Friday, March 29, 2013

Florida SB 980: Evaluating Teachers' Real Students

Aside from the fact that SB 736, the so-called "merit pay law," requires test scores to be used in teacher evaluations, many teachers find themselves being evaluated on the performance of students they do not teach. Many districts opted to evaluate non-FCAT teachers based on whole-school results. This includes teachers of electives such as band, art, general music, physical education, foreign language, computer science, etc. as well as students in kindergarten, 1-3 grades, and 11-12 grades. (While third graders take the FCAT, there is no prior set of data from which to compare, so teachers do not receive a VAM based on their students.)

Well, the Legislature is in the process of voting a new bill, SB 980, which would require districts to evaluate teachers on the students they actually teach. Here is an excerpt from the Gainesville Sun discussing the bill:

Efforts to revise the way Florida public school teachers are evaluated took a big step forward when a key legislative committee unanimously approved proposed changes.
The Florida Senate Committee on Education last week approved Senate Bill 980, which "says that we are going to link teacher evaluations to the students that they actually teach," Sen. Anitere Flores said at the March 18 committee meeting.
"We just want to make sure that (evaluations are) done in a fair process — that's what this bill does," she said.
Herschel Lyons, deputy superintendent for Alachua County Public Schools, said legislators are headed in the right direction.
"It's wonderful that they have taken these steps," he said. "Teachers welcome accountability, but we want to make sure it's the students that they teach."

Since it appears that we are stuck with VAM for now, this is at least a step in the right direction. I call it reforming the reforms. However, a huge flaw still remains. While teachers will be evaluated on students they actually teach, many will still be evaluated in subject areas they don't teach until districts create their subject area exams. I think this flaw is bigger than the "students they don't teach" issue, because the VAM as it stands today does not show that teachers of these other subjects are increasing student achievement in those areas.

This is what happens when a law is passed purely to settle a political score instead of what is in the best interests of all involved parties. Those opposing the original merit pay laws (SB 6 and SB 736) voiced these concerns the first time around, but no one wanted to listen. The supporters just brushed these complaints off as people wanting to stick with the status quo. Now, it's time for the Legislature to clean up its own mess.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Skeptical about Charter Grab

The Tampa Bay Times recently published an editorial telling the Florida Legislature to slow down on its plan to expand charter schools and their perks. These initiatives include limiting enrollment caps, providing the schools with extra funding for construction, and allowing them to take over vacant public school property at essentially no cost. This is in addition to the "Parent Trigger" or "Parent Empowerment" bill that is making its way through the legislative process, whose ultimate goal is to turn "failing" public schools into charter schools.  Given that half of the state's F grades were awarded to charter schools, I don't see an option to turn over failing charter schools to the districts. In a time when traditional public schools are struggling to implement the state's ever increasing demands with decreasing resources, the Florida Legislature seems to be moving ahead to expand charter school options while those schools are exempt from many of the regulations imposed on traditional schools. 

Charter schools were initially designed to be laboratory schools of sorts, providing teachers with the freedom to discover ways of educating difficult students. I don't know exactly when it happened, but the charter school movement was hijacked and they are now placing themselves in direct competition with the very schools they were originally designed to help. 

Many public school teachers and officials echo the concerns expressed by the Tampa Bay Times.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Duplicating Parent Empowerment Options through Trigger Law

Florida House Speak Bill Weatherford was recently interviewed by NPR's StateImpact about his views on education. Here is what he had to say about the pending "Parent Trigger" or "Parent Empowerment" bill.

Anytime you can empower a family and give them more options for their student, their child, that’s a good thing.
With regard to what people call the parent trigger – some people call the parental empowerment bill:
The idea is if you happen to live in a zip code where that local school that your child would go to is a habitually failing school, [if] it’s an F school year after year, we want to give those parents an opportunity to go to the school board and say,this is unacceptable. It’s time to make a changeEither change the staff, turn it into a charter school, do something.
We know for a fact, we have data that shows children learn differently. One student learns differently from another.
By giving parents and kids more choices, you’re kind of allowing them to find that form of education that they’re really looking for and that will help them aspire to be what they can be.
I think technology and choice and accountability – mixing those three things in together is changing the landscape of how we educate.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, such "empowerment" already exists in the Florida public school system. Parents have the option of participating in the PTA, PTO, PTSA or whichever variation thereof is offered at a particular school. Parents can play a direct role in school improvement efforts by sitting in on the School Advisory Council. As the Legislature does with its other reforms, instead of explaining, enforcing, and simply making people aware of the existing options, they just keep passing bill after bill. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Parent Empowerment Already Exists

Florida is in the process of possibly passing a so-called Parent Trigger or Parent Empowerment law, which will allow parents from a "failing" school to vote to turn the school over to private management, which could include for-profit charter school operators. Proponents of the legislation mislead the public stating that parents currently do not have a seat at the table when it comes to improving conditions at their children's schools. They claim that this law will give the parents the tools they need to take charge of their child's education and to hold schools accountable for results. 

Well, in addition always having the ability to share concerns with school principals, district administrators and elected school board members, there has been a system in place in Florida since 1991 that gives parents the opportunity to influence school decisions. It is called the School Advisory Council. This committee consists of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and at-large members of the business and residential community. According to the Florida Department of Education, every school has a SAC to "act as the driving force behind the school improvement process and increase student achievement." 

The main duty of this group is to create the School Improvement Plan, which addresses state and district proficiency goals and how the school will work on increasing student achievement. The document can also address things such as discipline and parental involvement, which in my opinion is one of the leading factors in increasing student achievement. 

All schools are required to have a School Advisory Council. Unfortunately, getting non-school staff involved is a chore and some schools often have to beg people to get involved in the committee. I wonder if there is a correlation between the level of non-school staff involvement on this committee along with participation in the school in general and student achievement? I don't think we need a scientific study to reach a conclusion on that one. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why are Unions the Only "Interest Groups?"

I recently read a story about the school choice movement. In the comments, I stated my belief that the charter school system and an eventual private school voucher program does not provide true choice, because those schools can either refuse admission to certain students or easily remove students who do not perform well academically and/or behaviorally. Through that kind of environment, they can achieve their performance goals and then claim they are superior to public schools. As I state over and over again, this is a trait that simply does not exist in traditional public schools. 

Someone responded to my comment saying that I am "confused" about the school choice movement and that he is not surprised given that the school choice message has been diluted by "interest groups."  Let's see. I guess those interest groups are the teachers unions? How is it that organizations like the teachers unions, Fund Education Now, Parents Across America, and the new Network for Public Education are interest groups while the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Students First, Democrats for Education Reform, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Fordham Institute, Parent Revolution, etc. are not special interest groups? The "reform" organizations have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to school board election candidates while candidates who are supposedly backed by the unions receive a few thousand dollars. The heads of these "reform" organizations get virtually unlimited and unchallenged air time on cable news while actual teachers are not consulted at all for their opinions. But, the unions are the only special interest groups. Yeah, right. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Private Schools ARE Better Than Public

Many people make the argument about the superiority of a private education to that of a public education. Well, I am going to go out on a limb and AGREE with those people. Indeed, many private schools do outperform public schools. Furthermore, many private schools also outperform public schools while doing it for less money. However, here are some advantages private schools have over public schools. I waste spend time defending public education on my local media's websites from time to time, and I do not believe I've received any responses to these arguments, especially the first one.

  • Private schools have admissions offices. Private schools do not take all interested students. The admissions offices are not there to provide orientation services or to provide parents with enrollment paperwork once they show interest in sending their child to the school. They are there to screen and test students to make sure they fit the school's academic standards. 
  • Private schools can dismiss students very easily. Private schools can suspend or kick out students who do not perform academically or behaviorally without too much hassle. This allows the school to maximize the educational experience of those students who are making good choices and whose families stay in line with the school's vision. Students in public school are given due process rights that they are not necessarily provided by a private entity. Many of the public schools in the wealthier neighborhoods have plenty of students who were kicked out of a private school at some point in time.
  • Paying for a product or service causes the user to value it more. Though it is not true that all people who receive free items or services waste the resources, I am a firm believer that people tend to take better care of things in which they have made some sort of personal investment. You're going to take better care of the car you bought and are insuring yourself more than the car that was given to you and insured on your parents' policy as a teenager or college student. Those parents are not putting out $15,000-$25,000 per year in private tuition for their child to get an inferior education. Those tuition rates do give the parents the responsibility of making sure the school is performing well, but equally high expectations are placed on the child. 
  • Private schools aren't beholden to state mandates. Private schools do not have to administer the state exam (FCAT in Florida), submit to the school grading system, use textbooks form the state approved list, comply with the new evaluation system that bases teacher performance on tests scores, etc., even if they are receiving state money through the voucher program. I believe that many of these policies play a role in the current state of education. If these reform practices were so great, private schools would be jumping on board to implement them. They are not doing that. 
These are some of the advantages that private schools have over public schools. No wonder they perform better...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Race to the Top: Preventing Instruction

Orlando-area ABC affiliate WFTV reported on the hindrances created by the implementation of Brevard County's new teacher evaluation system. The district is using a computer-based system called Pinpoint by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as part of its implementation of Florida Senate Bill 736. This system will cost the district $3 million over the next five years and is funded with Race to the Top money. What the article does not mention is that along with  most federal programs, Race to the Top will not be around forever, and the district and state will have to pick up the tab to cover the costs associated with Senate Bill 736 after Race to the Top ends. Remember that Senate Bill 736 was essentially Florida's second application for the Race to the Top Grant.

It appears as though this new system is causing more problems than its intended purpose of assisting teachers with their instruction. In addition to a slew of technical difficulties, this system, along with other evaluation systems like the one produced by Robert Marzano, requires teachers to spend a lot of time reflecting upon their instruction as part of the evaluation process. Though all people who wish to achieve some degree of success in an area understand the importance of self-reflection in the development process, the extra work these evaluation systems require takes away much needed time that should be spent planning for future lessons and assisting students who need help beyond normal class hours. Self-reflection is important, but that is usually something people choose to do on their own in other professions. It is not a document you must produce and submit to your boss for approval.

The key quote from this story is the statement from the Brevard Federation of Teachers President Richard Smith. He states that "Race to the Top money was supposed to support instruction, right now it's preventing instruction." Check out the video report below.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Charter Schools "Outpace" Public Schools Because...

According to the Florida Department of Education, the state's charter schools outperform public schools on virtually all of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) exams, including reading, math, and science. They also performed better on the end-of-course Algebra I exam.

The Orlando Sentinel included a very important disclaimer in the title to their report on the story. Here it is:

Exactly. Charter schools can attribute some of their success to enrolling on average fewer free/reduced priced lunch students, English language learners, and those with disabilities. The performance of these groups, including racial/ethnic minorities, factor heavily into schools' Adequate Yearly Progress standing in No Child Left Behind and the school's grade from the Florida Department of Education. 

In addition to enrolling lower numbers of these subgroups (NCLB language and not mine), these schools are more capable of removing students who do not perform academically and/or behaviorally. I don't want to begrudge the work of charter school teachers, but reformers cannot present the public with a true comparison of their results when they have some degree of selectivity with their populations. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

I Support School Choice

Did I scare you? Well, my version of school choice is different from the rest. These are the only scenarios I will accept.

Open Enrollment in Public Schools

Reformers claim that education is all about the quality of the teacher. This implies that curriculum,  textbooks, access to technology, pedagogical requirements (like the Marzano or Danielson methods), student home life, etc. don't matter.  Since district schools are expected to do pretty much the same things when it comes to academics, then we can see if their claims hold true by allowing students to enroll at the public school of their choice.  

Charter & Private Vouchers for Adopting State System

I don't mind if the state pays for students to charter and private schools. That's if those schools have to adopt all of the practices that the state requires public schools to follow. Again, if the reformers' claims of educational quality being all about the teachers is true, then the charter and private school teachers must be able to do a better job of following the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, implementing the Common Core State Standards, following the Marzano or Danielson techniques, and instituting the FCAT exam better than the public school teachers, right? (Most private schools do not administer the FCAT exam.)

I do not think it is fair for the state to give public schools money with strings attached while allowing charter and private schools to take public money and do almost anything they want.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Common Core PARCC Tests = 8-10 of Testing

Districts across the nation have been rising up against the ever increasing standardized testing. In order to comply with Florida Senate Bill 736, the so-called "merit pay" law, districts have to create tests to cover the courses that state assessments do not cover. This includes as 2,000 courses. It is still unknown if students will be held accountable for their results such as including the test results in their final grades or if these tests will only be used as a means to measure the quality of instruction. On top of this, districts are scrambling to implement the Common Core State Standards and it's accompanying test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College &  Careers Exam, otherwise known as PARCC. 

As Governor Rick Scott goes around the state appearing to be sympathetic to those who want to decrease the amount of testing, we are now finding that the Common Core tests that reformers tout as one of the keys to solving the education crisis will include 8 - 10 hours of testing. Furthermore, this is a digital exam, which means that schools will have to scramble to outfit their schools with enough computers to administer the tests. Here is a story from the Tampa Bay Times describing the demands of the Common Core tests. 

As Florida and other states debate their readiness for the Common Core State Standards, the group designing the tests that would replace the FCAT has announced that its tests will last 8-10 hours and schools will need up to 20 days to administer them.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, this week released documents telling states about what they'll need to give the tests. The bottom line is that, as the new tests aim to measure students' preparation in new and more subtle ways than the current set of state assessments -- including the measuring of writing abilities at every grade level -- they'll require more time in addition to more computers.
The group's Frequently Asked Questions states that third graders will need about 8 hours to take the math and reading/language arts tests, while the amount rises to 9 hours for grades four and five, and around 9-1/2 hours for middle and high school students. School districts will have two windows of up to four weeks to give the two sets of tests, with PARCC suggesting states may reduce that number. 
As for computers, here's PARCC's "rule of thumb" -- "At a minimum, schools with up to three grades tested should plan on having at least one computer device for every two students in its largest tested grade. A school that has six tested grades, such as a K-8 school, should plan on having one device per student in its largest tested grade. PARCC recommends that schools go a bit further if they are able."
Using the PARCC guidance, Florida officials are indicating that testing would increase by a net eight days (emphasis mine)
Schools go into total shutdown during the FCAT. Before and after school activities are limited or cancelled altogether. Students in elementary schools can't use the playgrounds. Volunteers, organizations, and vendors who do work in the schools cannot come on campus. Elective teachers will have shortened classes or may not even see their students at all during testing. Essentially, students lose valuable instructional time in all courses. 

This is how the world of testing works. While those in government tell public schools they need to act like the private sector, most private schools will not be participating in such activities. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Common Core Standards: The Interesting Supporter

The Common Core State Standards are most likely coming to a state near you. Many in the "reform" crowd love the standards including Jeb Bush, Tony Bennet, Michelle Rhee, etc. Many in the business community, who also support the full-scale privatization of education, are also in support of the Common Core standards. 

It seems as though there are teachers on both sides of the debate. Some believe that the standards require too much, especially for students who do not start school with the level of knowledge they should, while others think it is a simplified, yet more rigorous approach to education.

It's interesting how the Common Core is one of the tenants of the education reform movement. It's even more interesting that huge supporters of the standards include the national teachers unions! Yes. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are full steam ahead on implementing the Common Core standards and making sure that teachers have a voice in their implementation on the state level. I wonder how many people who sing the praises of the reformers will back away when they find out the union supports the standards as much as their political idols do. Tony Bennett's election loss in Indiana (with Romney winning the state by ten points) is indicative that many Tea Party conservatives are not interested in the Common Core standards. Let's see how they react when they realize their buddies in power are in sync with the unions on this issue.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Education News Update

Wow. I realize that I haven't posted since Election Day 2012. It's been a busy few months, and a LOT of things have happened in the education world since November. 

  • On the federal level, it looks like things will be the same. I don't believe education policy would have changed too much if Romney won. Perhaps the only change with a Romney administration would have been an acceleration of the testing and privatization movement.
  • Tony Bennett lost his seat as the head of education in Indiana. However, the bad news is that he was appointed to the equivalent position in Florida. There has not been much controversy yet, he's still fairly new on the job. I don't think he will be as controversial in Florida as he was in Indiana because his ideas won't be new to the state. 
  • Voters in Seminole County, FL (north of Orlando) approved a property tax increase for school funding. This was after a failed attempt in a prior election to impose a 0.5% sales tax. However, the district is in the midst of a rezoning battle with its elementary schools in order to save money.
  • Brevard County, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center, lost its 0.5% sales tax referendum and is in a dire situation as it mulls several serious budget cutting ideas.
  • Governor Rick Scott has all of a sudden had a change of heart on education, proposing a massive increase in education spending, which includes a recommended $2,500 raise for all teachers. This is more political posturing than anything else. It will be up to the Florida Legislature to enact the recommendation and up to district/union collective bargaining to make it a reality. Republican legislators are against it as it contradicts the merit pay law passed in 2011. 
  • The tide is slowly, and I emphasize slowly, starting to turn in regard to excessive testing and the emphasis on such measures as the sole indication of performance in a child's education. I am hoping that this turns into some key election victories in November 2014.  
I think 2013 will still be a challenging year for public education, but I believe that our side is becoming stronger and we will start to gain more exposure and credibility in the media. It will not be an easy fight, but I do believe that our side will gain some much needed traction.