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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How bad do you think our schools are?

From the St. Petersburg Times

By Ron Matus and Donna Winchester, Times Staff Writers

Floridians give glowing marks to the schools their kids attend yet are profoundly pessimistic when comparing Florida's education system with those in other states, according to a St. Petersburg Times survey.

Only 12 percent of respondents said the education Florida children get is better than in other states, while 45 percent said it was worse.

Parents with children in school weren't quite as downbeat: 25 percent said Florida schools compared well;39 percent said they did not.

The standards are too low, and the emphasis on standardized testing -- in this case, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test -- is too high, said Michael Squillace of Spring Hill.

"The problem with the FCAT is that teachers try to teach only what's on the test," said Squillace, 33, who has three children in elementary school. "If kids don't do well on the test, the teachers worry that it will reflect on them. It waters down the curriculum."

The Times education survey was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6-10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

It also found Floridians are:

Strongly divided about the FCAT, with 44 percent saying it has hurt education and 44 percent saying it has helped.
Strongly opposed to grading schools based on FCAT scores alone, with 55 percent opposed and 37 percent in favor.
Largely satisfied with Gov. Charlie Crist's handling of education issues.
The results come less than three weeks before the state Legislature meets for its annual session to tackle a long list of vexing education issues. Among them: potential changes to Florida's school-grading system; potential tweaks to the class-size amendment; and potential cuts to education spending for the second time in a year.

On the upside: Florida parents like their schools.

Seventy-five percent rated their kids' schools good or excellent, while 20 percent said only fair and 1 percent said poor, the survey found. Meanwhile, 80 percent gave their kids' teachers a good or excellent rating.

On the downside: They don't like how Florida stacks up to other states, or at least how they think Florida stacks up.

On some academic indicators, Florida has made strides in recent years, but it continues to rank near the bottom in per-student spending. With more education cuts on the horizon, it's hard to see how the public's take on school quality will change for the better, said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Education spending is "almost a cornerstone of how education success is viewed," said Paulson, who teaches courses on education policy.

Also on the downside: The public still doesn't like the FCAT.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office last year, made the test the keystone of his accountability system. Now FCAT scores determine school grades, factor into teacher bonuses and help decide whether third-graders can be promoted.

Supporters say that system has forced schools to better tailor teaching to a student's individual needs, and put a spotlight on poor and minority students. But critics say it has elevated test preparation over real learning and has led schools to cut back on noncore classes.

The Times survey found FCAT frustration crossed party lines, with almost as many Republicans 42 percent as Democrats (51 percent) saying the FCAT has hurt education in Florida.

"You have to have some measure, I understand that," said Ashley Andrews of Clearwater, the father of a third-grader. "But I feel that too much emphasis is put on the FCAT. I don't feel it's a good indication of whether a child has gotten a good education."

Carol Sampey of Indian Rocks Beach said the FCAT has helped and hurt.

On the one hand, "You're not just passing kids who don't know how to read," said Sampey, a mother of three small children. But on the other, "You hear schools are failing because of one student who has a disability. It seems like they're saying, 'Here's the formula and you have to stick with it, even if it doesn't make sense.'"

To date, Republican lawmakers who supported Bush's agenda have not backed away from high-stakes use of the FCAT. They say evidence is on their side.

National test scores show Florida is making some of the biggest gains in the country in elementary reading and math. The state is a leader in the percentage of high school students taking and passing rigorous Advanced Placement tests. And a recent report by Education Week magazine credited Florida for boosting the academic performance of poor kids.

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said some of the negativity reflected in the Times poll could be based on the public's perception of the state's status rather than the reality.

"The Legislature continues to underfund public schools, and the public knows that money equates to a quality product," Black said. "But I think that when you look at the data, we are improving."

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he doesn't see "the decline and fall of the FCAT" during his time in the Senate. On the other hand, Gaetz and other education leaders are considering changes to the system, including some that could diminish the FCAT's role.

They're openly exploring use of other standardized exams to supplement or replace the FCAT in some grades. And there is talk of rolling other factors into the school grading formula, especially for high schools.

Among the factors mentioned: graduation rates, scores and participation rates on AP exams, and the percentage of students earning industry certification -- a nod to the growing importance state officials are putting on career and technical education.

"If I was a mom or a dad, I'd want to know ... how a school is performing that I want to send my child to," Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith told the Times in a recent interview. "That is not to say that we can't continue to really work on what are the best components of that mark."

"Nobody I know ever said, 'This is it, we're done,'" said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, chairman of the House education council. "The underlying reasons for an accountability system are going to stay pretty much about the same, but how we go about measuring that accountability and rewarding it" could change.

The Times survey suggests the public's sour view on schools hasn't affected people's opinion of Crist, who on substance has stayed true to Bush's vision. He has made no major policy announcements on education. And his latest proposed budget continues to offer financial rewards to teachers and schools whose students do well on the FCAT.

And yet, 46 percent of respondents said they approved of how he was handling education issues, compared with 23 percent who did not. Nearly a third said they didn't know if they approved or disapproved.

By comparison, 40 percent of respondents in a 2006 Times poll approved of Bush, while almost as many, 37 percent, did not.

The public isn't blaming Crist for the firestorm Bush created, said Paulson at USF. But style may be at play, too. Crist rarely misses an opportunity to praise teachers, and he says he is open to making changes to the system. People across the political spectrum have praised his more inclusive, less combative tone.

Bush "didn't hesitate to twist arms," Paulson said. But Crist "is a nice guy. It always helps to be a nice guy."

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at or (727) 893-8413.

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