Subversive educators in action

By Larry Strauss, Veteran high school English teacher, novelist

Amid the very contentious debate about reforming public education, some of us have to enter classrooms every day and deliver instruction to students who cannot wait for systemic change–and while I greatly admire the passion and knowledge and intelligence sometimes represented in this ongoing debate I have little faith that any of this will be resolved any time soon and, alas, even less faith that it will be resolved to the benefit of my students.

So for now, at least, and probably for some time to come, I pledge–and hope other teachers will join me–to be a subversive educator. That is, to provide quality education for our students, by any means necessary.

I am not suggesting rebellion for its own sake. Where policy supports quality education, I will obediently adhere. But, like many of you reading this, I have been doing this long enough to know that (notwithstanding the many fraudulent claims of those who have no direct contact with our students) putting students first–I mean really placing their interests ahead of all others–is very often at odds with what we are told to do in our classrooms.

Subversive educators have for decades toiled in secrecy, sometimes at great risk, to provide their students with an education that is enlightening, awakening, and inspiring. I would not be the teacher I am today without the inspiration of my subversive colleagues. I would not, in fact, be a teacher at all.

Putting students first often involves great risk. I have had the good fortune to spend my career in South Los Angeles where many high schools have a significant number of unfilled positions and where, barring serious student or parent complaints, administrators rarely keep track of the antics of their teachers. I understand that many teachers in other places operate under much closer scrutiny and far more stringent limitations. To those I say, do what you reasonably can.

Administrators and politicians and union leadership may claim that there is no disparity between what they tell us to do and what is best for students–but we know that is often not the case. When I began teaching I had a colleague who–whenever he was asked to do anything outside his classroom, professional development or otherwise–would ask, “How is this benefiting my students?” A simple question but a profound guiding principle. He did not show up to work each day to support the ambitions of administrators or politicians. Neither do I. Therefore:

•I will teach students. I will not teach “testable material.” Increasing student test scores has never been a morally defensible goal. What students need is to become culturally and scientifically literate, to learn to think critically and do research and synthesize data, to become both open-minded and skeptical, to respect themselves and others and love learning, to understand whatever they read and be able to articulate themselves with clarity and confidence. Some of that might be measured, to some degree, by standardized tests but when their scores become ends unto themselves, then we have sold out ourselves and our students.

•I will not recognize so-called sub-groups. I may differentiate instruction in an attempt to address different ability levels and learning styles and temperaments, but I will not calculate a moment of instruction to address the specific movement of any particular students between so-called achievement levels. I will work with equal ambition toward the advancement of all students, even those who have already demonstrated mastery (and whose improvement, therefore, would not boost my school’s API or AYP).

•I will teach with the same dedication regardless of whether what I am teaching will be tested at all. Originality of thought, for example, cannot be measured on a multiple choice tests. Neither can the development of a literary or rhetorical voice. Wherever possible, I will let student interests and passions influence what I teach them–indifferent as standardized tests may be to such considerations.

•I will not permit those who know nothing about my students to dictate how and what I teach them. This includes people in government and in the text book industry. I remain open-minded and will consider any and all suggestions that might benefit my students.

•When I do use a text book (as opposed to an original source), I will teach students how to critique the text book and understand the political and economic context within which it was devised and guide them to recognize bias in everything they read and see and hear, including what I say.

•I will spend my own money and resources on what students need–to the degree that I can afford to–even if my union encourages me not to.

•I will not, except in extreme circumstances, withhold instruction from my students in order to advance the interests of my union. I will stay at school late to help students though I am not paid to do so. I will be available via Email and telephone to assist my students, also for no additional pay. If my colleagues and I vote to strike, I will not cross the picket line, but I will remain accessible to my students via Email and telephone and continue to write college recommendations and assist seniors with their personal statements, etc.

•I will assist struggling teachers–whether or not I am assigned to or paid for it–but I will also assist my administration in any way I can to purge my school and the system in general of egregiously and intractably incompetent colleagues. It is a crime not to report child abuse–the same penalties should apply to educational mal-practice.

•I will not treat my students like inmates. I will not enforce rules that are unnecessarily oppressive. I will respect them and empower them with a voice. I will be demanding. I will insist on decorum. But I will be reasonable. I will encourage students to question authority–mine included.

Teaching should be pure joy. That so many of us are frustrated and alienated–some to the point of despair–is intolerable. We can end the suffering by making 2011 the year of the subversive educator. And if we can all conspire together on behalf of students (why not make this the decade of the subversive educator?), then maybe we can save the system; we can be the reform.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

The Education Narrative (rough draft)

There is an education narrative being rammed down the people’s throats by the powers-that-be. Prominent citizens like Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and their proxies are telling it. Like most snake oil salesman they weave a smooth tale using cherry picked facts and figures and enticing sound bites and blurbs to get their way and in doing so have made teachers and their unions the boogey men of the story. Watch out parents they shout as they like wise make enticing promises.

The truth however is they are using cherry picked stats and figures to try and convince, make that to try and scare Joe and Judy public into believing the narrative that their children are getting a substandard education and that the future of America is at stake and that it is all teachers fault. If we could just get rid of five percent of the bad teachers we could have dramatic improvements but the teachers unions are trying to protect bad teachers. We want to give vouchers to all parents so they can have school choice but the teachers unions are against them. We want to reward the top teachers with merit pay, how can the unions be against more money for thier best members but they are. Our education ranking in the world has steadily dropped over the last quarter century it must be because we have bad teachers. Why can’t we be more like Finland? On and on they go. Well friends not since a snake convinced a naive young girl to take a bite of an apple has their been such a masterful con job been perpetrated.

Until the recent recession you couldn’t give a teaching job away as there were always openings. Does anybody remember how they were advertising in Canada and India to find teachers, does anybody remember the push to get people from the business world to enter the classroom? I do. Of course we want our best and our brightest in the classroom but you know what else we want, we want the willing to be there to. Are there teachers that should be replaced, yes of course there are just like there are people in every profession that would serve it best by not being in it. Unions however are not protecting bad teachers they are just making sure that teachers get due process and in my home town that only kicks in after they have proved themselves for three years. That’s right at any time during a teachers first three years at the end of one they can be let go. But say we did somehow identify and get rid of the worse five percent, not the five percent the admin doesn’t like because they more often than the worse suffer the consequences of speaking up or being innovative who would we replace them with?

Another stat the ant-teacher mongers like to throw out is that education draws just under a quarter of our top graduates that means the most of our kids are being taught by someone other than a teacher with a high grade point average. First I am not sure if straight G.P.A. should be a factor but why is this a bad thing. Are 23 percent of the nations top grads entering law enforcement, or medicine or business or any other field? I don’t think so and if the stat is right that means over a fifth or our supposed best and brightest are choosing education over the thousands and thousands of other careers out there. But instead of celebrating that it’s used as an indictment against teachers. Teachers can’t win at the top, not enough of the best grads enter education and they can’t win at the bottom, the unions are protecting bad teachers.
Then they compare us to industrialized countries like Finland that have zoomed past us in the international industrial rankings. This to must e the teachers and their unions fault they scream protecting all those bad teachers and resisting reforms. They don’t tell you that if we factor out kids that live in poverty our ranking zooms all the way to second and about the countries they are comparing us to. It’s true that Finland draws the vast amount of its staff from the top third of college graduates but the ed deformers fail to mention that teachers in Finland are paid substantially more than their American counterparts, there classes are very small, they play a role in policy and curriculum and are one of the most highly unionized groups around. Comparing teachers in both countries is not like comparing apples and oranges it’s like comparing apples to a five-course meal, with America being the apple.

What about vouchers? How can people who really care about children and education be against them after all they give parents the choice to do what they feel is best for their children. Sounds pretty seductive right especially in Florida where they are promising parent five thousand five hundred dollars. The problem is charter schools and their private school counter parts despite the fact that they can pick and choose who they allow in and don’t have to play by the same rules as their public school counter parts haven’t been found to do any better, in fact for the most part they are found to do the same or worse. Furthermore the universal voucher system will amount to welfare for the well off program as it siphons much needed money away from already cash starved public schools. We don’t get to pick our police, our fire department, our military our meat inspectors and so many other things but for some reason the powers-that-be will have you believe it is better to abandon public schools.

You want proof unions are against education reform those spinning the anti-teacher narrative ask. Well look at merit pay, how can they be against merit pay for the nations best teachers. The thing with merit pay is like school choice it sounds very enticing but like school choice often becomes no choice merit pay can be very misleading. The one-year I received merit pay I knew there were a dozen teachers better than me that didn’t. The one-year I didn’t receive merit pay I knew there were a dozen teachers worse than me that did. So often it comes down to whom the principal likes or whatever perception he has but worse than that it there is no relationship between those who receive merit pay and their children doing better.

The anti-teacher narrative has more holes in it than a colander but somehow it is gaining traction and teachers have gone from valued members of society to borderline pariahs holding the country back. Teachers who I remind you the vast majority work many untold and un paid extra hours, who donate their time and resources to other peoples children as often theirs wait in extended day or in front of the television why they take home papers to grade or work on lesson plans. Teachers who give so much and frankly throughout time have received so little have become the bad guys of the narrative while the policy makers, politicians absentee parents and children raised without a sense of respect or a willingness to work get a pass.

Furthermore it’s worse. Do you know where Mayor Bloomberg and Jeb Bush and many of those selling the anti teacher story sent their children? They sent them to private schools, which tout teachers experience and smaller class sizes as selling points, two things the ed deformers have recently been minimizing. Jeb Bushes family and Bill Gates have made millions and stand to make millions more on the education reforms they are selling (standardized tests and virtual, computer based, schools). Also do you know how many of the people selling the teachers union bad, teachers substandard story have been teachers and actually been in classrooms? Well of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s education team only one is a teacher and he works at a virtual school. Of the leaders mentioned in the opening only Michelle Rhee was a teacher and she came up through Teach for America which some have renamed Teach for a while because of the staggeringly high amount of participants who serve their two years and then leave. This is who is writing the education narrative, those that have had nothing to do with teaching and those that would seek to profit off of it.

A look back at Florida education in 2010

From the St. Petersberg Times Grade Book

A look back gives insight for future of Florida education news
Some say the past is preview and prologue for the future. That seems likely the case for Florida’s biggest education stories of 2010, all of which have tendrils into 2011.

Look no further than Senate Bill 6. The legislation, which emerged quietly in March, aimed to dramatically change the way Florida contracts, hires, fires, evaluates and certifies its public school teachers. It itself was the offshoot of an unsuccessful 2009 House bill with the moniker “Quality Teachers For All Students Act.”

Once word of SB 6 hit, it generated a furious backlash. Not the usual FCAT-hating, Jeb Bush-bashing variety. No, this was a real grassroots effort, from Facebook to street corner, that joined parents and teachers in opposition to an effort that seemed to ignore input from those who had a key stake in the matter as state leaders pushed to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding. (Who wouldn’t want a nearly $1 billion infusion during tough times, after all?)

Only a last minute veto by Gov. Charlie Crist killed the initiative. But only for the moment. Crist won’t be governor anymore, and governor-elect Rick Scott looks more favorably upon the teacher “tenure” proposals expected to come from a veto-proof GOP majority in 2011.

Also on the Tallahassee front, the Legislature began the end of the high school FCAT, authorizing the creation of end-of-course exams more closely aligned to individual course curricula. Those exams begin in 2011 with Algebra I. Lawmakers expanded the number of corporate tax credit scholarships (vouchers to some) available to Florida students, perhaps paving the way for a 2011 discussion on vouchers for all that Scott kicked off in the final days of the year to a frenzy of national commentary.

And lawmakers took yet another shot at scaling back the 2002 class size amendment, asking voters to ease the restrictions that otherwise would take effect with the 2010-11 academic year. The November referendum didn’t cross the 60 percent threshold needed for approval, leaving the issue of implementation in tough budget times open for yet another year of debate. Already the Pasco School Board has approved more restrictive school choice rules to align more closely to the class size mandate, while also redrawing attendance zones to make it easier to comply.

Speaking of tough budget times, 2010 marked yet another year of school board spending cuts across Florida and the Tampa Bay region. Teachers saw their pay continue to stagnate while also being required to do more work and, in some instances, pay more for shrinking benefits. Districts tried to avoid layoffs and program cuts with varying degrees of success. With revenue estimates looking bleak and federal stimulus funding coming to an end, budget cuts promise to remain with us in 2011.

Still, the Hillsborough school district was able to find money to match its Gates Foundation grant for changing its teacher evaluation system. The effort, still in its infancy, has received enough teacher support without major public infighting to win national attention as the kinder, gentler way to approach teacher quality reform.

Contrast that with Pinellas County’s attempt to overhaul its academic programs through a series of moves and mergers. As each idea gained a public airing (or sometimes because it didn’t), parents, educators and even students came out to blast the concepts and press the School Board to kill it. Two new members elected in November joined the majority to adopt some of the concepts, such as a new International Baccalaureate program. But overall the new majority approved only a shell of superintendent Julie Janssen’s recommendation.

All the area school districts saw major improvement in their graduation rates and high school grades from the state, as the Department of Education adopted new standards for each. Yet even within that good news lay the seeds of future problems, as the new definitions included measures that appeared to obscure reality. (One example is giving Advanced Placement participation greater weight than performance for school grades. The ratio will change over two years.) Calls for fixes began the day after the press releases hit.

Still, Florida’s school grading system remained the envy of many other states, where leaders brought in former governor Bush or his team of supporters to explain the Florida model. The ideas began to take hold in several places, including New Mexico, where former Florida deputy education commissioner Hanna Skandera was appointed to become education secretary, as well as Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma and a host of others. That’s yet another Florida education story that promises to take root in 2011.

Stay tuned.

Virtually Worthless

Virtual learning is a huge part of Rick Scotts proposed education reforms. -cpg

By Mc Nelly Torres, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Rodolfo M. Rodriguez, a 24-year-old cashier at a gas station in Davie, was searching online for a school that would allow him to earn a high school diploma.

It was February, and Rodriguez found Continental Academy, a virtual school based in Miramar.

“Study at home at your own pace,” Continental Academy’s website advertised. “No classes to attend.”

The father of two boys, ages 4 and 3, paid the initial $350 fee and began to take courses in math, reading, science and English. In about four weeks, Rodriguez completed the program without initiating any communication with teachers or receiving guidance from school staff, he said.

Continental Academy’s Written Response to FCIR
After declining interview requests, Continental Academy provided written responses to 10 questions from FCIR.

But Rodriguez’s dreams of obtaining a college education and pursuing a career as a dental or medical assistant to better provide for his family were dashed in March after Concorde Career Institute, a technical-vocational school that specializes in health care training, refused to accept his Continental Academy diploma.

The reason: Continental Academy has not been accredited by an academic standards organization that Concorde accepts. In other words, as far as Miramar-based Concorde Career Institute was concerned, Rodriguez’s Continental Academy diploma was just a piece of paper.

“The (Continental Academy) website said that it was accredited,” Rodriguez, a high school dropout, said. “I put so much work into this para nada (for nothing).”

Claudette Simpson, head of admissions at Concorde, said the school turns away many students because they don’t have a “valid” diploma, according to Concorde’s criteria. Concorde accepts private high school diplomas from schools that have been accredited by a group recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have a list of schools that we won’t accept diplomas from,” Simpson said, without revealing an exact number of schools but explaining that Concorde’s list has grown over the years. “We are very diligent about this.”

Continental Academy is one of the schools on that list.

Tammy Dawn Shedd, of Cornelia, Ga., has also struggled with Continental’s lack of credentials. Five colleges, including Virginia Tech, have turned her down because they wouldn’t accept her Continental diploma.

The problem is that many vocational schools and institutions of higher learning do not recognize the two accrediting organizations, the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, which accredit Continental.

“They cheated me of about $500,” Shedd, 32, said because none of the colleges she applied to would accept her Continental Academy diploma.

Rodriguez and Shedd are two of 59 students from around the country who have filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services against Continental Academy since 2006. They allege Continental Academy provided false information about accreditation.

These students, many of whom said they graduated with honors from Continental Academy, reported that colleges nationwide, including Virginia Tech and Southwestern College in Ohio, have refused to accept them because their high school diploma is from Continental.

Their complaints underscore a fundamental problem in distance learning and online education. Dozens of organizations accredit schools, but the U.S. higher education community at large only recognizes a handful of accrediting organizations as legitimate, education experts said. If you obtain a high school diploma from an organization not widely recognized by colleges and post-secondary schools, as Rodriguez did, then your degree is worthless.

The Better Business Bureau has given Continental an “F” rating because the school failed to resolve a handful of complaints in a timely manner, and in some cases, school officials have not responded to several complaints filed against the school.

In a written statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Jeffrey Lopez, vice principal of Continental Academy, said Continental takes complaints seriously. But Lopez admitted that Continental Academy’s diploma is refused by colleges and post-secondary schools so often that the Miramar school keeps a form letter on hand to address the issue.

“When we challenge the college’s decision to deny admission to one of our graduates in writing, we never hear from the college and never hear from the graduate,” Lopez said in a written statement. Lopez provided a copy of the form letter to FCIR.

It is unclear, however, if any colleges have accepted Continental graduates after receiving the school’s appeal letter. None of the Continental graduates who spoke with FCIR received this type of support from Continental Academy after colleges refused to accept their high school diplomas.

In connection with this article, Lopez refused FCIR’s request for an in-person meeting and later canceled a scheduled phone interview. Instead, he requested questions in writing. FCIR e-mailed 13 questions, of which Lopez answered only 10.

“Continental Academy has advised students who Continental Academy is accredited by and that the acceptance of credits or graduate is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer,” Lopez wrote.

Continental Academy doesn’t provide a disclaimer on its site to warn students about this issue and students who spoke with FCIR said Continental Academy did not make this clear to them before they enrolled.

A big market with no regulation
Distance-learning schools, traditionally done through mail as students received materials and worked at home, have been around for years. But with the explosive growth of the Internet, many of these operations have flourished online, reaching large groups of students with little or no oversight from state and federal regulators.

In 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education described high schools and for-profit colleges lacking accreditation as “degree mills,” reporting that these operations have grown into a billion-dollar industry.

Education experts and consumer advocates said many of these online high schools use accrediting groups with questionable credentials, giving the schools an endorsement that unsuspecting students often do not question. And these schools appeal to would-be students by offering study-at-home convenience and fast results while charging $300 to $1,200 for a high school diploma.

“It’s a mess, and we are all discovering this is a problem in all states,” said Alan L. Contreras, a national expert and administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a state agency that administers laws and standards for post-secondary schools to ensure colleges operating in Oregon offer degrees that have credentials accepted by the state.

The Florida Commission for Independent Education, a state regulatory agency that oversees for-profit and public post-secondary institutions in the state, has received complaints from consumers about suspected diploma mills, said Tom Butler, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.

“Keep in mind that this is a national problem and Florida does not have any statutory authority over the schools that are running diploma mills,” Butler said. “Students must be prudent and do their diligence when pursuing admission to schools.”

Since private schools aren’t regulated by state or federal agencies, the Better Business Bureau has sounded alarms about certain schools.

In 2009, for example, the BBB issued a warning about high school diplomas and advanced degrees from Belford High School and Belford University, both based in Texas. The Better Business Bureau received 117 complaints about the schools from students living in 40 states.

In November 2009, a group of former students filed a class-action lawsuit against Belford High School, alleging the Texas school defrauded them by using two “two fictitious accrediting entities created to give Belford High School the appearance of legitimacy.”

The federal government has just begun to examine online schools like Continental Academy.

In recent years, federal education officials identified more than 13 online high schools described as “potentially operating as diploma mills” and suspected of granting at least 9,500 diplomas since 2005, Mary Mitchelson, then acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education, said during Oct. 14, 2009, testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Federal investigators are interested in high school diploma mills because 11 percent of all federal financial aid – about $12 billion a year in grants and student loans – has gone to students who earned high school diplomas from schools not accredited to award them, Mitchelson said.

No organization tracks the total number of online high schools operating in the United States or the number of students attending these schools. But a 2008 survey from the Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts whose mission is to help institutions and educators improve the quality of online education, found that 3.9 million students who attended secondary and post-secondary schools were enrolled in at least one online course in 2007 — a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

In Florida, 2,189 private K-12 schools, including online schools, are registered with the state Department of Education. More than 250,000 students were enrolled in private schools in Florida during the 2007-08 school year, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Education that collects and analyzes education data.

The state Department of Education doesn’t regulate private schools. By state law, these schools are required to register with the state and submit an annual survey that includes student enrollment, number of teachers, administrators and other staff and student demographics. However, officials do not verify information submitted by schools, according to state officials. The state’s private school directory identifies religious-based, nonprofit or for-profit schools, but it doesn’t specify which ones are distance learning and online schools.

Besides a high school diploma, students can earn a GED (General Educational Development) certification, which is inexpensive — $50 on average to take the test — and widely accepted by many colleges and employers. Students can contact the nearest GED Testing Center to take the rigorous seven-and-a-half-hour test, which measures knowledge of social studies, science, math, reading and writing. Tests are not offered online.

CT Turner, associate director of marketing and public relations for GED Testing Service, a program of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops and delivers the GED test, said few online high schools issue diplomas that are accepted by colleges, universities and post-secondary schools.

“People are so desperate to earn that credential, and many of these schools are preying on people who are struggling financially,” Turner said. “Another problem is that there are a lot of people who are not reporting this to state agencies.”

Schools seeking accreditation from a respected accrediting organization must pass a review to ensure they meet educational standards. The accreditation gives individual diplomas value because its teachers, coursework, facilities, equipment and supplies are reviewed on a routine basis to ensure students receive a quality education.

But an accreditation only has value if the U.S. educational community at large accepts the organization that provides the accreditation.

Mark Elgart, chief executive of the respected Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said few well-recognized groups are willing to accredit distance-learning schools. AdvancED, now the parent organization of SACS, currently accredits 130 distance-learning schools and has accredited more than 27,000 schools in 69 countries.

“The online world is largely unregulated,” Elgart said. “States need to enact more regulation because they have a responsibility to the consumer.”

AdvancED staff visits schools every five years and works with administrators to ensure adherence to the highest educational standards. Schools that do not meet the standards are monitored closely.

“We have hundreds of schools that lose accreditation every year,” Elgart said. “The process pushes some schools out because they can’t meet the standards and criteria.”

Seeking an education
Continental Academy’s website advertises that the school has helped 95,000 students earn high school diplomas since its founding in 1996. Graduates have moved on to higher-paying jobs, vocational schools, community colleges, universities and new careers, according to Continental.

The school also provides student testimonials — from adults in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida — showing pictures and only listing first names.

When Rodriguez found Continental Academy, he thought the school was fine based on its website.

Continental Academy is located in an office park in Miramar, where signage for a related company, Home School of America, is displayed. (Photo by Mc Nelly Torres.)
But after Concorde would not accept his high school diploma, Rodriguez called Continental Academy and complained to the principal. Continental officials simply told him the school is accredited without providing further explanation, he said. In response, Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

“I’m angry,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t understand how Continental Academy has been allowed to take advantage of people who are trying to complete a high school education and attend college.”

Continental Academy, which is registered with the state Department of Education, as all private schools are in Florida, obtained accreditation on July 26, 2006, from SACS, one of the widely respected organizations. But in 2009, Continental Academy withdrew its accreditation, according to Jennifer Oliver, a spokesperson for AdvancED.

“They didn’t want to comply with requirements that would ensure they met the standards of accreditation,” Oliver said without providing details.

In April 2009, the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, a now-defunct umbrella group created in 1994 by six regional accreditation groups including SACS, issued a letter to address concerns about Continental’s accreditation status.

The letter said the “Fast Track Program,” which Continental offered at the time, “does not meet the spirit and intent of a high school diploma.”

Lopez said Continental officials were not aware of the letter until a parent brought it to their attention.

“After much consideration, Continental Academy’s governing body has decided that it is not in the best interest of Continental Academy to maintain its accreditation with AdvancED/SACS/CASI,” Continental officials said in a statement to FCIR. “Aside from the lack of institutional support and structural confusion that Continental Academy received from SACS, a stark reality of maintaining SACS accreditation is that a school or school district must have a significant amount of financial resources available for continuous school improvement.”

Lopez said CITA’s letter has affected thousands of Continental Academy graduates who earned a SACS-accredited high school diploma through Fast Track from July 2006 to May 2008 because colleges and universities will not recognize Continental Academy graduates from this program.

After withdrawing Continental Academy accreditation from SACS, Continental owners tried to get SACS to accredit a new school, Elgart said.

SACS officials refused.

“It was the same people behind the school with questionable business practices,” Elgart said.

Continental reported to the state that it graduated 13,204 students during the 2008-09 academic year, according to its annual survey for the state Department of Education. In the 2009-10 survey, Continental reported a staff of eight, with six administrators and two counselors, and 2,984 students were enrolled for that academic year – a student-to-staff ratio of 373-to-1.

Lopez said in a statement to Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that Continental has 18 employees. He didn’t specify the number of certified teachers, as FCIR requested, and would not provide resumes for the company’s principals.

When contacted by phone with follow-up questions, Lopez said: “We are done with that interview. Just use your professional judgment and good luck to you.”

The National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools and the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools now accredit Continental. NALSAS accredits based only on one standard: consumer protection. NCACS is simply a membership group.

Ed Nagel, chief executive officer of NALSAS, defended Continental and his organization’s accreditation of the school.

“(Continental Academy) is helping people go on with their education and get better jobs,” Nagel said.

Nagel said NALSAS has conducted three on-site visits at Continental Academy since 2000, has reviewed the school’s marketing materials, and has ensured the school employs certified teachers.

“They have one of the best education programs in the country,” said Nagel, also the former chair and national office manager of NCACS. “They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.”

NALSAS has accredited 13 private schools in Florida, including Continental.

More Information
◦The National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t accept virtual schools such as Continental, and the organization has a list of schools whose courses, grades and diplomas cannot be submitted as part of the NCAA eligibility process.
◦On Oct. 28, the U.S. Department of Education released new student-aid rules requiring college institutions to develop procedures to evaluate the validity of a student’s high school diploma.
◦The U.S. Department of Education provides resources for accreditation and diploma mills.
◦The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has a database listing more than 7,700 degree-granting and non-degree granting institutions and more than 18,700 programs that are accredited by organizations in the United States.

Continental now list three programs on its website: P.A.C.E., an accelerated online high school diploma program for adults 18 and older; O.U.T.R.E.A.C.H., an online high school diploma program for students 16 and older; and S.E.A.L., a high school diploma program through mail for students 16 years and older. The school charges $350 to $850 depending on the program.

Florida incorporation records indicate that Home School of America Inc. owns Continental Academy. Those records also list Nersy Lopez, 63, and Jeffrey Lopez, 42, both of Davie, and Joseph A. Aguilera, 59, of Miami, as the registered agents of Continental Academy. Although state law does not require it, none of these individuals has a teaching certificate with the Florida Department of Education.

Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are also listed as registered agents of other businesses, including Home School of America Inc. and Home School of America Holdings LLC. Jeffrey Lopez and Aguilera are listed as registered agents of Southeastern High School, another virtual school. Incorporation records list the same address in Miramar as the principal address for these businesses.

Jeffrey Lopez is the school principal of Southeastern High School, a virtual school established in 2007, according to the most recent annual survey submitted to the Department of Education. Like Continental Academy, Southeastern received its accreditation from NALSAS and is a member of NCACS.

In his professional profile on LinkedIn, Lopez lists himself as the senior vice president of finance and corporate affairs of Home School of America.

Continental Academy’s revenue and profits are unknown. But its principals, records show, are millionaires. In 2005, Jeffrey and Nersy Lopez created N & J Lopez Family Limited Partnership, putting down $1 million in initial contributions. The partners anticipated contributions of up to $5 million, records show, and Nersy Lopez signed as the general partner.

Both Lopezes have made substantial investments in real estate as well.

In 2006, Nersy and Jeffrey Lopez bought a 7,334-square-foot house in Davie valued now at $943,870, for which Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership to Nersy Lopez on Nov. 18. The same day, Jeffrey Lopez transferred ownership, again to Nersy Lopez, of an undeveloped property in Plantation, which he purchased in July for $280,000, records show. Nersy Lopez also owns a house in Southwest Ranches valued at $896,840.

What’s more, in 1996, Nersy Lopez and Joseph Aguilera bought a residence in Pembroke Pines for $86,480 at the time. A year later, they transferred the property to Lopez, who sold the residence in 1999 for $116,000.

A diploma with no value
In recent years, Continental Academy has described itself in marketing materials as “trustworthy” and a “recognized educational institution.” In online promotional materials, the school encourages would-be students to earn a high school diploma instead of a GED.

The school also stated in a press release that Continental was accredited by the Florida Department of Education, though the state Department of Education doesn’t accredit schools.

Wendell Scott, 32, said he was impressed with Continental Academy’s brochure when he received it on the mail.

“It was a beautiful brochure, and I thought they were the real deal,” Scott said.

And he didn’t question accreditation when he decided to spend more than $500 to obtain his high school diploma. Scott, of Cincinnati, Ohio, completed the course work by mail in 2004.

Scott, who lost his job as a manager for a security company earlier this year, decided to pursue a new career and attend college. But after recently applying to several colleges, including Southwestern College in Cincinnati, Ohio, Scott learned the schools would not accept his Continental diploma.

“I’m very upset about this,” Scott said. “This puts me in a bad position and is making it harder for me to attend college. I’m unemployed and I’m not even a high school graduate.”

Virtually Worthless

Texas governor Mark White wants to know, so should you

The class size amendment was suddenly villifyed here in Florida. Texas has similar issues but they have somebody who is willing to stand up for what is right too. -cpg

By Chris Curry

How did class size limits become the symbol of an unnecessary luxury in our schools?

Former Texas governor Mark White wants to know, if class size in public schools isn’t important, “then why does every private school in America brag on ‘we have a small class size?’ “

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn’t want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.

Texas politicians and education administrators (note, not teachers) have upped the drumbeat in recent days, saying Texas can no longer afford its caps on class sizes, and hey, it might be better to educate students in larger classes anyway. The Senate Committee on Education is couching this in terms of “local control,” its recommendation: “Modify class size limitations to allow more flexibility to school districts to meet the need of their students.”

What they’re more than willing to tinker with — some would say destroy — is one of the main parts of White’s education legacy, the changes that went through in 1984 when the Legislature, working with the results of the Perot Commission on Education, allowed full-day kindergarten funding (although some members tried to take it back in the next regular session), no-pass, no-play and a 22-1 limit on the number of kids one teacher would have to face in a lower-grades classroom each day.

State Representative Scott Hochberg, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on education and vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, calls the current crop of proposals “budget reduction masquerading as education reform.”

As the neo-reformers would have it, creative teachers and administrators have supposedly been crippled by the 22-1 rule for 26 years now. The problems with this worldview are twofold: No. 1, the 22-1 rule only applies to grades K-4, a compromise hammered out in 1984. It doesn’t even make it all the way through elementary.

And second, a school district has always been able to apply for waivers to the class size cap — and a check of Texas Education Agency records shows these are pretty freely handed out.

Starting in the 1993-94 school year to the present day, a total of 3,085 waivers have been granted to school districts, according to TEA records. Since 1992, there have been only five waiver requests denied. Not five each year. That’s five total.

“If this was something you needed to free up principals to do, you would already see that happening in the grades where there’s no class size limits,” Hochberg says. “If they wanted that flexibility, they already have it everywhere from high school down to fifth grade.”

Nevertheless, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, in her recent FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) report assessing each school district in Texas for its fiscal effectiveness, recommends that the state “relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class.”

The word “average” sounds innocuous enough unless you figure out that if you match a small class (say special ed) with a larger one, that second one can get pretty big and still meet the “average” requirement.

Mark White grew up knowing all about these kind of averages.

“The reason for 22-1, and it doesn’t use the word ‘average,’ is because of what my mother told me every day when she came home from teaching in a first-grade classroom in which the state law called for a 28-1 average.

White has a photo of his mother’s first-grade class at Briargrove Elementary school during the late ’60s, early ’70s, when the law was 28-1. “I go around and count the little shining faces in her first-grade class. Somehow or another, she has 34 kids in her class. Where’d those extra six kids come from?

“The next year she had the same number. So when all the administrators came in and said, ‘Make it an average,’ they averaged in the custodians and the cooks. That’s the game we played.”

However accurate White and Hochberg are, they are swimming against a majority tide of Republican state legislators who got into office promising to hold the line on taxes. If that means sticking a few extra kids in a classroom, so be it.

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn’t matter till you get down to 15, Hochberg says. So if you can’t do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

“It didn’t say until you get to 15 there’s no difference,” Hochberg says. “How you twist that into ‘There’s no difference till you get down to 15’ is pure propaganda.”

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

“You don’t see successful charter schools operating with 50 kids in a class,” Hochberg says.

The call to discard 22-1 is nothing especially new. “Ever since the 22-1 requirement was put in under the Perot Commission back in the early ’80s, superintendents have lobbied to remove it,” Hochberg says. “It’s always the thing that gets tossed out as something that needs to be done, which is interesting, given that K-4 is where we seem to do pretty well in terms of national comparisons, international comparisons.”

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn’t want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.

Texas Senator Dan Patrick introduced Senate Bill 300, which would have moved K-4 to the 22 average.

Patrick is caught in an interesting situation in that the school district in his area, Cy-Fair ISD, has undergone some pretty dramatic change and now has about 40 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches — and would seem to be a district whose students would benefit from smaller classes. At the same time, Patrick, who is tied to the Texas Tea Party, has dedicated himself to keeping taxes down for his constituency. Patrick declined our request for an interview.

Comptroller Combs, who is still working on her budget projections for the next biennium starting in September, has reportedly thrown out a figure of $557 million in savings that could be achieved by replacing the word “limit” with “average” — an important figure in a state that may be facing a $15 billion to $30 billion shortfall.

Not surprisingly, her proposal hasn’t been embraced by teachers — larger classes mean fewer teachers.

Parent and former Bellaire High School English teacher Nancy Lomax fought hard for the education changes in 1984. She is against the call to eliminate the limits; in fact, she thinks they should be extended to other grades. “I’m not about to go quietly down this road.”

She argues that the 22-1 limit is even more important now than ever, given the modern-day demographics of classrooms not just in urban districts like the Houston Independent School District, but suburban ones as well.

Her daughter is a fourth-grade teacher in the Lewisville School District near Dallas, where almost every child in the class has limited English proficiency; some are gifted while others are emotionally disturbed and special ed; and three are Burmese refugees. That’s tough enough, she says. How does a teacher control an even larger class like that and really see to the needs of all the students?

In 2006, Governor Rick Perry ordered school districts to cut local property tax, saying the state would make up the difference.

“The state’s new taxes to make up the difference didn’t made up the difference,” Hochberg says. “And so since that bill was passed in ’06, we haven’t had an internally balanced budget at the state level. We’ve been short every time. We covered it the first time because we had a surplus coming in. We covered it the second time with stimulus money — that nasty, awful stimulus money from Washington that we don’t want to touch.

“We were 4 billion short on the budget last time without the stimulus money, and that’s on a zero-growth budget. State revenues haven’t balanced the budget for the last two cycles since those cuts were made.”

HISD and other districts are already working on budgets for the next year —they have to submit them in June whether the Legislature has given them their numbers or not. All anyone knows for sure is that since education accounts for about 40 percent of the state budget, there’s no way to avoid a hit. After two hours of budget talk at a recent HISD workshop, board president Greg Meyers said he wasn’t sure too much clarity had been achieved.

But that’s all right, says Hochberg. Just starting the discussion, and opening up to community groups for input as HISD is doing in January, is a good idea, he says, because they can’t afford to wait. “They should really figure what their priorities are. I’m not sure we’re going to do that at the state level.”

“HISD is a billion-plus-dollar operation. If you’re the school district in Canadian, Texas, and you’ve got 900 kids, then maybe you can wait till the last minute to figure out what you have to do. But if you’re an operation the size of HISD, you would be foolhardy in terms of your own policies and unfair to your employees not to at least lay out a variety of scenarios that could occur and figure out what you’re going to do about them. Because by the time you know it, it will be very difficult to turn the train.”

Legislatures tend to make broad, general cuts, leaving the details (and the heat) to local school boards. School trustees need to make very clear to legislators what the exact losses will be, Hochberg says. “The legislators and the leadership in Austin should not be able to walk away from this session saying, ‘Gee, I didn’t know it would have this impact.'”

Hochberg knows schools waste money, and says he’s ready to offer alternative savings proposals for schools — in fact, he’s done so over his 18 years as a state legislator with little success.

Some of his proposals: Cut back state standardized testing to every other year for the kids who pass, stop buying textbooks that sit in a teacher’s closet and instead go to more electronic textbooks, have a serious look at the cost of University Interscholastic League rules that require every school to offer every significant sport, he says.

Also, why not use long-distance, virtual learning for teachers’ continuing education and cut out the need for regional service centers?

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn’t want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education. “It may be easier to increase class sizes rather than to cut a hundred other things that add up to the same amount of savings,” Hochberg says. “We do a lot of pennywise, pound foolish sorts of things.”

White says the rule was and is simple: Keep it to 22 to 1, and when you get to 23, you build another classroom. “You can’t afford to build another classroom, ask for a waiver.”

“We let them off if they didn’t have the money. They’ve always had the option to come in and ask for a waiver; many of them do. But we’ve never had anybody to come in and say, ‘We just don’t have the money to build that football stadium.’ Somehow or another, they always found that money. So let’s put our priorities right.”

The former governor takes a long view of the state’s present financial difficulties.

“We’ve been in tough times before. I almost laugh out loud when I think about how tough things must be in Austin when oil is priced at $80 a barrel and I’ve sat there and lived through $9-a-barrel oil — and I didn’t ask for any bailouts nor did we ever receive any bailout from the federal government,” he says.

“If it’s right for Texas and its future to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any money,’ or ‘We don’t have enough money to pay for a quality education for the young people of our state,’ then you have made the classic mistake of not just eating your seed corn but you’ve poured salt on the seed corn you didn’t eat,” White says.

Financing schools should be the first priority of the Legislature, according to White. “Let’s do our cutting somewhere else. You could quit building highways in Texas for five years and it would not hurt the future of Texas quite as much as if you change the funding on classes and quality of education in our schools today.”

It makes perfect sense to argue that just one more student won’t destroy a classroom. The problem is, as White’s mother knew, one becomes four becomes six. And at a certain point, all the great teaching in the world won’t be able to overcome the numbers-up disparity.

“It’s a little difficult to put a young person’s education on pause till times get better,” White says. “22 to 1 should not be the whipping boy for being short of cash.”

Taken from the Houston Press:

Teachers have serious reservations about merit pay, nobody is listening

By Jennie Smith, Dade County Education Policy Examiner

Saturday’s Miami Herald published an article education reporter Kathleen McGrory entitled “Teachers give higher grade to merit pay.” The gist of the article (which you can read in its entirety by clicking on the link above) is that the “Senate Bill 6 2.0,” a.k.a. the Sister of SB 6, a “new” teacher tenure/merit pay bill which is already in the works in Florida’s ultraconservative state legislature, is such an improvement over the last one, which created such a public outcry that outgoing governor Charlie Crist (who, it must be mentioned, had initially lauded the bill) vetoed it in an attempt to garner votes from disgruntled educators and parents.

As a public school teacher who stays very up-to-date on developments in public education and education policy, and who is very politically active in the domain of public education, I was quite shocked to read the headline.

“Really? Teachers are giving this new bill a ‘higher grade’? That’s news to me.”

See, since I do stay current on education issues as they evolve (or explode, as the case may be), I knew all about the “new SB 6.” I have already seen a draft of it, though it has likely changed at least somewhat since I saw it. And while I did note some minor improvements (which really constitute more of a “facelift,” designed to lull current teachers into a false sense of security by implying that the most radical changes might not actually apply to them, but only to a future generation of teachers), the core of the bill remains unchanged.

I am still not sure on what grounds McGrory (or the Herald) can claim that teachers are embracing the new legislation. She points to Andy Ford, president of Florida Education Assocation (FEA), the state teachers’ union, saying, “We’re open to looking at paying teachers differently…It’s really about how you develop the plan.”

This could hardly be used as evidence that Ford or FEA support the “new” bill–much less as any sort of consensus that public school teachers across the state of Florida support it.

Real changes? Or more of the same?

The “major changes” that McGrory cites in her article are as follows:

The old: Known as Senate Bill 6, it was based half a teacher’s evaluation on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The new: Allows end-of-course exams, Advanced Placement tests and tests developed by local school districts to be factored in, too.

Nothing in that is new. In fact, SB 6 as it was written stated that the FCAT would be used until the state and/or districts developed end-of-course exams (EOC), which would replace the FCAT. Those EOCs are, in fact, already being rolled out and piloted in schools in Miami-Dade County, including the one I work at. The old legislation also allowed for Advanced Placement (AP) tests to be used in applicable courses (which obviously could not use the FCAT).

No teachers I know would consider this to be a vast improvement over the old legislation, at least not without seeing the new tests, or knowing exactly how they (or existing tests, such as AP) would be used to determine evaluations and/or raises.

In fact, as a teacher of one Advanced Placement class, and as a friend of several AP teachers of various subjects, I think that I can accurately voice our intense concerns over AP tests being used in measuring our “effectiveness” and therefore our salary and/or eventual employment.

I could go on for pages about this, but I will do my best to keep it brief. In sum, using AP tests to measure teachers is no different from using the FCAT to measure teachers, and in a certain respect, could be even worse. Let me explain as concisely as I can.

AP Exams are standardized tests devised and administered by the College Board (those who bring you the SAT). In order for a class to call itself “Advanced Placement,” the College Board must approve its syllabus. Toward the end of the year (usually in early May), examinations are administered to the students studying these AP classes. Generally speaking, if a student scores at least a 3 out of 5 possible points on the AP Exam, he/she receives college credit for the class. Of course, colleges themselves decide whether or not to award credit based on AP Exam scores (most state universities and colleges do, while many of the higher-echelon schools, both state and private, do not, or require a score of 5).

Part of the reason that using these tests to “measure teacher effectiveness” is problematic is for the same reason as it would be for the FCAT. If you are comparing the AP scores of students in, let’s say, Overtown or Little Haiti or Little Havana or Hialeah, who often come from parents who do not speak English, and many of whom are illiterate even in their native language, and who have not had the opportunities, resources or education-prioritizing structure at home that give so many middle-class and wealthy children a huge advantage on all standardized tests (as reflected by national data), to students in Coral Gables, or at magnet schools that “skim the cream” off so many neighborhood schools, there will obviously be a difference. This difference does not by any means indicate that the teacher is of poorer quality, or is “less effective.” Anyone who has ever worked in a classroom will tell you that it is easier to get students who come in well-prepared, motivated and academically supported (and often pushed) at home than those who come in ill-prepared and who often have parents either unable to help them or who simply do not see education as a top priority and therefore do not push their children to study.

This situation, which is already apples-to-oranges (or in a Miami context, perhaps mangoes-to-coconuts), is further compounded by the fact that the new high school accountability formula, which factors participation and performance in AP classes into high school grades (along with FCAT scores and graduation rates), has already encouraged many schools, especially those with a “lower grade” (usually C, D and F schools), to push (and sometimes even force) unprepared or undermotivated students into AP classes.

Statewide, teachers have been “encouraged” (read: told) to corral as many students as possible into AP classes, regardless of whether or not we feel the students are prepared for or willing to do the work and ultimately perform well on the exam. We are often told that “regardless of whether or not they pass the exam, the students will benefit from having taken the higher-level class.” In some regards, that statement might be true; on the other hand, it means that motivated or relatively high-performing students are pushed into four, five, six, sometimes even seven or eight (at eight-period block schedule schools) AP classes in one year, causing them to get overwhelmed and perform poorly on all of the exams, and sometimes in the class itself. The other unintended consequence is that when more and more AP classes are created, and filled with students who either did not want to take an AP class or are not academically prepared for the AP class, the rigor of the class is damaged. This is unfortunate but in some cases inevitable. If you have a class full of students who, well-meaning though they might be (and this is not always a given, when students are put in AP classes against their will), do not yet have the skills or knowledge required to study the material on a college level, it is ridiculous, if not impossible, to actually teach the material on a college level.

Thus, educators teaching AP classes in neighborhood schools in disadvantaged communities will now find themselves measured by the performance not just of students they would have recommended for AP classes (who already will often perform at a different level than the children of wealthier, college-educated parents who are fluent in English and prioritize education and studying), but also by the performance of students who, by any rational measure, probably should not be in an AP class at all.

For example, does it make sense to have children sitting, in the same day, in an Intensive Reading class (meaning they failed the FCAT) and an AP English class? It seems counterintuitive, yet it is a situation that those of us teaching in urban schools confront every day. There are two possible reasons for this occurring. One is that the student really should not have failed the FCAT, and that they did attests to the fallibility of that test. Another is that the student really should not be in an AP class, but has been put there, either because he asked for it (for any number of reasons: to feel “smarter,” to be with his friends, because he wanted a certain teacher, etc., etc.) or because he was pushed there because he made pretty good grades in his English classes, because he was well-behaved and relatively motivated, etc.

By no logic is it a fair comparison.

Additionally, while a “value-added” formula would supposedly be used to measure teachers of FCAT classes, evaluating the teachers based on “growth” and taking into account certain factors, no such formula can really exist for AP exams. How do you measure “growth” on a test where there is no basis of comparison, since it is not tested year to year like the FCAT?

This will be a similar problem with EOCs. If a student is studying a subject for the very first time, he will not have any scores from previous years upon which to base some sort of measure of “growth.” And if the solution is simply administering a pre-test in the subject area, will that really prove how effective his teacher is? If I administer a pre-test to my French I students the first week of school, which is similar to the EOC they will take at the end of the year, they will undoubtedly all fail dismally. So, with that as the basis of growth, even my most mediocre students will probably score phenomenally well on the EOC, if one is looking at growth rather than flat scores. Which could obviously work out to my advantage, if that is ultimately the way it is administered, but does not make a whole lot of sense.

Yet in my skeptical (and cynical) opinion, this is the most benign of possible outcomes, and would have the unintended consequence of too many teachers being paid too much (“too much” for the state’s and district’s budgets: since the goal of the new governor and of the legislature is to cut the education budget, you can be sure they are not going to put in place any plan that will result in higher costs in teacher salaries).

In order for it to work with their budget plans, they will end up having to look at flat scores on AP Exams and on EOCs. And the result will be that those of us who choose to work in more difficult schools with more troubled and disadvantaged students will be unfairly punished by lower evaluations, lower salaries and possibly losing our jobs, simply because we are working with more students who come to us less prepared, with less academic and financial support at home, and who are often less motivated (usually because they are not pushed as hard at home by parents who are less educated and who do not see education as a priority).

One further point, on that note: in her article, McGrory claims:

Studies show teacher effectiveness is the strongest predictor of student achievement.

However, this is not true, or at least is not the complete truth. Almost all reliable studies show that parents’ income and education levels are the strongest predictors of student achievement. Teacher effectiveness is the biggest in-school factor. This is a very important distinction to make when we are discussing how teachers should be hired, fired and compensated.

The old: Did not address evaluating teachers in subjects such as music and art.

The new: Allows local school districts to develop tests in these areas.

Again, I find fault with this assertion that this is a difference in the old legislation and the new. Since the old legislation already called for using EOCs to evaluate teachers in all subject areas–once those tests had been developed, of course–this is not something new and improved. It is simply more of the same.

I would also take issue with the wording of the “new”: let us be clear. The state is not “allowing” local school districts to develop tests in these areas; it is forcing them too, and undoubtedly forcing them to do it with money they will be expected to scrape out of their own pockets. In districts that have a surplus, this might be feasible. In districts like Miami-Dade County and Broward, where we are donor counties, putting more money into the state pot but taking back less per pupil than some small counties in the middle of the state for an area with a cost of living several times higher than those other counties, and where each new year is grimly met with the need to cut the budget either by cutting programs in schools or laying off employees, this is nothing short of sabotage. We will be mandated by the state to cut more money out of the classroom–whether through laying off employees, neglecting building safety and maintenance, using old and outdated resources, or simply chopping programs–to develop and administer tests.

And by the way, good luck creating a standardized test for physical education.

The old: Was based only on student learning gains.

The new: Also accounts for the poverty rate, attendance rate and the number of times a student has switched schools.

If they actually find an equitable way to do this, kudos to them. My hat will be off. Simply saying, “We will do this,” and actually doing it in a fair manner, are two totally different things. Show me the formula you will use (and reassure me that “attendance rate” will not be my responsibility: I am not the mother of these children and I cannot force them to get out of bed in the morning and get their little rear ends into school), and we will talk.

The old: Had one salary schedule for all teachers.

The new: Has different salary schedules for teachers in critical shortage areas like math and science, or in low-income schools.

I suppose this could be viewed as an improvement. But that improvement could still amount to naught if they leave in place their flawed measurements, whether by FCAT or EOC or AP or whatever other acronyms they throw in, and if a teacher can still be fired, and even lose the ability to renew his or her certification, based on student scores. If I only intend to teach for two or three years, like most Teach for America alumni, then maybe that will sound pretty good–get paid more to teach in a low-income school. But if I plan on teaching as a career, and I know that I can lose my job (or make diddly squat) because my students do poorly on some standardized test that I not only did not write but was never allowed to look at, then no salary the state or district would actually be willing to pay me would convince me to work in a high-needs school. Sorry, but teachers are human too; we need to plan for the future like everyone else, and we want a certain level of job security like everyone else. If we think we have a better chance of keeping our jobs (and ultimately probably making more money too) by working in a school that is, well, easier to work in anyway…those of us who can, will.

The old: Did not factor in advanced degrees.

The new: Would factor in advanced degrees.

Perhaps I am slightly biased, since I have a Master degree and am currently paid more (not overwhelmingly more, but enough to feel it), but I do feel this is an improvement. I put time and effort into getting my MA, and in the process acquired teaching experience and practical experience (in my case, in the form of an exchange program in which I got to spend a year in France improving my French and my knowledge of French culture), and I feel that this without a doubt makes me a better French teacher.

Still, I will withhold applause until I get the details on exactly how, and how much, advanced degrees will be factored in.

The old: Would have had teachers working under one-year contracts.

The new: Would award three-year contracts. After each contract, school districts could choose to retain or fire a teacher, with or without cause.

Hmmm…excuse me? Was that a pause for applause? One year or three years, the new legislation still allows districts to fire teachers with or without cause. So theoretically I could be the teacher of the year at my school, have outstanding success with my students and be going above and beyond the call of duty every day, and still get fired because some principal does not like it that I am active in the teachers’ union, or because I disagree with him/her on matters of school policy, or because we simply do not get along. Overall, I would say I have fantastic administrators, but based on conversations I have had with many different teachers at different schools not just in Dade County or in Florida, but around the nation, this makes me an exception, not the rule. Anyone who listens to this debate and says, “But of course no administrator would fire a good teacher, even if they had personal disagreements!” has obviously never been a teacher, or at least not long enough to see it happen (or to see it attempted). The union does not “protect bad teachers”–it protects all members’ right to due process. If it is determined that there is just cause to fire the teacher, the teacher is fired. Period. But without the right to due process–which this legislation, even in its supposed “new, improved” form, would strip us of–we are once again at the mercy of administrators…and likely, of test scores.

Extending the contract from one year to three years does nothing more than add a little cushion–instead of worrying about whether we will have a job from year to year, we can worry about it once every three years. Except that with the way they plan on evaluating us based on student scores on tests that have not yet even been funded (much less written), we will probably still get to worry about it every year, since if the scores aren’t great, we can probably expect to get fired at the end of the third year.

Jeb Bush is still at the reins.

Even though Jeb Bush has not been governor for three years, somehow he is still the puppetmaster in creating education policy in the state of Florida. McGrory’s article attests that the “new proposal” is being crafted by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, Jeb Bush’s pet project in pushing for expansion of vouchers and charter schools.

Bush has been criticized mightily for using education policy to funnel money to family and friends in the standardized testing and charter school businesses.

He also opposed the 2002 Class Size Amendment, limiting the number of students per teacher in public schools, presumably because of its financial cost, and stated at the time that he had “a couple of devious plans if this thing passes.” We can assume that his “devious plans” entail exactly what we see today–refusing to fund the amendment, though it is a constitutional mandate, so that districts have no choice but to cut programs, make layoffs, or pay hefty fines for non-compliance. He and his cronies hoped that this campaign of chaos would push parents to vote in favor of Amendment 8 in the 2010 election, weakening the class size amendment, but it did not succeed. (Maybe because too many people recognize that the reason for the chaos was a lack of funding from the state–not the amendment itself?)

Supposedly, the Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF–an ironic acronym, which, in my take, corresponds exactly to the grade I as an educator would give to this group) based much of its “new proposal” on the Memorandum of Understanding crafted by the Race to the Top work group convened by Charlie Crist in April.

Florida won a $700 million federal grant with its revised Race to the Top application. At the last Miami-Dade County School Board meeting, board members expressed concern that the new legislation would overstep the bounds defined by the MOU.

Further in her Herald article, McGrory states:

Half of teacher evaluations would be based on three years of student data — such as scores on the FCATs, the new end-of-course exams, norm-reference tests or Advanced Placement tests. The system would look at student growth rather than raw scores, and would account for factors including poverty and student mobility.

Teachers’ evaluations would determine at least half of their pay raises. Teachers who do not receive strong evaluations would get smaller raises, and over time the lowest performing teachers would be weeded out.

“Growth” would be difficult if not impossible to determine based on EOCs or AP tests, as I discussed at length earlier–unless the teacher is being compared to herself over three years, meaning her students’ scores should rise every year–a statistic impossibility, especially when we are talking about an experienced teacher. Furthermore, the 50% mark oversteps the “no more than 30%” benchmark established by the Race to the Top MOU.

This leaves little doubt that the legislature does not really feel bound by the MOU, and is determined to pass their same agenda with minor “facelift” modifications intended to lull educators and parents into submission until it is too late.

Public school supporters to wear red on Tuesday

By Cara Fitzpatrick

Want to show your support for public schools when Gov.-elect Rick Scott is sworn in Tuesday? Wear red.

That’s the message that popped up today on several Facebook pages popular with education advocates. A Jacksonville teacher posted the request on Testing is Not Teaching, Root for Education and Stop Senate Bill 6 to ask parents, teachers and taxpayers to wear red Tuesday in “support of public schools.”

The simple request got an enthusiastic response on Stop Senate Bill 6. Within three hours of the post going up, 30 people had “liked” the status and the page’s administrators set it up as an official event.
The teacher, Donna Yates Mace, said she took the idea from a national education group, Save Our Schools Million Teacher March, which often asks teachers to wear red in support of public schools on designated days. A message also went up on that group’s Facebook page.

Union leaders in Broward and Palm Beach counties said they hadn’t heard about the grassroots effort. But they already have concerns about some of the proposals coming out of Scott’s education transition team.

Scott’s team, which includes hard-charging school reformer Michelle Rhee (who sparked controversy by firing so-called ineffective teachers) has recommended expanding school voucher programs and eliminating certain teacher benefits like tenure. They also suggested creating “education savings accounts,” which would give parents up to 85 percent of the amount spent per student in public school to use for private school, virtual schools, tutoring or even college savings.

Union leaders have said the plan will take money away from public schools.

Slashing Education is Good for America

From the blog Modern Teacher

Public education always has and continues to be a means of social control, one with the specific function of perpetuating a status quo in which a tiny minority rules over the overwhelming majority in order to sequester increasing amounts of wealth. The hysteria over the deplorable state of our schools is a deliberate deception, as schools never really got worse at this function. They still reproduce a well-educated elite minority and vast numbers of poorly educated, compliant workers with just enough training to run their machines and offices and purchase their goods.

One goal of this deception is to convince the public that it is in their best interests to relinquish local control, and allow private companies to take over and turn a profit. Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michael Bloomberg, Broad, Walton, and others promulgate this trickery by repeatedly reminding us about terrible test scores and graduation rates, blaming it on recalcitrant and selfish unions, and promising us perfection if only more charter schools and corporate management were allowed. What’s good for Bill Gates is good for America.

Divide and Conquer
However, the deception is not just about privatization. As more and more tax dollars get diverted to wars, tax cuts and corporate bailouts, there is less available for social services, like education, and there needs to be a scapegoat other than Halliburton, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. As children become more impoverished and consequently do poorer in school, and as schools lose funding and consequently provide fewer services, the schools and teachers (and occasionally the parents) get the blame for low student achievement, rather than the ruling elite who are the real culprits. It is classic divide and conquer: the public continues to support their bosses and the wealthy, some dreaming of joining their ranks, while attacking members of their own class, like teachers and other government workers, under the mistaken perception that they are the ones responsible for their misery. What’s good for Wall Street is good for America.

Downsizing and Streamlining
A more immediate goal of slashing education budgets is to obtain the same productivity from educators for less money, thus freeing up tax dollars for more important needs (like bailouts and tax cuts for the wealthy). The same numbers of children must still be taught. The same delusional outcomes are still required, such as 100% proficiency on NCLB exams by 2014. Yet all this must occur with fewer teachers, custodians, nurses, librarians and money. Worse, those who are lucky enough to still have their jobs are expected to do more despite this reduction in funding. They must do their own jobs, plus those of their former colleagues who were fired, furloughed or not replaced. Additionally, they must work harder and longer to create and implement new programs that are supposed to raise test scores. What’s good for the boss, is good for America.

Business as Usual
The transfer of wealth from the public to the ruling elite (through tax cuts, subsidies and bailouts, all financed by cutting programs that help the poor and working class) should be seen as evidence of the true nature of our economy and the political system that serves it. The interests of banks, speculators and the war machine are far more urgent and necessary than the needs of regular people, especially teachers and students. After all, both parties have supported continued military funding, corporate bailouts and tax cuts for the rich, while allowing or promoting cuts to education, Medicare, food stamps, and social security. The notion of political expediency, the “stalemate” in D.C., the “necessary” compromises that must occur as a “natural” part of our political system, are all cover-ups: the corporate rulers run the show and make the decisions. Politicians who even consider not playing by their rules not only lose their office, they lose all hope of a cushy corporate job after being termed out. Their interests are the same as corporate interests.

Editorial Bias

I know editorials are little more than opinions but when presented in respected forums like newspapers they often take on more meaning than that and many people believe what is written to be fact. Take for example the Times Union writing about how only 23 percent of America’s top graduates go into education as if that is a bad thing. Can any other profession boast about so many top graduates joining it. Are 23 percent of the nations top grads entering law enforcement, or medicine or business or any other field? I don’t think so and if the stat is right that means over a fifth or our supposed best and brightest are choosing education over the thousands and thousands of other careers out there. But instead of celebrating that it’s used as an indictment against teachers. Here is a stat the Times Union didn’t mention, less than half of all first year teachers whether they are the best the nation has to offer or not do not make it to year five preferring to find employment in other fields. Rarely are the reasons, the children or the money, given for their decision to leave.

Then the Times Union further muddies the water by comparing American teachers to the teachers in Finland, which draws the vast amount of its staff from the top third of college graduates. They fail to mention that teachers in Finland are paid substantially more than their American counterparts, there classes are very small, they play a role in policy and curriculum and are one of the most highly unionized groups around. Comparing teachers in both countries is not like comparing apples and oranges it’s like comparing apples to a five-course meal, with America being the apple.

There are many issues in education and teacher quality is one of them, as we should always strive to put our best and brightest in our classrooms. However if we were to list the issues with education, poverty, standardized tests, one size fits all curriculum, a lack of discipline, unfunded mandates, etc. teacher quality however would be way down the list, not at the forefront as the Times Union and others would have the public believe.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Caviar tastes on a spam budget, why we will never be like Finland

Finland is often pointed to as having the idea education system. -cpg

By Paul Sahlberg

IF AMERICANS harbored any doubts about their eroded global edge, the recent release of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s fourth international comparison of educational performance should rattle the nation from its “We’re No. 1’’ complacency. The latest Program for International Student Assessment study revealed that, although the United States made some modest gains, it is lagging behind many other developed nations in the ability of its 15-year-olds. The country isn’t flunking: like France, England, and Sweden, learning here has stagnated at below-average levels. That “gentleman’s C’’ should be a call to change course.

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.

The secret of Finnish educational success is that in the 20th century Finns studied and emulated such advanced nations as Sweden, Germany, and the United States. Finns adopted some education policies from elsewhere but also avoided mistakes made by these leading education performers.

What could the United States learn from the Finns? First, reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

Second, provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

Finally, with the fourth PISA study again showing that the US education system is lagging those in many other countries, Americans should admit that there is much to learn from these systems. Relying on one’s past reputation is probably not the best approach for transforming an educational system to meet tomorrow’s needs and challenges. With America’s “can do’’ mentality and superior knowledge base in educational improvement, you could shift course before it’s too late.

Pasi Sahlberg is director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture and is a former Washington-based World Bank education specialis

Taken from the Boston Globe: