strengthen them,” he wrote to Levesque.

“A plus” refers to Bush’s high-profile “A+ Plan” for education policy that Florida adopted. It emphasizes school choice and accountability based on A-F grades, and has become a template for several states’ choice and accountability systems in recent years.

In 2006, Bush signed into law the “A++ Plan” that further revised K-12 policy in the state. Included in the law was a requirement for a periodic review of the state’s standards in reading, writing, and math. The law required both a new annual report regarding these standards, along with proposed revisions to them, to be submitted to the governor and legislative leaders.

But this plan was apparently on Bush’s radar well before 2006—in the Jan. 4, 2005 email exchange, Levesque noted that this review was part of the A++ Plan that expanded on the state’s A+ Plan.

Click on this link to search through Bush’s emails yourself.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.