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Friday, January 28, 2011

What are Florida's parents and teachers waiting for???


With state legislators already drafting legislation that will impact public schools, the time to discuss education reform is now, not the legislative session's first day. For those who follow trends in education reform, much of the debate centers on increasing performance pay and ending tenure for teachers. Sadly, few people want to discuss equally important issues such as school funding and student poverty.

Florida's education reformers must be willing to discuss all of the issues affecting our schools and not just politically trendy topics that research demonstrates will do little to improve student achievement. The reality is no quick fix exists for public schools. The only way sustainable reform can take place is if all stakeholders including educators, parents, elected officials and community members take action.

Gov. Rick Scott recently named Michelle Rhee, who resigned as superintendent of the District of Columbia's public schools before she could be fired, as his education-reform advisor. Floridians should know that Rhee publicly admitted to taping her students' mouths shut, causing them to bleed, when she was a teacher. This alone would have caused Florida teachers to be suspended or fired. Rhee also described swallowing a bee in front of her students.

During the coming months, Floridians will hear from Scott and Rhee about merit pay. Elected politicians who maintain veto-proof control of the Legislature also want to tie teacher salaries to student learning. Teachers are more than willing to discuss raising their salaries, which remain 28th in the nation, including performance pay.

Even so, when it comes to tying teacher salaries to test scores, research has shown that teachers do not control about 60 percent of the factors that influence student learning. Achievement is impacted significantly by what occurs in the students' lives outside of the classroom. Vanderbilt University studied 300 teachers who received an additional $15,000 in salary if they raised student test scores. After three years, the students' test scores of teachers receiving merit pay was no different than the students of teachers who did not receive more pay.

Successful merit pay requires student performance assessments to consider a variety of measures including attendance, ongoing classroom assessments, traditional letter grades, academic portfolios, and yes, even test scores. Reformers must recognize that teachers are already doing everything they can despite severe budget cuts to increase student achievement without performance pay. Florida schools are not filled with bad teachers.

Reformers such as Rhee also talk about ending teacher tenure as a solution to public schools' problems. Tenure provides teachers with the right to due process so they cannot be fired arbitrarily. It does not mean they have a job for life.

Teachers do not give themselves tenure. After a teacher has worked successfully for several years, administrators decide which teachers deserve this protection.

Rather than ending tenure, reform should study improving teacher evaluations. Currently, most administrators conduct quick drive-by evaluations that provide teachers with little feedback that they can use to improve. By making evaluations more transparent and objective, teachers will have the opportunity to learn better ways to increase student achievement.

If Scott, Rhee and elected officials want Florida's schools to rise to the very top in the nation, then they cannot continue to provide funding at the very bottom of all states. Good schools cost money.

Reducing child poverty also must be a priority as research shows students who live in low socio-economic conditions suffer academically. Nearly 66 percent of Broward County's 281 schools are considered Title I, which means a majority of the students come from low income families. Miami-Dade County has 328 Title I schools.

Education reform cannot be dictated from Tallahassee. Increasing student achievement must be based on research and best practices that have been proven to work rather than political rhetoric. If we hope to achieve long-term school improvement than teachers, parents, elected leaders and community stakeholders must be involved in the process.

Pat Santeramo is the president of the Broward Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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