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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Florida Education Reform: Follow the money

Make no mistake; education in Florida has become big business. Whether it’s Pearson, College Board or one of the other companies involved with data collection and test making and scoring or charter and private schools that don’t play by the same rules as their public school counterparts, somebody is getting rich. Sadly this more than what is best or the states students and teachers is what's driving our leaders’ policies.

I would have more faith in the education reforms the powers-that-be are proposing if most did not involve short changing students and teachers. Florida has long underfunded education and many of these new or considered reforms are designed to continue to do so.

Take the class size amendment for example. For all of time smaller classes were thought to be better then suddenly when it came time to pay for smaller classes the legislature balked. The same legislature by the way which has doubled the homestead exemption, allowed owners of multiple houses to have exemptions on each property and given huge tax breaks to bottled water companies and luxury yacht makers among others. The legislature has many friends, sadly however, public education is not among them.

Then there are the changes that they are attempting to make to how teachers are paid. Teachers with advanced degrees get paid more; suddenly advanced degrees are no longer important. Teachers who have been teaching longer get paid more, now all of a sudden experience doesn’t matter either. Now I don’t think having a masters or Doctorate degree makes you automatically a better teacher. Teaching is a profession where you have it or you don’t, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, to work on and/or improve your craft through further education. The lack of experience argument however is very disingenuous. Yes sometimes you will have a wunderkind teacher hit the ground running but more often than not the first few years of teaching is less about teaching and more about surviving. These two reforms will enable districts to get teachers on the cheap.

Even the reform that the anti-teacher movement hails will be a boon to teachers, performance pay is unreliable. There are so many factors that can determine success or not, who is deserving or not, but among them are very few quantifiable numbers that can point to who is high performing or not. Yet certain people, most of who were never teachers, seem to think this is the panacea that will save teaching.

After that there are vouchers. I think a parent has to look out for their child and I wouldn’t fault one for wanting to send their child to a school they thought was better but at the same time this does take money away from cash starved public schools. Shouldn’t the answer be first to make public schools better, before we tried other things out. I also see vouchers becoming welfare for the well off. With the way things are going, how long will it be before any kid from any neighborhood, regardless of how much their family makes, be able to get a voucher?

Furthermore a lot of these vouchers go to for profit private schools, private schools by the way, that like their charter counter parts have not proven to be any more effective than public schools. An article in the Times Union about a local charter schools a few years back reported the principal was making over 150 thousand dollars and that several of her immediate family members were making considerably high salaries too. Private and Charter schools don’t have the same oversight as public schools and where I am all for everybody making as much as they can, I just don’t think they should make it on the backs of our children.

Next there is the data collection and high stakes testing which has become the tent poles of the blame the teacher education reformers, tent poles that are making some parties very rich. Friends, Pearson just signed a contract to collect data for 320 million dollars, which has me wondering, why I am still spending my planning time entering data and how much of that money is going to be a profit for them? Think about this, if the state of Florida said, you know what, we’re done with data and spent that money on teachers instead; they could have hired almost 5000 more. What do you think is more important, a company that basically gives teachers the same information most get anyway from working with their kids for a few days, or 5000 more boots on the ground providing instruction and services.

Finally let’s talk about the unions which are bearing the brunt of the ire caused by the blame the teacher crowd. Despite the fact we have unions, teachers here in Florida are some of the lowest paid, most over worked professionals in the country. Can you imagine how many teachers would flee the profession if they lost the little cover provided by the unions? Also I have never heard of our local union protecting bad teachers, just making sure all teachers get due process and they work with the district so much and so closely that many of us rank and file teachers think the line between them sometimes gets blurred.

Many of these reforms seemed designed to save money and why? Is it so the legislature can reward their friends and remember make no mistake the legislature is not a friend of education, or to make their friends at the education companies rich. Sadly all of this is done on the backs of our children and those dedicated men and woman who teach them.

Where are the realistic reforms that add to public schools not take away? The last one before it was vilified (the class size amendment) seems to have had some success. I imagine if we followed the money we would have a better idea.

Those seeking to steer the course of education reform in Florida, which includes many of Governor elect Rick Scott’s education team, would have the public believe several falsehoods.

Poverty is just an excuse. The truth is poverty is a huge issue. Kids that come from homes with absentee parents, where a lack of food and violence are constant factors often perform poorly in school. Quite frankly they have more serious issues to deal with than learning the capital of Alaska and dividing two digit numbers.

Class size doesn’t matter: Class size is extremely important. It allows students to gain more valuable face time with their teachers and fewer kids get lost in the crowd. The Heritage Foundation (Jeb Bush’s education think tank) recently touted all of the great progress that Florida’s schools have experienced over the last decade but completely ignored the fact that most of the progress has occurred since 2003 when the class size amendment began to be phased in.

Test scores are the way to measure student learning. Test scores should be a component of education not the end all be all that they have become. Some kids don’t test well, some kids have bad days, and no kid should be tested all at once time over a whole year, or several years worth of material.

Reform MUST be driven by external measures such as comprehensive tests. Assessments are most useful and reliable when they are closely connected to classroom instruction. Furthermore just who is going to get rich creating and scoring these tests? The Bush family profited greatly from the F-Cat and No Child Left Behind.

Classroom experience doesn’t matter. Most teachers don’t hit their stride, where they are most effective, till they are several years in. Unfortunately about half of all teachers do not last five years.
Tenure provides teachers with lifetime jobs. Teachers do not have "jobs for life"; they have due process and what’s wrong with allowing professionals who sacrifice so much having at least that.

Charter schools are deserving of public funds and support. Actually, charters have not been shown to have better test scores, on average, than regular public schools, their teachers aren't certified and they pick and choose who they allow in and retain.

Data must drive our children’s education. How about having a child’s ability, aptitude and desire drive their education; that might prove more effective.

Vouchers give parents choice. Vouchers also provide welfare for the well off and take much needed resources from cash starved public schools. The answer at least in the short term should be to improve public schools, not further erode them.

Performance Pay for the most deserving teachers. This sounds great in a vacuum, unfortunately when put in practice it is arbitrary and hard to quantify. Somebody way smarter than me would have to come up with a way for this to be done fairly if it is to be both effective and meaningful.

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