The Doublespeak of Education Reform

By Sue Peters,Co-editor of Seattle Education 2010, a blog of education news and commentary

While watching part of NBC’s Education Nation (aka the week long made for TV ad waiting for Superman)) last month, I tuned into the Teacher Town Hall where a teacher from a charter school was asked what made her school successful. “Teachers at our school are given the freedom to innovate!” she replied brightly.

Hmm, I thought. Sounds great. So why aren’t the teachers in my children’s public schools given that same freedom?

Instead, they are increasingly being slipped into the full nelson of a standardized curriculum measured by an ever-increasing barrage of computerized tests, all imposed by a top-down district management. (It feels stifling just to write about it.) Then the education reformers point an accusatory finger at our schools, call them “failing,” and hold up charter schools as exemplars of “innovation.”

And that’s one of the first ironies — or hypocrisies — of the current national dialogue on education reform.

The biggest players in ed reform — President Obama, Ed Secretary Arne Duncan, billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad: the “Superman” crowd, let’s call them — keep pushing privately run charter schools as the answer to all that ails our public schools (the central theme of ‘Superman’). One of the main winning traits of charters, they say, is their freedom to “innovate.” Indeed, free of public and school district oversight and mandates, privately run charter schools are granted the right to create their own curricula and empower their teachers to, allegedly, “innovate.” (They’ve also been allowed to exclude and expel students who don’t perform to their liking a serious flaw that even Secretary Duncan has acknowledged).)

Understandably, charter operations like to tout this precious autonomy they are given. Green Dot Schools site states:

3. Local Control with Extensive Professional Development and Accountability Principals and teachers own critical decisions at their schools related to budgeting, hiring and curriculum customization.
Now, why aren’t our non-charter public schools being given the creative and managerial autonomy that these reformers value in charters? Instead, when it comes to influencing or running our school districts with their corporate management trained superintendants, or their agenda-laden grants, these same reformers impose strictures on our schools and kids that quash innovation.

For example, here in Seattle, why is our district, led by a reformist Broad Academy-trained superintendent, taking autonomy steadily away from individual schools and principals and centralizing it? Why is it telling our teachers they need to follow the central office mandated curriculum exactly? Why is it sending “visitors” from the central office to escort the school principal on pop-ins into classrooms to monitor teachers? (I’ve heard these are called “Learning Walks” — apparently a trademarked term.) I can understand a principal checking on her/his staff, but why the accompanying Thought Police?)

Some researchers are even determining where exactly in the classroom a teacher should stand in order to deliver the perfect lesson. I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t an intentional Catch 22 that some people are trying to trap our public schools in: setting them up to fail, making it impossible for them to be creative or independent, and then saying: “See! They’re losers! They don’t innovate! Let’s sell these schools to the private enterprises of KIPP charters, Green Dot charters, Billy Bob’s Acme Charters & Co.!”

Unfortunately this is just one of many conflicting messages coming from this latest breed of ed reformers. Those who are driving the national dialogue about the direction of our kids’ public education — from President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and lurking in the shadows with their open checkbooks, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons, the Fishers and the Dells — are saying one thing out of one side of their mouths and another thing out of the other.

Here are some other examples of ed reform doublespeak:

“CLASS SIZE DOESN’T MATTER (except in charters)”
How many times have we heard the reformers declare that “class size doesn’t matter”? They claim that an “excellent” teacher can somehow transcend overstuffed classrooms and reach all kids. If this were true, then why do private schools and charters tout smaller class sizes and individualized attention as a key advantage over public schools?

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone reportedly has a school with class sizes that average 15 kids, with two licensed teachers to every classroom! That’s a private school — and every parent’s — dream. From the Oct. 13, 2010, New York Times,:

In the tiny high school of the zone’s Promise Academy I, which teaches 66 sophomores and 65 juniors (it grows by one grade per year), the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room. There are three student advocates to provide guidance and advice, as well as a social worker, a guidance counselor and a college counselor, and one-on-one tutoring after school.

And from the Green Dot charter company web site:
1. Small, Safe, Personalized Schools All Green Dot schools are small (no more than 560 students when fully developed), ensuring that each student will not go unnoticed. In addition, small schools are safe and allow students to receive the personalized attention they need to learn effectively. Classes at each school will be kept as small as financially possible with a target student to teacher ratio of 27:1.
So apparently class size does matter to ed reformers when it comes to charters, but somehow not when it comes to the rest of the kids in regular schools.

How often have we heard the line: “The single most important factor in a child’s academic success is the teacher”? Here it is in the recent “manifesto” of (soon to be former) District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and NY schools chief Joel Klein et al:
As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.

And here’s NBC (in an Education Nation press release) parroting this line:
Research and school-based evidence around the country now confirms that the most important variable affecting the success of the student is the effectiveness of the teacher, and the second most important variable is the effectiveness of the principal. Those two factors far outweigh the socioeconomic status, the impact of parental involvement or class size.

Problem is, these statements are false.

The most significant indicators and influences on a child’s success in school are what’s going on in these kids’ lives at home. In other words, their socioeconomic background and home life. Of course academic ability is not determined by race, gender or economic status. But success — the possibility of a child being allowed to fulfill her or his potential — is necessarily influenced by how much support they get at home, the stability of this home life and whether or not this child comes to school hungry each morning.

For the ed reformers to say that none of this matters — all you need is an “excellent” teacher — is false and another rigged scheme: rigged for failure. They may as well be dunking teachers in water to see it they are witches.

It defies common sense to say that a teacher, however brilliant, can transcend all challenges a child brings to school, can navigate a classroom of any size and any needs, and if the child does not succeed in school (in ed reformspeak that only means doing well on standardized tests), it is clearly unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame entirely on the teachers.

A great teacher does make difference, for sure. But a teacher alone cannot determine a child’s academic success.

Despite this repeated canard, it’s clear that Geoffrey Canada, one of ed reforms’ heroes, recognizes these facts. Why else would his HCZ offer all the wraparound services that it does — Baby College, medical and dental care for students and their families? This is a clear acknowledgment of the fact that a child in poverty needs a great deal more than a stellar teacher to have a fair shot at educational success.

“AN ‘EFFECTIVE’ TEACHER IN EVERY CLASSROOM (but 5 five weeks of training will do!)”

I also find it rather hypocritical for the ed reformers to say they care about pushing academic achievement for all kids, and measure the success of their reforms by how many kids go to college — one of Canada’s benchmarks for HCZ — and then turn around and utterly dismiss the higher education of professional teachers.

Returning to the increasingly silly “manifesto”:

A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree — she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success.

If master’s degrees are so useless, then why don’t we just eliminate all academic degrees in all fields and just hire “effective, engaging” young credentialed dentists and doctors too? Does anyone really need an MBA? Or a law degree, for that matter?

On the one hand the reformers say they want an “effective” or “excellent” teacher in every classroom. On the other hand they promote sending Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America, Inc. trainees — who have only five weeks of training and are only required to commit to two years on the job — into the most struggling and challenging urban schools in the nation. Only 34 percent of TFA recruits stay in the field for a third year. Teachers don’t hit their stride until about the fifth. So most TFA-ers quit before they have even become “effective” teachers. (Michelle Rhee herself is a TFA graduate who only stayed for a few years in the field, and tells so,e pretty damning stories about her own miustakes as an inexperience teacher.)

If the ed reformers were serious about promoting and supporting excellent teachers in every classroom, they would support well-trained professionals who are committed to the kids and the profession for the long term. Instead they disparage dedicated lifetime teachers as dead wood and promote young short-termers as the salvation. And their incessant teacher-bashing utterly undermines any claims they may have of “supporting” teachers.

“MONEY DOESN’T MATTER (except in the Harlem Children’s Zone)”
“Money doesn’t matter” the reformers like to say. I think even heard President Obama say that recently, alas. And yet, the most comprehensive example of a charter model, Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, has an operating budget and net assets in the multi-millions.

Reports the New York Times:

In 2009, the Harlem Children’s Zone had assets of nearly $200 million, and the project’s operating budget this year is $84 million, two-thirds of it from private donations. Last month, the Goldman Sachs Foundation pledged $20 million toward constructing an additional school building. With two billionaires, Stanley Druckenmiller and Kenneth Langone, on the board, its access to capital is unusually strong.

Canada’s Zone, at least acknowledges that underprivileged kids need a great deal of support inside and out of the classroom and school in order to succeed. His program offers social support services and medical services to these kids and their families for years, which is great. But he is given millions and millions of dollars to do it. That gives the lie to all those who say that money is not part of the solution to creating better schools. It also gives the lie to the reformers’ teacher-bashing mantra that somehow an “effective” or even “excellent” teacher can transcend all society’s ills.

It does take money to hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes, to maintain safe and clean facilities, invest in solid and inspiring curricula and enrichment. That’s an indisputable fact. We as a nation have not made education a funding priority. All my life, schools have been holding bake sales, as the famous bumper sticker laments, scrambling to pay for basics. It is a national shame. And the Obama/Duncan lottery of Race to the Top is unconscionable in that it does not fund all 50 states equally or at all.

So here’s where I’m at with this: Everything good the reformers tout about private control of our public schools via charters could be given to our existing public schools without handing over the control and finances of our schools to private charter franchise operators.

Smaller class sizes, more creative autonomy for teachers, local autonomy for schools, non-standardizing curricula that allow for more innovation, better resources for the kids from greater allocations of money — all of this is possible in our existing schools, if our superintendent, school board and central administration office would allocate our school district’s resources properly. But they don’t — as the recent damning state audit of Seatle’s School District revealed. (That’s why a growing number of parents and The Seatle Times support a “No” vote on the school levy Nov. 2 — unprecedented in a town that always backs school levies).

ALL public schools should offer ALL these things to ALL kids, no private-charter franchise middlemen required, and no lottery required either.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

Are we all created the same

This is a subject I have been writing about for years. –cpg

By Linda Silverman

All people are not created with equal abilities. We are all good in different things. We all can’t be doctors or lawyers or car mechanics. The only thing we can hope for is that we find something that we can be good at, enjoy doing that thing and find a way to make a living doing it. Everyone has different abilities and we all peak at different level, depending upon what that activity is. Unfortunately, this view is not shared by the people writing school curriculums now. Somewhere along the way someone decided that everyone should go to college. Kids, regardless of their abilities are being pushed into courses that they have no interest in and have no ability to understand. Because of this, they often act out and cause disturbances in class. Cutting class is the norm. They would rather fail because they don’t want to pass than fail because they cannot master the material.

While I am not happy about these kids, I am more concerned with the ones that come to class every day. They don’t disrupt. They do all homework and participate in discussions. They still cannot pass because the work is way above their comprehension. I have been working on polynomial in my algebra class since the beginning of the school year. We’ve been factoring for over two weeks. I gave an exam today. I only looked at a few papers so far and while many were quite good, some of the answers I saw were quite disturbing. In fact, the answers were so off beat that I wonder if I am really teaching anything at all. Maybe I am speaking Russian and some of the kids are learning in Chinese?

I wish the powers that be would wake up and go back to the old diplomas, like when I went to school — Academic, Commercial and General. Kids took classes relevant to their interests and no matter what the statistics say, and we all know they can be made to say anything, I think most kids did better then. My own mother got a general diploma years ago. She could never get a degree with today’s standards, or, if she did get one, she would have a meaningless one. She would have gotten no training and would not have been able get a job to support herself and her family.

A friend of mine, an administrator in a different school told me that it was racist to track kids as to many minorities end up in the lower end of things. I find that hard to believe. I teach in a middle class Queens high school. The five lowest achievers in my class are Jewish, Irish, Chinese, Italian and Pakistani. I don’t see how putting these kids in track classes is racist.

If we really care about children and really believe that no child should be left behind, we must change the curriculum. Teach kids things that are meaningful in their lives. If any of them decide that at a later time, they want to go to college, they can always make up the work they missed and attend.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

Think Sink

By Jaxson, Guest Writer

We have done it their way for the past twelve years, and we have very little to show for Republican domination of the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.

The only folks who are better off from GOP domination of Tallahassee are the lobbyists who have free rein in the corridors of power.

This is an issue that Alex Sink has not made very often in her campaign for governor – so I will say it.

While I am glad that Ms. Sink brought up the GOP monopoly during last night’s CNN debate, I would like to remind Floridians who has been in charge here. Ms. Sink should not let her opponent keep using the same, tired ‘Obama liberal’ labels against her.

Remember Jim Greer? Remember Ray Sansom? Remember the Taj Mahal courthouse? These are all on the watch of the Republican Party. And this is the same party that believes that teachers should be punished while they get off scot-free for all of their misdeeds.

Tired of the same crooks trying to micromanage public education? VOTE SINK!

More questions for Senator Thrasher

By Jaxson, Guest Writer

Having watched the Gianoulis-Thrasher debate on WJXX this morning, I walked away with some questions about John Thrasher.

1. If you are such a great state senator, why don’t you decide to run for the Florida Senate from your real home in Clay County? Deborah Gianoulis lived within the boundaries of Senate District 8 for more than three decades. Having been an actual resident of a district, instead of a carpetbagging opportunist, actually defines the point of representation. Although there is a center of the arts in his name, Senator Thrasher appears to be running away from something in Clay County.

2. Does Senator Thrasher know what political parties are for? He snidely derided Deborah Gianoulis for accepting support from the Democratic Party. Stop the presses! A Democrat is getting support from her own party? Senator Thrasher was very artful in this attempt to distract from the fact that the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida is locked in such a tight race.

3. Does Senator Thrasher realize that he is a liberal? Senator Thrasher opposes new taxes. This means that he is a conservative. Wrong! Although he has been trying to claim that Deborah Gianoulis would be willing to tax anything that moves, Senator Thrasher is really the candidate who is in favor of higher taxes. Senator Thrasher wants to play the hero when he advocates making major cuts in state revenue, but fails to acknowledge that county and municipal government have to raise their taxes to make up for the shortfall. This is one reason why Duval County politicians opposed Amendment 1 back in 2008. Senator Thrasher, however, decided to single out Deborah Gianoulis’ opposition because he did not want a few facts to get in the way of a good mudslinging.

4. Does John Thrasher belive in home rule? Not likely. Remember Senate Bill 6? This ‘education reform’ bill was an epic power grab from Tallahassee that dictated how school districts negotiated pay with educators, that forced schools to adopt expensive new tests, that penalized school districts for not abiding by state mandates. This ‘education reform’ bill was part of a long line of unfunded state mandates that burdened the school districts. Senator Thrasher should be taken with a grain of salt the next time he complains about Washington D.C. being imperious with its power.

5. Whats up with Senator Thrasher and the teachers unions? Senator Thrasher never hesitates to cry wolf when he gets the chance. Those mean unions are opposed to any meaningful change to education. I am not sure that Senator Thrasher is even aware that Duval County’s school system already has a merit pay plan in place (and was approved by the Florida Department of Education). How did the merit pay plan come into place? The district negotiated with the unions. Since then, the merit pay plan has won the support of the teachers. Once again, Senator Thrasher doesn’t like to worry about the facts when they get in the way of old-fashioned demagoguery.

Just Following Orders

The expression, just following orders, has a certain connotation. It’s what the German war criminals said during the Nuremberg trials as they tried to defend the indefensible. And where nothing can compare to that, and I hope if you are reading this, you don’t think I am trying but that’s what the powers-that-be at 1701 Prudential Drive say they are doing, they are just following orders.

They are following orders from the Federal Government having to do with No Child Left Behind and orders from the State that has to do with a whole host of issues. Orders issued by far off bureaucrats many of whom if they were in a classroom it was long ago and I would argue none have an idea of what is best for the children of Jacksonville, quite simply because they are not hear walking through the halls of the city’s schools.

The thing is many of the orders we are following and many of the issues Jacksonville is having are orders and issues being followed and had countrywide as well. Districts everywhere are being required to send unprepared and overmatched ESE students into regular education classrooms. Everywhere there is “an everybody will attend college mantra: regardless of the students ability or desire. Then there is the fact that standardized, high stakes tests that force schools to just teach the test is not just a Florida phenomenon but like a sickness it has forced it’s way into the whole body of public education.

The federal and state governments send us money, often just our money back to us with strings attached saying if you want it you have to do this and our leaders seemingly without care pass on these orders to teachers most of who know what they are doing is not beneficial to their children. If I thought for one second, posting the benchmark and having a massive tome of a data notebook would be beneficial to my kids I would do it in a heart beat. After all I and 99.9% of teachers got into the field because we wanted to help make a difference in the lives of children. The thing is they don’t and telling me a rooster is a pig, doesn’t make a rooster a pig.

Somebody has to stand up and say no more. I am not going to administer that shock, or terrorize those inmates; I am not going to follow one more order that handcuffs teachers or sets children back. No more will I be part of a process that is robbing a whole generation of children of the chance to lead productive lives. I will no longer follow these misguided orders being forced down the throats of school districts all across the country, that are not making things better but are making things worse. Somebody has to say enough is enough. Or are we just going to follow orders, even though these orders have disastrous consequences.

Following is easy right; you just do what you are told to do. However we have enough followers right now and in these desperate times we need some leaders. We need somebody to stand up and say, no thanks we have decided to do what’s right not just what we were told to do.

Are We Heading in the Wrong Direction

By Tony Zinni, elemetary school teacher

The other day, I was in surf clothing store and I watched a very interesting situation unfold, or maybe I should say fold. The sales people were so engrossed with a display they were working on that they failed to engage or even acknowledge the customers in the store. I can’t imagine the company’s CEO touting the emphasis on displays to shareholders while sales plummet! Of course not. We all know that nice displays are not the main objective. They are a means, but definitely not the end when comes to the success or failure of any retail business. This path leads to insolvency.
That’s what so great about the free market. It forces organizations to keep the “main thing” the “main thing” or problems ensue.

As I thought more about the irony of what I saw that day, unfortunately it reminded me of what I see unfolding in our nation’s much-needed attempt at reforming public education. As a teacher I am excited about the possibility of reinventing a system that was designed around the parameters of the industrial age. However, the path in which we have embarked is one that leads to the same phenomena I witnessed in the store. We are building a system centered on the “displays.” We have forgotten the main purpose/objective of public education.

How are we doing this?

Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you took a multiple choice test? My guess is that you have not taken one since you completed your education. Or if you have, it has related to attaining a license or similar certification. The reality is that multiple choice tests don’t correlate to real life. Yet that is the center piece of “accountability” in the plan to reform education being proposed and implemented. The plans focus on “displays” and not the true objective of education.

Our myopic focus on standardized testing has taken our eyes off the real goal of education which, put simply, is to prepare students to succeed in the world they will face upon completing their education. If passing multiple choice tests equates to success in life, then we are doing a heck of a job, but if they don’t, then we are doing our kids a disservice.

We are headed in the wrong direction. The unintended consequences of this well-intended reform will actually exacerbate the problem. If we hope to create an educational system that is second to none we must take a more holistic approach to revamping education in America. It is important to note that many of the steps we are taking to improve education are going to have positive outcomes. Programs designed to improve STEM education and Change the Equation are two examples. Students, educators and society will all benefit from the leadership and vision of all of those involved.

I want to be clear about one thing because I have seen and read things that make it sound like teachers don’t want accountability and/or testing. As a teacher, I believe we need both.

The problem with the current focus and direction is that it places too much weight on one test given at the end of the year. Does that sit right with you? We are going to gauge the entire year by a set of questions with four possible answers! This measurement is too narrow. The mistake is compounded by the fact that this assessment has virtually no relationship with the world our children will be thrust into upon exiting the system.

Lest I be misunderstood, I think state testing should be a part of how we assess student learning and teacher effectiveness, but it should not be the only part.

As I person who left business to pursue a passion for teaching, I can say (I know all teachers feel the same) that I am “waiting for Superman” too! Unfortunately, if we don’t change the direction in which we are headed, the wait is going to get longer, much longer.

Stay tuned for ideas on the path we should be walking down.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

Confused about Amendment 8? Good. That’s what they want

By Jennie Smith, Dade County education policy examiner

“Our school features large classes, with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 30, so that all of our students get a couple of minutes of individual attention every class period.”

How many times have you heard that used as a selling point for private schools or charter schools?

The answer is, I am certain, never. One of the biggest draws of private, parochial and charter schools is small class size and thus more individual, personalized attention.

Parents know it matters. No parent relishes the thought of his or her child, particularly a child with special needs, a slow learner or one who is simply too shy to speak up and ask questions when he or she does not understand, languishing in the back of a packed classroom, where an entire class period can elapse without the child opening his or her mouth a single time.

Students know it matters. When they want to learn and understand, they like to be able to raise their hands and have the teacher’s attention. They like to feel acknowledged. They appreciate it when their teacher notices that they were not in class one day, or that they look confused, or that they are struggling with the classwork just assigned.

Teachers certainly know it matters. Those people who seem to honestly believe that there is no significant difference between a class of 20 students and a class of 25, between a class of 25 students and one of 30 students, have obviously never been in front of a classroom. It matters. Just as every child matters to his parents, every student matters to a teacher, whether in a positive or negative way.

A brief example from personal experience: while, generally speaking, I cannot complain that, as a French teacher, I have had enormous classes, I did have one class of French I last year that fluctuated between 30 and 31 students all year. (My average last year was about 25, though several classes had 27 or 28, and a couple had around 22.) I noticed constantly in my largest class that there were students managing to “hide” by not speaking up, not raising their hands. While I do try to call on every student at least once every class period, and while I do try to gauge with my eyes and ears which students are showing comprehension and mastery and which ones seem lost, confused or uninterested, the more students there are in front of you, the more difficult that task becomes. Adding to the problem is that, in every class, there are those students who prefer to stand out (some of them seeking positive attention, others negative) and those who prefer to “hide.” And any teacher can tell you that it is far easier to “hide” in a large class than in a small one, particularly when there are students demanding attention (and there always are)…whether by waving their hand in the air throughout the entire class, or by acting up so as to keep the focus on himself or herself.

In 2002, voters in the state of Florida ratified the Class Size Amendment by 52%. The amendment called on schools to gradually decrease the number of students in each classroom, so that by the year 2010, pre-kindergarten through third grade classes would have a hard cap of 18 students per teacher, 4th through 8th grade would be limited to 22 students per teacher, and core classes in high school would be limited to 25 per teacher. Up until last year, the amendment operated at the “schoolwide average,” meaning that some classes could be over 25 as long as others were below.

The initiative, naturally, requires increased funding for public schools. While the voters approved the original amendment, legislators never properly funded the mandate, and indeed have knowingly underfunded it by $350 million; furthermore, they will impose heavy fines on districts found not in compliance of the law by this Friday.

As a result of the underfunding, many politicians and school boards are advocating that voters pass Amendment 8, which would loosen the class size limits to the schoolwide average, saying that it will protect electives and provide school sites with more flexibility in scheduling.

However, the state teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association (FEA), local teachers’ unions, and the state PTA, as well as a few public education-friendly politicians such as U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek, are all encouraging voters to vote “no” on Amendment 8. The position of these groups and individuals is that the voters knew what they were asking for when they approved the initial amendment in 2002, and that the Republican-controlled legislature, known to be very supportive of charter schools and private school vouchers while trying to reduce the cost of public education in the state, will simply use the passage of Amendment 8 as an excuse to cut more money out of the education budget, costing teachers jobs and cramming students into larger classes once again.

In a nutshell: the voters approved the Class Size Amendment in 2002, against the explicit wishes of then-governor Jeb Bush. Since then, legislators have failed to properly fund the mandate to make it work as voters intended; this year they provided no additional funding for districts to meet the hard caps, although they estimated it would cost at least $350 million. This year, as a result of their refusal to fund the voter-ratified measure, some districts have been cutting or crowding electives (since the class size laws apply only to “core classes”) and combining classes in an effort to balance their own budgets. The same politicians who have refused to fund what the voters asked for from the beginning now ask the voters to second-guess their original stance, claiming that it is bad for children–in short, asking for permission from voters not to fund smaller classes.

From a personal perspective, I am truly afraid that voters will not understand the implications and unintended consequences of Amendment 8.

Even at my own school, the principal has been rallying us, the teachers, to vote yes on Amendment 8, even without saying so in those words. She continuously bemoans the lack of funding to make it happen, the difficulty in scheduling the students with the hard caps on class size, and how some students are being moved around or denied their first choice in classes because of the restrictions. Her statements imply that it is literally that voting yes for Amendment 8 would do nothing more than allow that one extra student, that 26th warm body, to sit in your classroom.

I do not doubt the intentions of my principal, who has always been very receptive to suggestions and seems truly to have the interest of the students at heart. But I also do not doubt that she is mistaken. Even if she truly believes in her heart that relaxing the constitutional amendment as it currently stands will do nothing more than allow a 26th student to be in an Advanced Placement English class, the truth is that as soon as legislators have voters’ “permission” to cut funding, they will do so, and more money will disappear from the public education budget. As class sizes are allowed to increase, teachers will lose their jobs, and shy or unmotivated students will once again be “hiding” in crowded classes.

Ironically, career-long advocate of charter schools and private school vouchers, the ex-governor Jeb Bush, claimed in a conference in Utah in August that smaller class sizes did not lead to increased student achievement. Yet class size is one of the main advantages the charter and private schools he supports so heartily have over public schools (along with the ability to control their student populations–i.e., choose their students and/or expel those students who do not conform to expectations of behavior and/or academic performance). How would the parents who so highly laud their children’s private schools and charter schools feel if it were announced that, since class size “doesn’t really matter,” their children would suddenly be back in classes of 30, instead of 15 to 20?

It is disingenuous at best of the former governor to make such a claim.

The truth is, it is all about numbers, and not just the numbers of warm bodies in a given classroom. It is about the numbers of dollars and cents. Funding is a choice, even during a recession. Legislators have an opportunity every year during session to prioritize. In Florida, legislators have continued to prioritize prisons over schools, the testing industry over teachers, public monies for private enterprises over quality education for all students. Now, after refusing time and again to fund the mandate, they say, “See? We told you so,” and ask you to take it back.

There is no money to fund class size limits so that teachers can teach and students can learn, yet somehow they can find the billions of dollars it would take to create the famous End of Course Exams (EOC) proposed in Senate Bill 6 to be used to evaluate teachers?

There always seems to be funding for another standardized test, another incompetent corporation to score and report those standardized tests, and for the state to pay for children to go to private, for-profit and religious schools with none of the accountability systems for their teachers that Jeb Bush and his cronies in the state legislature pushed, and continue to push, so hard for.

Voters knew what they were voting for in 2002. They were voting for all children, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status or special needs, to have the right to an education equal in all ways to that they could get in a private school: including smaller classes and more individual attention.

Recession or no recession, I do not think that desire has changed–not in parents, not in students and not in teachers.

One final note, on a personal level: Class Size Matters. It matters. Every student sitting in my classroom (or not sitting there, as the case may be) matters. My best classes this year are my smallest one. One has 15 students, and one has 19. In those classes, every single student is heard every single class–and not just once, or even twice, but usually several times, and whether they wish to be heard or not. When we read aloud (in French, of course!) every student has to read…there are enough lines of the text for everyone to read at least once. When we answer questions orally, I make sure that every student answers at least a couple of questions, if not more. Because there are fewer students, the load of papers to grade is more manageable, meaning my students get faster feedback. Nobody hides; nobody can. And everybody in those classes in learning.

And I don’t need one of Jeb Bush’s cronies’ standardized tests to show me that. I can see it myself. Every day.

Taken from the Miami Examiner:

Is Forrest high school turning kids away?

You hear these rumors coming out of this school or that school from time to time. Like I heard over the summer that families were giving fake addresses so their children could attend schools in Baker and Nassau counties rather than attend schools here in Jacksonville. I had also heard the same thing for year about families near the Orange Park line so their kids could attend schools in Clay County. However rumors like this are hard to prove though I did look at the enrollment in Duval and all the surrounding districts and compared it to recent census data and for the most part they were all running very close to capacity, where Duval county was running below its.

The thing is, even if above was true I couldn’t fault families for doing what they thought was best for their children.

Which brings me to a pretty persistent rumor that I have heard from several sources and that’s Forrest High School is turning away children it doesn’t feel would be “good candidates”, level one academic achievers and kids it thinks would be discipline problems. I have even heard there was a letter sent out to some students over the summer suggesting they should go elsewhere. Mind you I have never seen this letter. Then when coupled with the fact that enrollment at Forrest is down by several hundred students, while inversely enrollment at Ed White, Forrest’s closest neighbor is up by several hundred students it all seems pretty plausible.

If it’s true I can’t help but think it’s not a bad idea and wish my school had thought of it first. Quite frankly I think no child let behind should be we are leaving about ten percent of them behind until they straighten up and where others might not be behavior problems, as the system is set up now, they drain precious resources from those that could use them. Until we take the needs of some children seriously and provide for those kids who are never going to go to college, or who have other interests rather than a traditional education, it would be better for all to stop playing them lip service as if they were.

The thing is; do you want some random principal or me making that decision? The decision that this kid can and this kid can’t go to his or her neighborhood school or is it a decision we as a society should make together.

At the end what do I have but a few rumors, a letter that some people say they have seen but can’t produce and some anecdotal evidence? Not much right?

I agree and right now it is just a rumor, and maybe that’s all it will ever be, though I did feel as if I had just enough to mention it.

The superintendents’ wrong solution

Blaming teachers seems to have become a full time gig for some. -CPG

By Steven J. Klees

The superintendents’ wrong solution, Alonso’s and others’ blame-teacher mentality won’t fix schools

A group of 16 school superintendents, including Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso, recently published a “manifesto” on “How to Fix Our Schools.” I have great respect for the difficult job superintendents have to do, but this group has got it all wrong. Their diagnosis: Blame their teacher. Their solution: Give us the power to evaluate and fire teachers easily.

These superintendents are taking one extreme position in the current education reform battles. They are part of a conservative movement that goes beyond U.S. borders and beyond education that is attempting to reverse the hard-won protections that workers have struggled for.

The bankruptcy of their solution in education is most evident in the mechanism that is recommended to accompany it: pay for performance. This idea goes back a long way, gets trotted out every couple of decades — and each time it fails. A basic problem is that it is a statistical impossibility to figure out how much of the gain in student achievement is actually caused by teacher performance. Students’ test scores are the result of literally dozens of factors. Thus, merit pay schemes will necessarily reward many poorer teachers and fail to reward many good teachers. The fear of simplistic and mechanical evaluation procedures was an important reason for Baltimore teachers to reject the recent contract proposal.

This superintendents’ recommended policy also takes as given the nationwide push toward incessant testing of our children. There is no evidence that this testing regime that accompanied No Child Left Behind has improved student achievement. And there is evidence that it has narrowed the curriculum, encouraged teachers to teach to the test, ignored problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills and increased teacher and student anxiety and dissatisfaction. It is worth noting that the country that does best on international tests is Finland, which hardly tests its students at all.

The superintendents say “we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching.” But new rules made up by administrators are the very opposite of professionalization, which has to come from the teachers themselves. The status of teaching as a profession has plummeted over the last three decades, and teachers know this better than anyone. When surveyed, teachers used to say they thought it would be great if their children wanted to be teachers; hardly any teacher responds that way today. The superintendents, if anything, are contributing to lowering the status of teachers even further as they promote a blame-the-teacher philosophy for education’s ills.

It is disheartening to see so many superintendents with such a limited vision of what to do. Aside from a narrow view of punishing and rewarding teachers, their manifesto mentions two things: technology and school choice. While technology has a place in schools, there is no evidence that the diffusion of new technologies has done anything to improve student achievement. If anything, it contributes to the achievement gap as advantaged students become even more advantaged. And there is also no evidence that charters or vouchers improve achievement.

What to do? There is no blueprint, but we know a lot of things that could help. Many of those things are outside school. We need to pay special attention to the well-being of children ages 0 to 6 so they have a fairer start at school. During the school years, schools and social policies must help support families. As one example of what’s wrong, many children in the U.S. suffer from hunger and malnutrition, which, among many horrible consequences, adversely affects school performance.

Regarding achievement, use broader tests to check on how we are doing by testing samples of students, not all students. Reinvigorate the portfolio movement through which students are evaluated on a range of dimensions. Lower class sizes and assign some teachers to engage in a long-term relationship with students and their families.

Teachers need to be treated as professionals, with commensurate pay and considerable say over the means by which they are evaluated. Given the right attitudes and working conditions, they can and will police themselves. And we need superintendents with a much broader vision of education than offered in the “manifesto.”

Steven J. Klees is a professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. His e-mail is

Taken from the Baltimore Sun:,0,2413487.story

Parents say FCAT an unreliable measure of student, school performance

By Rebecca Catalanello, St. Petersburg Times

Tampa Bay parents overwhelmingly believe the state-required FCAT standardized test is an unreliable measure of student and school performance, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 poll.
“I just find it a very antiquated system,” said Oscar Peña, 38, a Pasco County father of two who was among 702 public school parents surveyed.
The public vote of distrust comes months after some of Florida’s most powerful school superintendents also questioned the accuracy of the 12-year-old exam’s results.

Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who was among the superintendents this summer to question the reliability of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, is already asking her school board to explore adding another test to the curriculum because, in the words of the agenda item, “the integrity of the data received from state testing programs has become questionable.”

“My big push is to make sure there is reliability with the test,” said Elia, “and that we continue to work hard to build a test that is reflective of what kids are doing. I don’t think it should be the only thing. I think there should be a balance.”

Seventy-six percent of parents polled said they believe the FCAT is overemphasized in schools, a perception that carried across age, race, county, gender and economic lines. Fifty-two percent said the FCAT doesn’t accurately reflect either their child’s performance or their school’s performance.

For Peña’s household, it means his sixth-grader’s study time increases after the winter break as the FCAT testing date nears. Though the boy has never done poorly on the test, Peña said he watches his son’s stress level visibly heighten during test-taking period. Time for after-school activities wanes.

“Sometimes, we’re like, ‘We all just need a break,’ ” said Peña. “We always try to create a high standard in our house. But this really just creates high anxiety. It’s more than just a student being graded.”
End-of-course exams

The FCAT, known formally as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is given annually to Florida students in Grades 3 through 11. It has been used to determine such decisions as whether a third-grader passes to the fourth grade, a senior graduates and whether a school should be graded A, B, C, D or F.

But as dialogue about the FCAT’s reliability continues to rage, state leaders already are starting to incorporate other measures of student success into determining high school grades and graduation eligibility.
For the first time this year, high schoolers will be asked to take end-of-course exams.

And when they are released in November, high school grades for 2009-10 will incorporate something other than just FCAT scores — they also will reflect graduation rate and how students did in advanced courses such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement.

“I think there is an effort in the state to be responsive to looking at this in a more sophisticated way,” said Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith, who called the legislation that changed how high schoolers are measured, “some of the best legislation in the country.”

So, does all this mean the FCAT has jumped the shark?
Neither Elia nor Smith sounded surprised that parents would sound off in opposition to FCAT.

“Tests are not things that people just absolutely fall in love with,” Smith said. “There is all this tension around tests, whether you call it an FCAT or a college admissions test or whether you call it a bar exam.”
But both education leaders said it is important to have a way to measure whether public schools are doing a good job educating students.

“I think that in some places, it’s not in balance,” said Elia. “In some situations perhaps there’s more emphasis placed on, ‘This is FCAT, this is FCAT, this is FCAT.’ When in fact the skill that’s being taught is something you want students to be able to do. The view the parent gets is that it’s all FCAT related when in fact it doesn’t have to be.”
Emphasis on the test

Tamara Ashley, 54, mother of two boys, one a Gaither High senior and another a Gaither graduate, said that when she enrolled her children in public school in the 4th and 6th grades, she was immediately floored by all the talk of the infamous state test.

“My philosophy is that if you teach kids what they need to know, then they won’t have any trouble passing the FCAT,” said Ashley, who said she also gets the impression that the emphasis of school these days is on the test rather than the learning.

Both Ashley and Peña said that when assessing their children’s performance, they put more stock in their children’s day-to-day class work and grades than they do in an FCAT test score. That holds true to the parent survey as well. Only 12 percent said the FCAT is the best measure of their child’s academic performance, while 35 percent said semester class grades were the top measure and 33 percent said classroom test grades were most important.

Ashley and Peña also said that while their children attend highly rated schools, the grade was not what attracted them to their schools. Neighborhood and word of mouth, they said, were more important deciding factors.

After looking over some of the poll results himself, Smith said he’s not inattentive to the concern.

“I think we need to pay attention to what parents are saying,” he said. “I do think that if you were to ask parents, ‘Should schools be accountable for the education of my child?’ I think parents would say yes. And in order to do that, I have to measure it somehow — and it has to be a reliable measure, not just something made up at the local level. So, I think the survey certainly tells an important story that we need to be sensitive to. But there’s much more to the story that we need to learn.”

Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or