fired: An education-reform critic and teacher talks shop with Duval
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
taught for five years. While on the team I would have done anything for the
coach, whether it was to run through a wall or sell a thousand chicken dinners.
After I graduated and time passed, my nostalgia faded and certain memories took
on new, less pleasant meanings.
have to say I felt fired up. He has an infectious way of making one feel both
optimistic and enthusiastic about the direction the district is
going—especially after years of
neglect, meandering and backsliding. I left with a real sense of hope. It’s his
actions over the next few months and years, however, that will determine
whether I retain my sense of optimism.
intimidating and that’s why I resisted his and Marsha Oliver’s, the district’s
director of communication, initial overtures to do so. Full disclosure: I am an
employee of the district and have been for 11 of the last 12 years, and quite
often when I have questioned or criticized the district’s policies, I have
wondered if this was “it,” that is, if
this would be the piece that saw me called down to the ivory tower or into the
principal’s office where I would be let go.
that come from my knowledge and experience being in the classroom, and from
literally thousands of conversations I have had with hundreds of other
teachers. Teachers, by the way, are often left out when the powers-that-be
discuss education. Every few months you will read about some blue ribbon panel
that gathered to discuss education. Teachers are usually excluded or at best
under-represented. In no other field are the people who perform the job so
systematically excluded from the process.
it is constructive and respectful. Everybody knows the district has issues and
sweeping them under the rug or ignoring them is not going to fix them, but
neither will ignoring teachers, which has long been the practice of the
district, when it wasn’t cajoling teachers to ignore bad behavior or telling
them to watch how many Ds and Fs they give. Given this history, I thought this
meeting would be more of the same—or perhaps even a personal message from the
super for me to “clean out my locker”.
Oliver were amazingly gracious and hospitable and I got a genuine sense that
the super really does care about what I and teachers in general have to say. I
can honestly say we didn‘t agree on every point, but then again I have the luxury
of being able to be critical of certain people with whom he, at the same time,
has to work if he is going to be successful. I can point out, for example, that
the facts don’t always back up Gary Chartrand. I can talk about how Jeb Bush
manipulates statistics to make his points, and how state commissioner of
education Tony Bennett has various conflicts of interests. If a superintendent
brought up these issues, though, doing so might have negative repercussions.
It’s the same when it comes to talking about individual education policies,
because, unlike the superintendent, I am not running a district that, according
to the Florida legislature, must include charter schools, vouchers, and merit
pay. I can point out to the Stanford CREDO report,, the gold standard of
charter school studies, which found that Florida charter schools underperform,
while the superintendent has to work to integrate them into the district. My
problem with charter schools, vouchers and merit pay–the crown jewels of the
reform movement–is there seems to be a wholesale rush to implement them
without the data that supports them.
mentioned how unfortunate it was that so many are crafted for ideological
reasons—not for reasons which would benefit children, which he said over and
over would guide his decisions as superintendent. He mentioned Senate bill 736,
the legislation that will tie teachers’ salaries to how their students do on
tests and institute merit pay. Merit pay is one of those ideologically driven
decisions that might sound good. Merit pay, however, despite being the law of
the land, has no evidence that says it works, but plenty of evidence that says
That, however, leads to another point that the
superintendent brought up: how the realm of education research has been muddied
because too many people want their answer to be right, rather than wanting to
have the right answer. An example of this would be how charter schools are
doing in Florida. The Florida Department of Education says charter schools are
doing better than public schools while at the same time the Stanford CREDO
project says the opposite. The prevailing attitude is, “I will see your study
and raise with one of my own,” which creates a quandary because the data should
drive the policy, and not vice versa.