Florida Education Association Bemoans their Self-Imposed Exile

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Ford, President of the Florida Education Association wrote a piece for the Orlando Sentinel complaining about Florida’s accountability system. Ford’s piece connects the usual dots- complaining about the status-quo while offering no specifics for how a system of academic transparency should operate. Mr. Ford warms up with this doozy of a paragraph:

The former education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, recently resigned after a year on the job. Robinson inherited a flawed and punitive accountability system laden with standardized tests that was put in place 13 years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, overseen by Patricia Levesque at his Foundation for Florida’s Future and endlessly promoted by legislators who favor for-profit schools, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Before I get to the accountability system, let me briefly address the Jeb Bush/Foundation for Florida’s Future conspiracy theory bit. Florida operates as a democracy, complete with elections in which citizens choose their officials who then make decisions regarding K-12 and other sorts of state policy. The voters twice chose Jeb Bush to serve as their governor, but he has been a private citizen since **ahem** 2007.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future does indeed seek policies to improve Florida public schools. This however occurs within a typical system of democratic pluralism in which many groups contend for influence, including of course Mr. Ford’s Florida Education Association. Guidestar reveals that the FEA had revenues more than twenty times larger than those of the Foundation in 2010 (the latest year available).

The FEA’s difficulties originate with their suspect ideas rather than their flush bank account. Ford’s characterization of Florida’s accountability system as “flawed and punitive” is a fine example. This “flawed” system has in fact produced remarkable results, especially for disadvantaged children. The chart below for instance compares the literacy gains on the Nation’s Report Card for Free and Reduced lunch eligible Florida students in 1998 (the year before Florida’s reforms) and 2011 (the most recent results available).

Notice that the “good ole days” in Florida (pre-reform) were a disaster for low-income children. A whopping 37% of Florida’s low-income 4th graders had learned to read according to NAEP’s standards in 1998. A lack of transparency and accountability may have suited the FEA fine, but it was nothing less than catastrophic for Florida’s low-income children. Thirteen years into the “flawed” system, that figure was up to 62 percent. The goal of Florida policymakers should clearly be to accelerate this impressive progress rather than to go back to the failed practices of the past.

Put another way, if Mr. Ford considers this system “flawed” then Florida lawmakers should quickly implement something that he would judge to be “catastrophically flawed.” Note also that Florida’s public school teachers deserve to celebrate these gains as much as anyone. The FEA however opposed the reforms that produced them tooth and nail, costing them credibility (especially when they continue to complain today).

As for “punitive” well…Florida’s school grades have improved along with their NAEP and FCAT scores. Just how “punitive” can a system be when it delivers 10 times as many A/B grades as D/F grades?

If and when the FEA matches coherent child-centered policy with their massive financial and human resources, there can be little doubt that they will exercise a large amount of influence over Florida K-12 policy. Until then they can continue to bemoan their self-imposed exile from the adult conversation over how to provide Florida children with a genuine shot at the American Dream.

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14 Responses to Florida Education Association Bemoans their Self-Imposed Exile

  1. Dave Pusey says:

    The “for-profit school” non-sense seems to be the newest talking point for the status quo-ites. We are hearing all about the filthy, evil for-profit companies plundering public education via state-approved charter schools. It’s nothing but, as the esteemed Sheldon Cooper PhD would say, hokum.

    • Teacher111 says:

      We have been on the testing bandwagon for 10 years. Quit calling the people with whom you disagree the “status quo.” Excessive testing is the status quo. Furthermore, no one seems to credit the Class Size Amendment as part of Florida’s success. Virtually every private school uses small classes to market themselves, so why do “reformers” act like it doesn’t matter in public schools?

      • matthewladner says:

        No one credits the class size amendment with Florida’s improvement because the improvement started many years before the amendment was implemented. Also, the program was formally studied by a Harvard scholar and found to be expensive and ineffectual:

        http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG10-03_Chingos.pdf

      • Teacher111 says:

        That is WAY too much reading for tonight. :-)

        In interviews subsequent to the study, he appears to show more opposition to top-down mandates on class size from the state and federal level rather than class size reductions in general. Perhaps if this was limited to the primary grades and/or low socioeconomic neighborhood schools, we could reach middle ground.

        For politicians to say that small class sizes in general are not a factor in student achievement when virtually every school in the “private sector” touts it as a benefit for their students is totally disingenuous. I mean, we’re always told that we need to function more like the private sector, right?

      • allen says:

        “I mean, we’re always told that we need to function more like the private sector, right?”

        That’s not quite true. What “you” always been told is that you ought to be accountable for results, improve performance and increase productivity over time.

        Oh, I guess that is like the private sector. Never mind.

      • Teacher111 says:

        According to FL Sen Nancy Detert (R-Sarasota), districts were able to hold teachers accountable under the pre-SB736 system.

        —–
        Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, delivered the bluntest argument for [SB736's] passage: She said districts haven’t removed bad teachers, even though they could have done so under current pay systems.

        “We had a process. You didn’t have the courage to use it,” she said.

        With more than 90 percent of teachers earning good evaluations, yet many students still struggling on FCAT, something is amiss, she said.

        “We’ve started to forget what business we’re in. We’re not in the employment business. We’re in the business of moving kids from point A to point B,” Detert said.

        http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/news_education_edblog/2011/02/merit-pay-bill-the-purpose-the-questions-the-concerns.html
        ——

        This idea that accountability cannot exist unless we use a VAM system is absurd. Somehow, the elite schools where politicians send their children manage to function very well without them. Furthermore, Florida’s model makes what the Kindergarten teacher does in her classroom irrelevant because her VAM score will be based on school-wide 4th and 5th grade FCAT results and not the results of her own students. That is the case for elective teachers as well. Even when subject-area exams are implemented (which should have happened BEFORE the merit no-pay law went into effect), can we really use a Pearson bubble test to gauge how well a person learned in a music class? Don’t we admire musicians and artists for how they play, sing, or draw instead of their head knowledge about history, composers, artists, etc.?

        Congratulations on being the first person to reply to me without giving me 50-80 pages of homework! :-)

  2. matthewladner says:

    People want improved education outcomes and reduced class size has strong intuitive appeal, thus the public strongly supports reducing class size, private schools tout it, etc.

    The research however shows that teacher quality is far more important than class size.

    http://jaypgreene.com/2008/04/25/indiana-jones-and-the-teacher-quality-crusade/

    • Teacher111 says:

      So, American teachers and schools need to be more like the Asian teachers/schools? Why can’t those same expectations be applied to all parties involved in the educational process? Those other parties include parents and the students. Those South Korean teachers would be in for a major culture shock in many of our major cities’ classrooms. Given our entitlement mentality, they’d probably be in a culture shock in many of our high achieving suburban schools as well. This is only one example and certainly doesn’t serve as a broad brush, but the behavior of the Japanese after their earthquake as opposed to the behavior of New Orleans residents after Katrina is a testament to the deeper issues in our culture that teachers cannot solve alone.

      Teachers are not against accountability. We are just against have to take sole responsibility when other parties play a role in educational outcomes. In the current reform climate, it appears as though no pressure is placed upon the students and parents to put in their side of the deal, which happens regularly in charter schools with their mandatory parent volunteer hours and the private school admissions and dismissal process.

      • Greg Forster says:

        And how do we give parents responsibility for education commensurate with their impact? School choice!

        When parents are responsible, accountability for teachers doesn’t have to be politicized and teachers can have more freedom to teach while also being accountable for results like real professionals:

        http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/Free-to-Teach—What-America-s-Teachers-Say-about-Teaching-in-Public-and-Private-Schools.aspx

      • Teacher111 says:

        I’m fine with choice as long as traditional public schools get to select students who help them meet their goals (like private schools) and can quickly remove students who cannot or will not perform academically and/or behaviorally (like charter schools and private schools). Or perhaps the private and charter schools receiving voucher funds should have to take every student and be subject to the same student removal process as traditional public schools. The private schools will have to administer the FCAT and submit themselves to the state grading system like the charter schools, though some charter schools are able to exempt themselves from getting a grade.

        Furthermore, public schools should be able to select their own curriculum and pedagogical practices instead of being forced to implement programs from the state like Sen. Wise’s beloved “Failure-Free Reading” program. That program seemed to produce more failures than anything else. Thankfully, Gov. Scott cut funding for that program. Teachers constantly have to do things that are ineffective, yet be held “accountable” for the results at the same time. Just because a program worked for the teacher-turned-professor-turned-product-producer doesn’t mean it will work for all teachers within a school, district, or state.

  3. Teacher111 says:

    By the way, thanks for the very civil discussion. I don’t see that too much on my local newspaper’s website, and it was refreshing to discuss the issues in such a respectful manner.

  4. matthewladner says:

    Teacher111-

    I agree that students and parents need to take responsibility, but all of the major Florida reforms promote parental involvement. Grading schools A-F gets parents involved, giving parents school choices gets them involved, curtailing social promotion gets parents involved.

    Back during the 1990s policies that the FEA fought so hard to preserve and to which they seem to yearn for today, only 37% of
    Florida’s low-income children learned how to read. The high school graduation was among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of Florida children passing AP exams was a fraction of what it is today.

    Florida teachers should take pride in all of this.

  5. allen says:

    Sorry Matthew but when parents, and kids, have some scope of action they can be saddled with some degree of responsibility for performance. Inasmuch as both are operating under the policy of mandatory attendance neither has much choice in much of anything.

    When coercion is the mechanism that underlies the situation then there ought to be no other expectation of those being compelled but resentment, resignation and resistance. Sorry for the alliteration but I’m a bit rushed.

    The real wonder is that my three “R” aren’t much more forcefully expressed. It’s the victory of hope, and an unlikely degree of willingness to defer gratification, over the facts.

  6. [...] You might think that, but sadly you are not the FEA leadership. The FEA leadership prefers to hold absurd positions and even express them publicly in the Orlando Se… [...]

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