BY LAURA ISENSEE AND MICHAEL VASQUEZ
When the state grades its teachers, there is no accounting for students’ race or economic status.
But now when Florida sets academic performance goals, it will grade itself on a curve, with targets related to race and income.
Last week, the state Board of Education approved a new six-year strategic plan with student-achievement goals that vary based upon race, income, disability and English proficiency. For example, Florida hopes to have 86 percent of white students at or above grade level in math, but for black students the goal is 74 percent.
A torrent of criticism followed, with educators, elected officials and others saying the plan essentially lowers expectations for certain students.
Florida Education Commissioner Pamela Stewart responded with a hastily-arranged news conference call, during which she blamed the backlash on a “growing misconception” that the state is giving up on some students. A letter to Florida’s school superintendents followed.
“Florida believes every child can learn,” she said.
Ultimately, Stewart said Florida wants all students, no matter their race or circumstances, to be reading and writing at or above grade level. But getting there will require incremental progress and a faster rate of improvement, she said, and Florida students don’t all start at the same place.
For example, 38 percent of black students currently read at grade level; Hispanics, 53 percent; and white students, 69 percent. The new goals for those students in reading: for whites, 88 percent; for Hispanics, 81 percent; and 74 percent for black students.
Stewart called the plan ambitious and aggressive and said that if the state met that trajectory, all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2022.
“This is part of an intentional strategy to challenge our schools to overcome achievement gaps,” Stewart said.
Though the “achievement gap” between certain students is nothing new, critics of the state’s action say varied targets are not the solution.
“I find differentiated race- or ethnicity-related academic goals very offensive, and they send the wrong signal to all Floridians,” Board of Education Member John Padget wrote in an email. He is pressing for the new policy to be changed or dropped.
The uproar over the issue also highlights how Florida’s teachers are evaluated. Those evaluations, calculated by a statistical formula and driven in part by student test scores, offer no wiggle room for teachers whose students are overwhelmingly poor or minority.
That’s one area where race and income should matter, some say, as teachers working in inner-city schools often face additional challenges. Broward School Board member Nora Rupert, a former Piper High School ninth-grade remedial reading teacher, said a fairer way to judge teachers is through a before-and-after type evaluation: essentially, how much have you improved your students’ ability from where it was on the first day of school.
Rupert said the ninth-graders she taught sometimes arrived in her class reading at a third grade level. If she was able to advance them to a sixth-grade reading level — no small feat in just one year — they would still be “a failure” through the lens of the FCAT.
“And for me, what a super success,” Rupert said.
Stewart, in pointing out the state uses the same evaluation formula for all teachers, regardless of the makeup of their students, said, “Clearly, we believe that every single student, regardless of the demographic group from which they come, can in fact achieve proficiency.”
Analyzing student performance by race and ethnicity is not new.
Under 2002’s No Child Left Behind federal law, K-12 schools have been reporting how different subgroups of students are performing. That law has a 100 percent goal for all students to be at grade level by 2014. In Florida, student subgroups have improved in reading by 10 percentage points or more from 2002-03 to 2010-11.
But Florida has failed to meet the overall goal, so it, like many other states, is seeking a waiver to avoid penalties.
Stewart said the race-based goals are necessary for that waiver.
The goals are separate from the state’s accountability system of school grades. And the plan includes no directives for how to meet the goals at the district and school level.
Board of Education Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez said the state is simply facing “reality” in its plan, as opposed to pretending 100 percent across all groups can be quickly achieved. He said it’s not about different expectations, but recognizing where students’ levels are at and working to close the gaps.
“We can say 100 percent proficient and there’s no distinction” among subgroups, Martinez said. “That would make us all feel very good. We can pat ourselves on the back …but that would be phony. It would be a false projection.”
Martinez once served as general counsel to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. As part of his overhaul of the state’s education system, Bush vowed to eliminate “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for some students.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the new plan ignores the fact that the method of testing students is about to fundamentally change. Carvalho called it “unthinkable” to set targets for 2017-18 when Florida will have a new national standardized test in two years, and even with the current, still-new FCAT 2.0, there is not enough data to project forward.
“While these targets comply with the federal waiver requirements, the optics of establishing targets by race and other subgroups defies the universal and undisputed fact that all students can perform academically,” Carvalho said.
State Rep. Dwight Bullard, who is also a teacher, said the plan offered “separate but equal” goals and the state education administrators should work to close the “opportunity gap” for students to learn.