Teachers rally in DC for education

From the Palm Beach Post

by Allison Ross

A Palm Beach County face will share the stage with actor Matt Damon and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch during an education march this weekend in Washington, D.C.

On Saturday, thousands of people — including several from Palm Beach County — are expected to muster in Washington to participate in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

The event, which is accompanied by several days of lobbying and conferences, aims to push back against what its organizers see as misguided education reform policies, including high-stakes standardized testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Schools Among those in the crowd will be Rita Solnet, a suburban Boca Raton activist who is part of the event’s organizing committee. She has been asked to speak before the march from her perspective as a parent and as co-founder of the nonprofit Parents Across America.

“Our politicians and the Department of Education are just not listening to people in the trenches — the parents, teachers, constituents,” said Solnet, a former PTA president at Eagles Landing Middle School in western Boca Raton. “We want equal air time.”

Solnet said she has been on conference calls every Sunday night for the past eight months helping to plan the event, which includes a conference at American University on Thursday and Friday, organized lobbying efforts, and the rally and march from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Organizers are expecting to draw about 10,000 people to the march, which begins at the Ellipse and loops past the White House. Solnet said speakers during the march will include Damon and his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early-child education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.; actor Richard Dreyfuss; author Jonathan Kozol; Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond; and Ravitch, who was an assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.

Solnet said Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” a current events show on the Comedy Network, has sent in a video for the event because he has a conflict and cannot attend.

“Never in my lifetime have I seen people care so much about education,” Solnet said, noting that the timing of the event comes as Congress continues to discuss overhauling No Child Left Behind, which came up for reauthorization in 2007. “It’s a combination of the demoralization of teachers and of public schools. People are angry.”

In Palm Beach County, the local teachers union is offering $150 to teachers who want to travel to D.C. for the event, union president Debra Wilhelm said.

She said she isn’t sure how many Palm Beach County teachers will end up going, in part because they might be on vacation or short on cash.

Forest Hill High School teacher Sara Cuaresma said she is flying in on Saturday just in time to participate in the march.

She said she feels that legislators ignore the voices of teachers and parents who are dealing with the public education system every day, and that, through the unified march, “they will see this is something serious, a serious group of stakeholders whose concerns need to be heard.”

That’s Solnet’s goal for the event, as well. She said she’s been appalled by what she sees as a push to “privatize public education,” such as increased focus on charter schools, and by how focused schools have become on high-stakes testing.

“Everybody who attends is there for a reason, because they’re just as frustrated,” Solnet said. “Whether they are parents or teachers or businesspeople who are frustrated that the people they hire can’t do math, they want to show that it’s time to put the public back in public education.”


Three basic ideas to improve the intervene schools

1. A realistic curriculum
2. Teacher buy in
3. Discipline

These can be implemented without breaking the bank or reinventing the wheel.

I honestly believe changing the schedule would do the greatest amount of good. If you are not willing to mandate it at all the intervene schools, I would suggest a pilot program for the new intervene schools. We can’t continue to do things the same way and hope things miraculously change.

The district is going to more reading in the content area classes and I think this is an excellent idea. However, the teachers need to be trained how to do this before the new school year begins. If they are trained over the course of the year there will be diminished returns.

Adding more requirements to classes, such as reading assignments, to the content area classes leads to other problems. Teachers feel overworked as it is which means adding more things to their plate will both be met with resistance and often be applied in an uneven fashion. In short, if you are going to put something on their plate and you want it to succeed then you really should take something off of it.

The state mandated word walls, complicated daily agendas, mini lessons, focus lessons, massive data notebooks and two page lesson plans with scripted questions have been insisted on in the intervene schools for years. We can all see how well this is working. I would seriously consider streamlining the agenda and lesson plans and strongly encouraging word walls but not making them mandatory. It also seems to be a huge waste of both manpower and resources to require teachers to keep a telephone book sized ring binder of printed data on their students, when all the information is on the computer; literally at their fingertips already.

Furthermore I recommend making the learning schedules more flexible. If the first third of a class is use reinforcing reading skills then it just makes sense that classes will fall behind on the leaning schedule. Besides it seems to make sense that we make sure kids learn some things rather than just be exposed to many things.

It’s not just reading that should be taught in the content area classes but writing as well. The state just said they are really going to increase the rigor on the FCAT writing tests. Many of our kids are taught format writing for the test not actually how to write. Continuing in years past this has been the one area that the intervene schools have done well in. If these free points are suddenly taken away from those schools I can imagine a scenario where things get worse and do so quickly. If we want to see appreciable gains or at least minimize points lost, imagine a class where a third of the class is spent writing about a topic, a third reading about the topic and the final third learning about a topic.

If teachers then had topics provided to them rather than having to create them themselves they would be more likely to use them. It takes a lot of time and effort to find an appropriate reading and develop questions around them. Also remember many of these kids don’t have the skills that they need which means before we can move them forward we have to catch them up.

Continuing with reading, I think it would be a great idea is all the intervene schools offered at least one section of creative writing, yearbook and/or student newspaper. These writing based classes would help out. At my school I don’t think we offered any of these classes.

Discipline should be addressed. Teachers have become experts of ignoring bad behavior and putting out fires, which takes away from the learning environments. If a teacher spends just ten minutes a class doing these things that’s a month of academic time lost over the course of a year. A few bad apples can indeed spoil a cart and we would have such tremendous addition with just a little subtraction.

I recommend creating mini grand parks at the schools where kids would go to for weeks at a time. If they didn’t do their work they would have another day added, if they missed a day they would have another day added. They would go to lunch after the normal lunch period but not be allowed to sit together and as a group have two restroom breaks a day. In these mini grand park kids would sit individually at tables or in study carrels not allowed to talk. There work would be provided to them and when they had questions or needed help they would raise their hands to ask for it. After two weeks I am sure kids would not want to return and I can imagine it being a powerful inducement to behave especially if they were sent there after just two referrals. Remember for a consequence to be meaningful, it must be meaningful. Right now we woefully lack meaningful consequences.

It could be staffed by academic coaches, assistant principals and by teachers periodically willing to give up a planning period here and there.

Grade recovery should be changed. It should only be for kids that try hard but just don’t get it and need a little more or for kids who have legitimate reasons for missing many days. So many kids use it as a fall back and just show up to cut up. That should be stopped immediately and it should be announced from day one that is how things are. Behavior, effort and attendance must count for something.

After the first nine weeks I suggest regrouping kids by ability. I know this has become a taboo concept in some education circles but it would allow the schools to have accelerated groups and groups that needed extra attention. We scream differentiate our curriculum but doesn’t this just make things harder? It would be much easier to teach one group of kids on the same level rather than three groups of kids at the same time who were on different levels.

Finally I would encourage your administrators to allow teachers to fail students, something we haven’t been able to do for years, and write referrals. Teachers should not be scared to write referrals or fail kids. If a teacher does these things it doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Preparing kids for life, which has consequences for a lack of effort and bad behavior should be the minimum of what we are doing.

By having a realistic schedule/curriculum that better suits the students’ needs, exchanging teacher busy work for work that will assist the kids to learn and catch up and by instilling discipline, I think immediate and appreciable gains can be achieved.

None of this is reinventing the wheel and I imagine most if not all are things you have already thought of. Its now just time we put these measures into our schools.

Tommy Hazouri questions Jacksonville’s magnet school programs

Frowm WJXT.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tommy Hazouri, former Jacksonville mayor and current Duval County School Board member, got a strong response Thursday morning after saying the school system is “reviewing the entire magnet program as we know it.”

Hazouri, speaking on WJCT-FM’s First Coast Connect program, told host Melissa Ross that “what everybody wants is a school that provides high-quality education in their neighborhood.”

Pressed by Ross, Hazouri said the school district is already reviewing the magnet school structure.

Tommy Hazouri

While praising the success of nationally recognized programs at Stanton College Preparatory, Paxon School for Advanced Studies and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, he said he favors putting similar programs in neighborhood schools.

“We want our magnet schools to be applicable to every school in Duval County,” Hazouri said. “The intellectual ones … I’d love for them to stay home and do their thing.”

Ross said the telephones, emails and tweets to her call-in show took off after Hazouri made the comments. His comments come as busing was removed from seven magnet schools — including Stanton and Paxon — to save money for the budget-strapped district.

Meetings for parents to discuss alternative, parent-funded options for transportation are being held this week and next at each of the affected schools.

“I could leave here today, and (hear) ‘Hazouri’s saying we’re going to get rid of Stanton.’ That’s not the case. I was at the graduation for Stanton this year. It felt like I was at the national spelling be … so intellectual,” he said during the radio broadcast.


Teach for America’s Fluff piece

from Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

The report came under fire last week when several School Board members criticized it for not being objective.

The report found that Teach for America teacher’s students made more gains than other Title I teachers with similar experience levels.

School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry voiced his support of Teach for America but called the report a “fluff piece.”

“Although the report isn’t the most rigorous, we’re encouraged to see positive findings,” said Danielle Montoya, a spokeswoman for Teach for America, in an email. “We’re committed to seeing rigorous research done on our corps members and welcome further research.”

District officials said the school system would conduct its own report on the effectiveness of Teacher For America in Duval County. The School Board voted last week to give the organization a one year extension.

The report was developed by the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. The Center has not responded to requests for comment.

There are about 110 Teacher for America teachers in the district and the district pays about $1,500 per teacher.

Gentry’s obviously familiar with corporate reform’s habit of generating reports which favor its agenda. Does this mean that the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership is engaging in the same?


Florida’s senate bill 736 rears its ugly head

From Sarasota Magazing

by David Ball

It’s the start of the school day when fourth-grade teacher Ronnique Major-Hundley picks up the phone. She’s made this kind of call before when a student decides to skip school. Except this particular student has stellar attendance and wouldn’t normally miss what is probably the most important day of the year—when students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

The student’s mother answers and bursts into tears. “The police are here,” she sobs. “My boyfriend tried to kill me last night, and my child saw it all.”

Major-Hundley can recount many other stories from her 12 years at Emma E. Booker Elementary, where the majority of students come from Sarasota’s poorest families in Newtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Children face evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence, hunger and crime, and those problems affect their school work and test scores, Major-Hundley says.

It’s a reality she faces every day, and one that inspires her to be the best teacher possible. But it’s a reality that some believe state legislators have ignored in a new law that is igniting controversy in Sarasota schools. Teachers say the law is simplistic and unfair, pointing to them as the sole reason why students succeed or fail. Administrators worry that the law will push good teachers out of schools or maybe out of teaching altogether.

For Major-Hundley, described by her principal as one of the best teachers at Booker, the new reality is that if her students don’t do well on the FCAT, she could be fired.

“I’m being punished for doing something that I love, for teaching these kids,” Major-Hundley says. “This is really scary, and other teachers are scared too.”

Florida Senate Bill 736, called the “Student Success Act” by its legislative sponsors, ties teacher employment and pay to students’ FCAT and other end-of-year test scores, a concept known as performance pay or merit pay. The bill effectively eliminates teacher tenure and longstanding job protections, most notably the “last in, first out” policy that requires new teachers to be laid off before tenured teachers during budget cuts.

The law is steeped in a deep philosophical debate over how students learn and how teachers should be held accountable. It follows a national reform movement led by celebrity figures like Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and star of the education documentary Waiting for Superman, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They argue that any student, regardless of background, can excel if taught by a good teacher. They say teachers should be measured by something objective, like how their students perform on standardized tests. And they believe good teachers should be financially rewarded, while bad teachers should be fired—a process they say isn’t happening because of union contracts.

In Sarasota, schools officials say that while the law is well-intentioned, it is being implemented too quickly and ignores the realities teachers face in the classroom. Teachers say the law may even weaken education, coming at a time when they are seeing unprecedented budget cuts and being asked to drop more lesson plans in order to focus on preparing students for state-mandated tests. It’s also an unfunded mandate and could tack on untold expenses for the district to develop, administer and analyze new tests.

“I worry that it is not going to create better teaching,” says Sarasota School Superintendent Lori White, who is feverishly working with administrators and teachers’ union leaders to implement the new law this school year. “I try to be objective and fair with this. Where I get passionate is on some of the unintended consequences that I think can endanger the system.”

Teachers in the crosshairs

The traditional educational system, in Florida and across the country, is being targeted for major reforms from both sides of the aisle, and teachers are often in the crosshairs. There was, for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill earlier this year that stripped union bargaining rights for state workers—mostly teachers.

Right-wing pundits picked up the anti-union chant, describing a world of mediocre teachers leisurely going about their day and earning six-figure salaries working nine months a year.

“Teachers hear this stuff, and it affects them,” says Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota County teachers union, Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association. “Teachers used to encourage students and their own kids to become teachers. Now, they tell them you can do anything you want, but don’t become a teacher.”

Robin Ringo, a ninth-grade English teacher at Pine View School in Osprey, agrees. “I don’t know in this political climate if I’m going to last,” Ringo says. “My students adore me and I do a good job for them. But who would want to be a teacher right now?”

Teacher accountability is not just the cry of extremists these days. There is a growing belief all across the political spectrum that the job security that has been a hallmark of the profession has allowed mediocre and incompetent teachers to hide within the system, earning the same salaries and benefits as the best. Even President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address said, “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”

Former D. C. chancellor Rhee, who has been an informal advisor for Florida Gov. Rick Scott since his inauguration, applauds Senate Bill 736. On her website, Rhee calls the Florida bill “the strongest language in the country” on tenure policy.

Few teacher firings in Sarasota

In Sarasota, the numbers do seem to bear out that hardly any teachers earn poor performance reviews and even fewer are actually fired.

Sarasota district records show that from 2008-2010, only 21 teachers earned “unsatisfactory” teacher ratings out of a total of 7,580, or less than 0.3 percent. About 1.2 percent of teachers received middle ratings of “developing” or “needs improvement,” and about 98 percent earned the ratings of “competent,” “proficient” or “accomplished.”

But Sarasota principals say those numbers don’t tell the entire story, since many poorly performing teachers are identified early in the year and are coached under the district’s Performance Improvement Plan.

“Nine times out of 10 we see tremendous growth and improvement from our teachers,” says Nancy Dubin, a 21-year principal who presides over the K-8 Laurel Nokomis School. “Every few years or so I have to not renew a teacher’s contract when they don’t improve. It does happen. But they are almost always motivated to learn, and when given that opportunity they do that.”

Only 14 Sarasota teachers were fired from 2008 to 2010. District officials say that figure is artificially low because some teachers, after receiving multiple poor evaluations, chose to resign or retire rather than be fired. In 2010-11, for instance, 44 teachers went through the Performance Improvement Plan. Eleven have yet to complete the process, but of the 33 who did, 15 returned as satisfactory teachers, 13 chose to resign or retire or change to a teacher’s aide or other paraprofessional, and five were fired, according to district records.

Rachel Shelley, principal at Phoenix Academy, a school for struggling students, says she personally hired two teachers only to find that they were not suited for the particular challenges of her school.

“I was able to counsel them toward resignation rather than termination,” says Shelley, who this year will take over as principal at Booker High School. “I support Sarasota’s system. It should really be about how to empower teachers to look at areas where they need to improve.”

A rating for every teacher

Florida school districts knew a bill like this was coming, as nearly all of them signed off on a commitment to the national Race to the Top program. Florida is competing with other states for $4.35 billion in grant money by instituting education reform measures, including performance pay. Florida has so far received $700 million, of which the Sarasota County School District is poised to get $3.5 million.

“Race to the Top was a way for us to have some funds to begin the expensive process of developing tests and data infrastructure,” White says. “Then we have Senate Bill 736, which certainly includes all the aspects of Race to the Top but has some significant additions that frankly have made it more challenging and difficult to swallow.”

The bill is a close relative to last year’s Senate Bill 6, which was supported by state Republicans but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the wake of widespread teacher opposition. This year, an even more conservative legislature and new Gov. Scott pushed through Senate Bill 736 and other Bush-era education reforms that ease class size restrictions, increase funding for charter schools, add vouchers for students who wish to attend private schools, and expand and require some online courses.

Senate Bill 736 states that starting in the 2011-12 school year, every teacher will receive ratings of “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs improvement,” and “unsatisfactory.” Half of that rating will be based on how their students performed on the FCAT as compared to the previous two years (referred to as “learning growth”). The other half of a teacher’s rating will be from typical employee evaluations, such as classroom observations. Teachers will be fired if they receive two consecutive “unsatisfactory” ratings or three years of “unsatisfactory” and “needs improvement.” Beginning in 2014, only teachers with “effective” and “highly effective” ratings will get pay raises (that only applies to new teachers; existing teachers can choose to remain on the current salary schedule that gives raises based on years of service). Principals and assistant principals will also be rated and given raises based on hiring and retaining highly rated teachers.

Since FCAT only tests reading, writing, math and science for grades three to 11, new state- or district-created tests will be added until all courses have a standardized end-of-year test by 2014. The bill also requires teachers of art, physical education, music and other non-core studies to be rated using some form of yet-to-be-determined test. The state still must decide exactly how it will measure student learning growth once they get the test scores, but the bill mandates the state must consider a student’s attendance record, disabilities and English proficiency. However, the bill forbids considering a student’s gender, race or socioeconomic status.

Senate Bill 736’s sponsor, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, says this year’s law succeeded, in large part, because of months of talks with state education leaders to make it less “draconian” than last year’s Senate Bill 6. He says his bill moves toward treating education like a business, where progress is measures and employee performance is rewarded. Or he likens it to a baseball team.

“Baseball players are paid on performance,” Wise says. “The idea is ‘how do I get that pitcher to pitch better?’ We’re going to pay on performance. If you’re hitting the ball and doing what you need to do and the kids are performing, then you’re going to get rewarded.”

Does money motivate?

Daniel Pink, the national best-selling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, argues against teacher merit-pay systems based on 50 years of human motivational research.

“I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair,” Pink writes in a recent newsletter. “What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars. Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.”

New York Times

“When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t say, ‘It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan,’” the pair wrote in their April 30 piece. “No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the generals, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition. And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.”

Pink and others point to recent studies that show performance pay systems don’t improve student performance. The first study was in 2010 and looked at Tennessee’s experiment of providing random monetary incentives to nearly 300 middle school math teachers. Those teachers’ students showed little to no testing gains. The most recent study by Harvard University of New York’s three-year-old performance pay system showed no increase in student test scores in that time.

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior,” Harvard economist Roland Fryer writes in his summary of the study. “If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

Still, the Florida Bill passed quickly and along party lines: 80-39 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate. All of Sarasota’s legislators—Reps. Ray Pilon, Doug Holder and Ken Roberson and Sens. Mike Bennett and Nancy Detert, all Republicans—voted in favor of the bill.

Detert, a former Sarasota County School Board member, chaired the Senate’s K-12 Education Committee last year when Senate Bill 6 surfaced. She says Senate Bill 736 isn’t perfect, but it is a good foundation for reform. She discounts the studies done of the performance pay reforms in other states and seems confident the bill will result in student achievement. Like Wise, Detert uses a business analogy.

“You need a new business model, because the old one is not working and is not financially stable,” Detert says. “We’re not looking to punish anybody or to make it a political thing or any of that paranoia. This thing will evolve to fit what the teachers need.”

What teachers need

Many teachers say what they need is less emphasis on FCAT and other testing, which has grown in importance in Florida in determining student progress, school grades and, most importantly, district funding.

Sarasota’s Deb Bryan, who teaches English at Riverview High School, says preparing for the FCAT takes so much time that she now can rarely offer her students the kind of engaging lessons—like acting out a scene from Shakespeare—that helped win her the title of Sarasota’s Teacher of the Year in 2000. She and other Sarasota teachers say their most creative—and most effective—lessons might further erode under pressures to prepare students for new tests that will be required under Senate Bill 736.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, agrees. Ravitch recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to attack the dogmatic insistence on testing in public schools.

“Schools have been turned into testing factories. We have schools cutting the arts completely, less time for science, less time for history, for physical education, for civics—all the things that make school interesting,” Ravitch told Stewart. “Kids have to have a reason to want to come to school, and I’ve never met any child who said, ‘I can’t wait to get to school for test prep.’”

That’s echoed by the students in Bryan’s ninth-grade English class. In a class discussion this May, almost all said they are tired of being taught to the test, and so is their Teacher of the Year.

“I look back at the good old days, when teaching was fun,” Bryan says. “I loved what I did, and I’m not sure I love it like I used to. That’s depressing, because I love these kids and I want to enlighten them and help them be better citizens and be more aware of the world around them. But there’s no time for that now. Now, it’s all about that 140-minute test.”

The poverty divide

The most controversial aspect of the new law may be that it rules out considering a student’s socioeconomic status in his or her testing growth from year to year. As a result, teachers at schools with large populations of low-income students could be more at risk of losing pay or their jobs than teachers at schools with higher-income students.The Sarasota County School District, in cooperation with the union, examined two earlier performance-pay models promoted by the state in 2006 and 2007. The groups found that teachers at schools with lower-income students—and historically lower FCAT scores—would not be evaluated fairly. Teachers overwhelmingly voted down the program.

“It did not seem to level the playing field for schools that had a large proportion of students living in poverty. It was really damaging,” White says. “We found we would have more effective teachers at [honors school] Pine View than we would at Emma E. Booker Elementary, and we weren’t sure that was an accurate portrayal.”

The issue of socioeconomic status is an ideological one for proponents of the bill, who argue that any child, regardless of where he comes from, can learn as long as he has an effective teacher. That is the position of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the two Jeb Bush-founded groups that essentially wrote Senate Bills 6 and 736.

“What we don’t want is to create lower standards and lower expectations,” says Jaryn Emhof, communications director for both foundations. Emhof adds that the bill allows for measuring students’ growth from one year to the next, and doesn’t just base a teacher’s rating on if a student scores high or low.

Joe Williams, executive director for Democrats for Education Reform, applauds the Florida bill and says, “Part of what motivates people associated with our group is the belief that for a long time the bar was set much lower for low-income students.”

Sen. Wise says legislators debated the issue of including socioeconomic status in how the state determines student testing growth, but many felt it was racist to hold poorer—usually black—students to lower standards.

“One of the African-American senators said, ‘I came from the ghetto and I’m a lawyer. Does that mean I couldn’t learn because I had a single mom and I was from the projects?’” Wise says. “A good teacher can turn on a kid to things that can make them excited to learn.”

In Sarasota, there appears to be a strong correlation between poverty level of students and FCAT scores. Booker Elementary has the highest percentage of low-income students of any school in Sarasota County, based on the amount of free and reduced-price lunches offered—the only way the district can track income demographics. Nearly 93 percent, or about 490 students, received free or reduced-price lunches as a result of their household income. More than 83 percent of students at Booker Elementary are black or Hispanic, far more than any other Sarasota school.

Booker Elementary also has some of the lowest scores on the FCAT. Last year, 59 percent of students performed at grade level or better on the reading test. The figures were 51 percent for math, 61 percent for writing and 26 percent for science. District averages were all higher at 80, 79, 73 and 62 percent.

That goes along with various studies showing strong correlation between household income and test scores. For instance, a 2009 New York Times study showed that American high school students scored about 12 points higher on the math SAT for every $20,000 extra their family earned.

But Emma Booker principal Dawn Clayton says her school’s lower FCAT scores aren’t due to lower student expectations or because she has inferior teachers. It has to do with powerful forces outside a teacher’s control.

“These students are coming to us from families in crisis. They could be hungry, living alone while a single parent works or are being foreclosed on, and they internalize this,” Clayton says. “There are students like this in every school, but it is more concentrated at my school. [Because of the new bill] there will undoubtedly be a reluctance for the most qualified and most talented staff to come and work at a school like ours.”

Legislators, educators and the public all have the same goal: better schools and better-educated students. But Florida’s new law illustrates the challenge facing reformers. Every new idea brings with it unintended consequences, and tempting as it is to search for one simple, logical solution, so far, no magic bullet has emerged. Some experts point to countries like Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which perform the best on standardized tests. These countries have strong unions, generally pay for teacher training and pay their teachers higher salaries. In South Korea, for example, pay is about 250 percent more than teachers are paid in America. (Motivational expert Pink also suggests raising teacher pay—along with weeding out poor teachers—as the way to attract and retain good teachers.)

Katie Lawrenz, a young, energetic Sarasota native, graduates from University of South Florida this summer and has her eye on a teaching job in her home town. But as the future of Sarasota’s teaching profession, Lawrenz, now an intern at Booker Elementary, may be a sobering indicator of what’s to come.

“I’d like to teach at Booker, but I’m not sure now. I’m worried about the new law,” she says. “I’ve taught at other schools, and this is more of a challenge. The teachers here are great, and they might be even better than your average teacher. I don’t know why the state would want to hinder us like this.”

Sarasota freelance photographer and journalist David Ball contributes to a number of Florida publications. In 2010, he was recognized by the Florida Press Association for his investigative series for the Miami Herald’s The Reporter about a financial scandal that embroiled the Monroe County School District. He is currently working on a book about the scandal.


Republicans seek to raise taxes… on the poor…

From Think Progress

by Travis Waldron

Throughout the debate about raising the federal debt ceiling, Republicans have denied deal after deal because Democrats insist on adding new revenues to trillions of dollars in spending cuts. Republicans have opposed repealing oil and gas subsidies, removing a tax loophole for corporate jet owners, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and all other forms of revenue Democrats have suggested. Raising taxes in a weak economy, they argue, is unthinkable — even if conservative patriarch Ronald Reagan did just that.

But there is one tax increase some Republicans seem to favor: raising taxes on the working poor, senior citizens, and other low-income Americans.

While they fight the expiration of the budget-busting Bush tax cuts, Republicans have continually cited a report that shows that 51 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, even admitting that middle- and lower-class Americans need to shoulder a larger burden in deficit reduction efforts. Here is a sample of Republicans who have made that argument:

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): In a May 5 appearance on MSNBC, Hatch said, “The place where you’ve got to get revenues has to come from the middle class,” saying the poor needed to understand “that there’s a civic duty on the part of every one of us to help this government to, uh, to be better.” On the Senate floor July 7, Hatch said the poor “need to share some of the responsibility” for deficit reduction.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): Cornyn also cited the report on the Senate floor July 7, when he said Congress needed to address tax reform to make the system “flatter, fairer, and simpler.” He then cited the report, saying, “51 percent — that is — a majority of American households — paid no income tax in 2009. Zero. Zip. Nada.”

Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN): Coats echoed the talking point last weekend, saying “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.” He added: “I realize that some with low incomes and not much money are not paying much in taxes. Nonetheless, we all have a stake in this country and what needs to be done. I think it’s important that this burden not just fall on 50 percent of the people but falls on all of us in some form.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA): Cantor was among the first Republicans to begin hitting this particular talking point, doing so in April on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “We also have a situation in this country where you’re nearing 50 percent of people who don’t even pay income taxes,” he said.

Republicans, of course, ignore why most of the 51 percent do not pay income taxes and the myriad ways in which they are subject to other forms of taxation. The majority who do not pay federal income taxes simply do not make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket. But they do contribute through payroll, state, and sales taxes. Less than a quarter of Americans don’t contribute to federal tax receipts, and the majority of those are students, the elderly, or the unemployed.

Meanwhile, the richest Americans are paying less than they were a generation ago, leaving the United States with one of the largest income gaps in the industrialized world.


Teachers unions recognized for their contributions

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Marlene Sokol

TAMPA — Their deliveries varied but their messages were the same: Love your job as a Hillsborough County teacher. Do it professionally.

And join the union.

“You probably have not seen or thought or heard of an administrator, or particularly a superintendent, telling you how great the union is,” superintendent MaryEllen Elia told more than 600 new teachers Wednesday.

“But I’m here to tell you it’s a huge part of the work that we do, and it’s a huge part of success for the students and teachers in the school district.”

Elia and other school district officials spoke for more than an hour during the third day of teacher training at New Tampa’s Freedom High School.

Several drew on their own new-teacher memories. Elia recalled how, in 1970, she was often second-guessed by her students. They were high school seniors, she explained, “and it was 1970.”

School Board chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb described entering her first school as a new teacher in 1964 with a list of 35 students — and perhaps 25 seats for them.

“The kind of support that you have, I would have died to have that support,” she said. She invited dozens of officials and union leaders to the front of the auditorium to prove her point.

And she implored the new teachers to reflect soberly on what they might accomplish.

“You’re going to encourage, impress, you’re going to motivate, you’re going to inspire, you’re going to provoke, you’re going to evoke, you’re going to build dreams,” she said.

“You’re going to be, for some of the schools that you are going into, the only true model of success some students know and see and have contact with every day. That’s powerful. Please don’t take it for granted.”

The speeches were mostly upbeat, as Hillsborough has been able to avoid the layoffs and furloughs seen in other districts.

Elia, acknowledging a lack of respect teachers experience in some political and media circles, urged the teachers to help turn that image around.

“You have to see yourself as a professional,” she told them. “And when people ask you what you do, you have to talk about your profession. Because that is how we will switch what happens in people’s minds when they think of a teacher.”

She and her staff also touted “Empowering Effective Teachers,” a massive training, mentoring and evaluative system in Hillsborough that has enjoyed national attention. The program’s success rests in part on Hillsborough’s amicable relationship with the Classroom Teachers Association, which itself has been hailed as a model.

Raising standards is crucial, Elia said, to prepare students for today’s global economy.

“No kid can be left without the supports they need,” she said. “And you’re the ones giving it to them.”


Are the poor are about to get ****** or really ******

From NPR

Dr. Cornell West isn’t one to mince words.

In an interview with Tell Me More’s Michel Martin, the author and Princeton University professor took some heavy shots at the budget plans presented this week by Democrats and Republicans, who he believes are in the pocket of “Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats.”

“We have a choice between a Reid plan, which is one of Milquetoast spinelessness and we’ve got the Boehner plan, which is catastrophic mean spiritedness,” he said. “Poor people will lose based on both plans. Working people will lose based on both plans.”

Over the past few months, West has been airing some very personal criticism of President Obama, whom he supported during the 2008 campaign. But beyond all the theatrics — like West’s complaints that he did not get tickets to Obama’s inauguration or him calling Obama the “black mascot of Wall Street” — West’s criticism of the president is fairly simple: President Obama, he said, came into office promising to follow the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. But during the first two years of his administration, Obama, he says, “has not made poor people a priority.”

To that end, West is embarking on a 16-city “poverty tour” with public radio personality Tavis Smiley, the co-host of Smiley & West from Public Radio International.

“What we are trying to do is cast … a spotlight on the plight of poor people, working people, accenting their humanity, their dignity and their sense of resiliency.”

During his interview with Martin, West did talk about the criticism he has received within the black community, specifically from radio personality Tom Joyner, who said West and Smiley have “set the tone” for attacks on the president from the far right.

West called Joyner’s comments “ridiculous.” But he always brought the conversation back to what he feels is Obama’s abandonment of poor people.

“[Joyner’s comments are part of ] a backward looking view that says that somehow black folk ought to close ranks and in no way engage in criticism of a black president,” he said. But, he added, when 38 percent of black babies are living in poverty and 20 percent of all babies are living in poverty, West said he would criticize.

“The legacy of Martin Luther King was, I’m critical of black mayors, I’m critical of black governors and now … we’re going to be critical of black presidents,” West said.

The bottom line, said West, is that he’s telling the president, “You have done more for oligarchs, than you have for homeowners. You have done more for corporate plutocrats than you’ve done for poor people.”


In Florida not only are the elderly, sick, disabled and children neglected but so are it’s turtles

Florida what happened to you? -cpg

From the St. Petersburg Times

By Craig Pittman

Florida’s gopher tortoises deserve to be added to the nation’s list of endangered and threatened species — but the federal agency in charge said Tuesday that it doesn’t have the money to do the job.

“We believe it warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” said Cindy Dohner, regional administrator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Atlanta office.

But instead of adding gophers to the endangered list, the federal agency will put it on a waiting list with about 250 other species that are also in a holding pattern. That means there will be no new regulations to protect them or their habitat for at least several years.

The cost of completing the job could run as high as $350,000, federal officials said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. Instead, they hope to work with private landowners on finding ways to preserve what’s left of the tortoise population.

“Bad decision,” said Roy “Robin” Lewis, a board member of WildLaw, a nonprofit environmental law firm that had pushed for the listing. “We are considering an appeal.”

Homely as a prune, older than the dinosaurs, gopher tortoises were once common throughout the Southeast, thriving in the scrub sandhills, oak hammocks and wiregrass flatwoods. First described by naturalist William Bartram in 1791, gophers were plentiful enough in the days of the Great Depression that hungry Floridians nicknamed them “Hoover chickens.”

They get their gopher name from their habit of making their homes by digging burrows in the sandy soil. The burrows serve as nature’s apartment buildings, offering shelter to more than 300 other species, including the gopher frog and the eastern indigo snake, which is a federally protected species.

But the habitat gophers favor also is popular with developers. By 2003, more than 1.7 million acres of Florida land that was once gopher tortoise habitat had been turned into home sites, roads, shopping centers and the like, according to state wildlife officials.

For 16 years, the state’s wildlife agency issued permits allowing developers to bury gopher tortoises alive, suffocating them and all the other animals in their burrows.

Between 1991 and 2007, when it ended the “pay-to-pave” program, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 2,900 permits allowing the death of an estimated 94,000 gopher tortoises.

A report issued in 2006 by a panel of state wildlife experts estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida had declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years.

That persuaded state officials to bump the tortoise up on the state’s own endangered list to “threatened,” one rung below “endangered.” Then the agency’s board voted unanimously to end the pay-to-pave program, condemned as inhumane and immoral by animal advocates.

“This is long overdue,” state wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said at the time. “What we’ve done here is wrong, and it’s time we made it right.”

The suffocation deaths did not play as big a role in the federal agency’s decision as the fragmentation of habitat and the mysterious decline in the gophers’ reproduction rate, said Dave Hankla of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jacksonville office.

Gopher tortoises are already listed by federal officials as threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In 2006, a coalition of environmental groups represented by WildLaw petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to add to the endangered list the gophers living east of those rivers in Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.

But the agency had such a backlog of other species to consider, and so little money, that it took five years to reach a conclusion.

“We’re happy that the service concluded the science supports listing, but frustrated that the service generally lacks sufficient funding for their (endangered species) obligations,” WildLaw senior staff attorney Brett Paben said in an e-mail to the Times. “We are also disappointed that the service apparently doesn’t believe the gopher tortoise warrants higher priority treatment.”

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.


Does Rick Scott plan to stick it to the public universities too?

From WCTV.com

by Lilly Rockwell

Controversial changes that have rocked Texas higher education system may be coming to Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott has begun discreetly promoting the same changes to the higher education system that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has championed. The proposals include some of the same reforms pushed by conservatives in K-12 schools: merit pay for professors, tenure reform, and generally a much greater emphasis on measurement of whether professors are turning out students that meet certain goals.

The attempt in Texas has caused something of an identity crisis in that states higher education community, with opponents saying what needs to be reformed is Perrys control over university policies.

Scott told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday that he has discussed the Texas reforms with his appointees to university and college governing boards in an effort to line up support for a nascent campaign to dramatically change how universities and colleges are funded, overhaul professor tenure, emphasize teaching over research, and give students more influence.

An admirer of Texas, Scott has developed a friendly relationship with Perry, who is flirting with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2012. Texas is regularly praised for its business-friendly climate and has weathered the economic recession better than most states.

But Perrys higher education reform efforts were not welcomed with open arms.

Perrys proposal tries to mold state universities into operating more like businesses, treating students more like customers, and universities like companies that offer a product – a degree.

The suggested changes include, in addition to professor merit pay, a greater emphasis on student evaluations and teaching in awarding tenure, abandoning the traditional accreditation system, and giving more state funding directly to students. Many of these ideas are outlined in a report called Seven Breakthrough Solutions, put out by a Perry donor named Jeff Sandefer and the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2008.

Perry also has called for a tuition freeze and the development of a $10,000 bachelors degree.

One of the things I really like about what he has in there is the fact that we should be measuring our professors, Scott said in an interview with the News Service of Florida on Tuesday. I believe students ought to be measuring the effectiveness of our professors because ultimately, it is the familys money paying for this. We really ought to have a measurement system (that is) student-centered.

Scott also praised the idea of merit pay and putting more money in the hands of students.

Our higher education system should work for the benefit of the students, Scott said.

In Texas, Perrys reforms have encountered pointed resistance from most universities.

Perrys office did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.

Gerry Griffin, a former member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and former director of NASAs Johnson Space Center, is part of a group opposing Perrys changes.

Griffin, an alumnus of Texas A&M University, said the group is concerned and trying to take the stance that we are against these kinds of reforms that have been shoved on our universities.

The group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, includes former members of university governing boards, former university presidents, and prominent alumni and business leaders, such as Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines.

Griffin said the solutions are too simplistic.

Universities are not a factory, he said.

Top-tier research institutions such as Texas A&M University and the University of Texas would become diploma mills if the full extent of the reforms were implemented, Griffin added.

At the end of the day, the reformers that started down this path only thought of numbers, Griffin said. They didnt think about the quality of education.

At Texas A&M, one effort to put into practice the Perry reforms involved a publicly available spreadsheet rating how much money each faculty member brought in to the university. It was so controversial it was taken down. The university also undertook an effort to pay faculty based on evaluations, but that was also cancelled, noted the Texas Tribune.

In Florida, groups like the United Faculty of Florida, which represents 23,000 faculty members and graduate assistants in the state, are alarmed by the reform proposals in Texas.

Tom Auxter, the statewide president for UFF and a philosophy professor at the University of Florida cautioned against trying to make universities run like a business.

You cant reduce higher education to a commercial model where you have products and customers, he said. Its not just a business, it is a profession and it is a future for students.

Auxter said there already is merit pay for university faculty and an extensive peer review system that is designed to weed out ineffective teachers and researchers. Students, too, weigh in through teacher evaluations.

We have systems for recognizing merit already, Auxter said.

Though many of Perrys reforms require legislative approval, he has gained allies by appointing to boards that govern universities in Texas people who support his reforms.

Scott appears to be taking a page out of that part of Perrys playbook. Scott said when he interviews people for positions on a university or colleges board of trustees, he gives them a copy of Seven Breakthrough Solutions.

I send them a copy of (the proposals) and say What do you think? Scott said.

In Florida, Scott appoints some, but not all, members of the boards of trustees for each university. He also selects all the appointed members of the Board of Governors, which oversees all Florida public universities. There are three members of the Board of Governors who are not appointed. They include the Commissioner of Education, a representative of the Florida Student Association, and a faculty member.

Scott acknowledged that Florida politics are different than Texas politics and said he was interested in merely raising the issues. By sending a copy of that to them, it starts the conversation, Scott said. Ultimately, he wants to understand how people think if Im going to put them on the board of a university.

Scotts interest in higher education reforms might come as surprise to some. In speeches and in media interviews, he focuses on his pledge to create jobs and stimulate Floridas economy, rarely straying into higher education topics.

But Scott said he eventually plans to lobby more aggressively for the changes. First, he is soliciting feedback from universities. If somebody has a better idea, Id like to understand those ideas first, Scott said.

It remains to be seen whether Scotts burgeoning plan to change higher education in Florida will be received more warmly than in Texas. Two lawmakers in charge of crafting higher education policy in Florida said Tuesday they had not even spoken to anyone in Scotts office about the reforms.

But Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, who is in charge of the House Education Committee, said on his own he is researching what Perry is trying to accomplish in Texas and just this week asked his staff to dig up more information.

If this past legislative session is any indication, Florida colleges and universities may be resistant to tinkering from outsiders. A proposal briefly floated by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, that would have eliminated tenure at state and community colleges was killed after the Florida College System voted to oppose it.