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Thursday, May 19, 2011

College professors say, what is happening in education is just wrong,

From the Jacksonville Ledger

While the Florida Legislature has been focused on overhauling education policy, those who actually know something about the subject – education professors — have been largely ignored. But a group of academics in Jacksonville isn’t waiting to be invited into the discussion.

The Education Policy Forum, a group of Jacksonville college professors with an interest in public education, aims to become a resource for local media and educational organizations interested in getting a different perspective on high stakes testing and school privatization. Worried that too many parents are buying into policies that have more to do with ideology and profits than with what’s good for children, the group is reaching out to the public in hopes of slowing, stalling and, ultimately, reversing the damage of these so-called “reforms.”

According to UNF Assistant Professor John Wesley White, the group (which includes UNF associate professor Katrina Hall, FSCJ political science professor Robert Hall, UNF literacy professor Wanda Hedrick, and assistant professor at UNF Brian Zoellner) was formed in part as a defensive measure. “We saw schools and teachers being attacked … and some of our concern was there didn’t seem to be a public voice for education professionals.”

The group is particularly troubled by Florida’s move towards private school vouchers, as well as charter schools, many of which are run by for-profit companies using public money. One for-profit charter school outfit, CharterSchoolsUSA, is currently taking applications for its Baymeadows Road location in Jacksonville. CharterSchoolsUSA’s national organization is headed up by John Hage, who has worked for two conservative political think tanks: the Heritage Foundation and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. On May 1, The St. Pete Times reported on a Western Michigan University study that found many for profit charters, including CharterSchoolsUSA, fail to achieve adequate yearly progress, a metric created by the No Child Left Behind Act. Only 37 percent of CharterSchoolsUSA’s schools have met the standard, compared to 67 percent of public schools, according to the report.

But it’s not just charter companies or so-called Education Management Organizations that stand to profit from recent changes to education policy, says FSCJ’s Professor Hall. “The testing service companies have something very large to gain,” he says. Once a state embraces a standards-based approach, he explains, “you’re looking for something to measure.” In addition to providing the measurements, White adds, many of those same private companies “also provide the curriculum.”

The professors’ views are borne out by recent news. As reported by The New York Times April 27, textbook company and testing giant, Pearson, has teamed up with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ foundation on a joint venture to create online reading and math courses aligned with national “common core standards.” Gates’ foundation has underwritten teacher evaluations research in Hillsborough County while Pearson administers the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Pearson’s most recent contract with the state also includes developing “end of course exams,” one of several controversial education changes adopted by the current Legislature.

Pearson’s dominance of the private ed testing market appears to parallel the ascent of its K-12 testing officer, William Piferrer, who moved quickly from being “travel aide” to former Gov. Bush at age 24, through a series of positions with the Department of Education and the Governor’s Office before taking a position with NCS Pearson in 2007.

Regardless of who profits from privatization and testing, though, The Education Policy Forum believes students ultimately lose. The Student Success Act, passed this year, ties 50 percent of a teacher’s pay to student FCAT scores or end-of-course exam data. White’s concern about these tests transcends fairness issues for teachers. At bottom, he says, policymakers are issuing tests that amount to little more than “checklists” for students.

“They want to have a checklist of what students have learned at any given time,” White explains. “[A]nd when they say ‘learned something’ they mean ‘are you familiar enough with it to answer a question on a test,’ and not ‘do you understand the concept.’”

This approach leads to teaching to the test, scripted curricula and strict pacing guidelines, all of which hurt kids, the professors say. White says that current education policy tells teachers not to deviate from scripts even if they have a better way of teaching the material.

As for expanding virtual education, Katrina Hall cites the research of Richard Allington, et al, in their book, “Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write,” that shows most of the published studies that claim virtual-ed words are “usually authored by the software developers.”

But lack of rigorous research about what’s best for children didn’t stop the legislature from authorizing broad expansion of “virtual charter schools.” This move worries Hall, who says that while it may give homeschoolers and charter schools a good way to access curriculum, it could short-circuit critical social development in youngsters. “Children need to interact with each other in real-time, same space situations,” Hall says. Laws that push virtual education on younger children, much like policies that overemphasize paper-and pencil tests for pre-schoolers and kindergartners, all ignore what child development research says: Young children learn through play.

“One of the things that is difficult to measure, that you want to build in order for a child to be a learner, is that natural curiosity; that persistence — staying with something — in exploration and wondering. The research coming out [says] that we need all these qualities in children in order to have great minds develop.”

The Education Policy Forum has begun networking with other local education groups, and is working to bring education testing opponent Diane Ravitch to town to speak. But they ultimately hope to become an alternative think tank, using educational research and their experience as educators to advocate for a different vision for public education. To learn more, go to the group’s website – Julie Delegal (Courtesy of Folio Weekly)

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