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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Teachers rally in DC for education

From the Palm Beach Post

by Allison Ross

A Palm Beach County face will share the stage with actor Matt Damon and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch during an education march this weekend in Washington, D.C.

On Saturday, thousands of people — including several from Palm Beach County — are expected to muster in Washington to participate in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

The event, which is accompanied by several days of lobbying and conferences, aims to push back against what its organizers see as misguided education reform policies, including high-stakes standardized testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Schools Among those in the crowd will be Rita Solnet, a suburban Boca Raton activist who is part of the event's organizing committee. She has been asked to speak before the march from her perspective as a parent and as co-founder of the nonprofit Parents Across America.

"Our politicians and the Department of Education are just not listening to people in the trenches — the parents, teachers, constituents," said Solnet, a former PTA president at Eagles Landing Middle School in western Boca Raton. "We want equal air time."

Solnet said she has been on conference calls every Sunday night for the past eight months helping to plan the event, which includes a conference at American University on Thursday and Friday, organized lobbying efforts, and the rally and march from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Organizers are expecting to draw about 10,000 people to the march, which begins at the Ellipse and loops past the White House. Solnet said speakers during the march will include Damon and his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early-child education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.; actor Richard Dreyfuss; author Jonathan Kozol; Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond; and Ravitch, who was an assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.

Solnet said Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," a current events show on the Comedy Network, has sent in a video for the event because he has a conflict and cannot attend.

"Never in my lifetime have I seen people care so much about education," Solnet said, noting that the timing of the event comes as Congress continues to discuss overhauling No Child Left Behind, which came up for reauthorization in 2007. "It's a combination of the demoralization of teachers and of public schools. People are angry."

In Palm Beach County, the local teachers union is offering $150 to teachers who want to travel to D.C. for the event, union president Debra Wilhelm said.

She said she isn't sure how many Palm Beach County teachers will end up going, in part because they might be on vacation or short on cash.

Forest Hill High School teacher Sara Cuaresma said she is flying in on Saturday just in time to participate in the march.

She said she feels that legislators ignore the voices of teachers and parents who are dealing with the public education system every day, and that, through the unified march, "they will see this is something serious, a serious group of stakeholders whose concerns need to be heard."

That's Solnet's goal for the event, as well. She said she's been appalled by what she sees as a push to "privatize public education," such as increased focus on charter schools, and by how focused schools have become on high-stakes testing.

"Everybody who attends is there for a reason, because they're just as frustrated," Solnet said. "Whether they are parents or teachers or businesspeople who are frustrated that the people they hire can't do math, they want to show that it's time to put the public back in public education.",0,7284750.story

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Three basic ideas to improve the intervene schools

1. A realistic curriculum
2. Teacher buy in
3. Discipline

These can be implemented without breaking the bank or reinventing the wheel.

I honestly believe changing the schedule would do the greatest amount of good. If you are not willing to mandate it at all the intervene schools, I would suggest a pilot program for the new intervene schools. We can’t continue to do things the same way and hope things miraculously change.

The district is going to more reading in the content area classes and I think this is an excellent idea. However, the teachers need to be trained how to do this before the new school year begins. If they are trained over the course of the year there will be diminished returns.

Adding more requirements to classes, such as reading assignments, to the content area classes leads to other problems. Teachers feel overworked as it is which means adding more things to their plate will both be met with resistance and often be applied in an uneven fashion. In short, if you are going to put something on their plate and you want it to succeed then you really should take something off of it.

The state mandated word walls, complicated daily agendas, mini lessons, focus lessons, massive data notebooks and two page lesson plans with scripted questions have been insisted on in the intervene schools for years. We can all see how well this is working. I would seriously consider streamlining the agenda and lesson plans and strongly encouraging word walls but not making them mandatory. It also seems to be a huge waste of both manpower and resources to require teachers to keep a telephone book sized ring binder of printed data on their students, when all the information is on the computer; literally at their fingertips already.

Furthermore I recommend making the learning schedules more flexible. If the first third of a class is use reinforcing reading skills then it just makes sense that classes will fall behind on the leaning schedule. Besides it seems to make sense that we make sure kids learn some things rather than just be exposed to many things.

It’s not just reading that should be taught in the content area classes but writing as well. The state just said they are really going to increase the rigor on the FCAT writing tests. Many of our kids are taught format writing for the test not actually how to write. Continuing in years past this has been the one area that the intervene schools have done well in. If these free points are suddenly taken away from those schools I can imagine a scenario where things get worse and do so quickly. If we want to see appreciable gains or at least minimize points lost, imagine a class where a third of the class is spent writing about a topic, a third reading about the topic and the final third learning about a topic.

If teachers then had topics provided to them rather than having to create them themselves they would be more likely to use them. It takes a lot of time and effort to find an appropriate reading and develop questions around them. Also remember many of these kids don’t have the skills that they need which means before we can move them forward we have to catch them up.

Continuing with reading, I think it would be a great idea is all the intervene schools offered at least one section of creative writing, yearbook and/or student newspaper. These writing based classes would help out. At my school I don’t think we offered any of these classes.

Discipline should be addressed. Teachers have become experts of ignoring bad behavior and putting out fires, which takes away from the learning environments. If a teacher spends just ten minutes a class doing these things that’s a month of academic time lost over the course of a year. A few bad apples can indeed spoil a cart and we would have such tremendous addition with just a little subtraction.

I recommend creating mini grand parks at the schools where kids would go to for weeks at a time. If they didn’t do their work they would have another day added, if they missed a day they would have another day added. They would go to lunch after the normal lunch period but not be allowed to sit together and as a group have two restroom breaks a day. In these mini grand park kids would sit individually at tables or in study carrels not allowed to talk. There work would be provided to them and when they had questions or needed help they would raise their hands to ask for it. After two weeks I am sure kids would not want to return and I can imagine it being a powerful inducement to behave especially if they were sent there after just two referrals. Remember for a consequence to be meaningful, it must be meaningful. Right now we woefully lack meaningful consequences.

It could be staffed by academic coaches, assistant principals and by teachers periodically willing to give up a planning period here and there.

Grade recovery should be changed. It should only be for kids that try hard but just don’t get it and need a little more or for kids who have legitimate reasons for missing many days. So many kids use it as a fall back and just show up to cut up. That should be stopped immediately and it should be announced from day one that is how things are. Behavior, effort and attendance must count for something.

After the first nine weeks I suggest regrouping kids by ability. I know this has become a taboo concept in some education circles but it would allow the schools to have accelerated groups and groups that needed extra attention. We scream differentiate our curriculum but doesn’t this just make things harder? It would be much easier to teach one group of kids on the same level rather than three groups of kids at the same time who were on different levels.

Finally I would encourage your administrators to allow teachers to fail students, something we haven’t been able to do for years, and write referrals. Teachers should not be scared to write referrals or fail kids. If a teacher does these things it doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Preparing kids for life, which has consequences for a lack of effort and bad behavior should be the minimum of what we are doing.

By having a realistic schedule/curriculum that better suits the students’ needs, exchanging teacher busy work for work that will assist the kids to learn and catch up and by instilling discipline, I think immediate and appreciable gains can be achieved.

None of this is reinventing the wheel and I imagine most if not all are things you have already thought of. Its now just time we put these measures into our schools.

Tommy Hazouri questions Jacksonville's magnet school programs


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Tommy Hazouri, former Jacksonville mayor and current Duval County School Board member, got a strong response Thursday morning after saying the school system is "reviewing the entire magnet program as we know it."

Hazouri, speaking on WJCT-FM's First Coast Connect program, told host Melissa Ross that "what everybody wants is a school that provides high-quality education in their neighborhood."

Pressed by Ross, Hazouri said the school district is already reviewing the magnet school structure.

Tommy Hazouri

While praising the success of nationally recognized programs at Stanton College Preparatory, Paxon School for Advanced Studies and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, he said he favors putting similar programs in neighborhood schools.

"We want our magnet schools to be applicable to every school in Duval County," Hazouri said. "The intellectual ones ... I'd love for them to stay home and do their thing."

Ross said the telephones, emails and tweets to her call-in show took off after Hazouri made the comments. His comments come as busing was removed from seven magnet schools -- including Stanton and Paxon -- to save money for the budget-strapped district.

Meetings for parents to discuss alternative, parent-funded options for transportation are being held this week and next at each of the affected schools.

"I could leave here today, and (hear) 'Hazouri's saying we're going to get rid of Stanton.' That's not the case. I was at the graduation for Stanton this year. It felt like I was at the national spelling be ... so intellectual," he said during the radio broadcast.

Teach for America's Fluff piece

from Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

The report came under fire last week when several School Board members criticized it for not being objective.

The report found that Teach for America teacher’s students made more gains than other Title I teachers with similar experience levels.

School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry voiced his support of Teach for America but called the report a “fluff piece.”

“Although the report isn’t the most rigorous, we’re encouraged to see positive findings,” said Danielle Montoya, a spokeswoman for Teach for America, in an email. “We’re committed to seeing rigorous research done on our corps members and welcome further research.”

District officials said the school system would conduct its own report on the effectiveness of Teacher For America in Duval County. The School Board voted last week to give the organization a one year extension.

The report was developed by the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. The Center has not responded to requests for comment.

There are about 110 Teacher for America teachers in the district and the district pays about $1,500 per teacher.

Gentry’s obviously familiar with corporate reform’s habit of generating reports which favor its agenda. Does this mean that the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership is engaging in the same?

Florida's senate bill 736 rears its ugly head

From Sarasota Magazing

by David Ball

It’s the start of the school day when fourth-grade teacher Ronnique Major-Hundley picks up the phone. She’s made this kind of call before when a student decides to skip school. Except this particular student has stellar attendance and wouldn’t normally miss what is probably the most important day of the year—when students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

The student’s mother answers and bursts into tears. "The police are here," she sobs. "My boyfriend tried to kill me last night, and my child saw it all."

Major-Hundley can recount many other stories from her 12 years at Emma E. Booker Elementary, where the majority of students come from Sarasota’s poorest families in Newtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Children face evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence, hunger and crime, and those problems affect their school work and test scores, Major-Hundley says.

It’s a reality she faces every day, and one that inspires her to be the best teacher possible. But it’s a reality that some believe state legislators have ignored in a new law that is igniting controversy in Sarasota schools. Teachers say the law is simplistic and unfair, pointing to them as the sole reason why students succeed or fail. Administrators worry that the law will push good teachers out of schools or maybe out of teaching altogether.

For Major-Hundley, described by her principal as one of the best teachers at Booker, the new reality is that if her students don’t do well on the FCAT, she could be fired.

"I’m being punished for doing something that I love, for teaching these kids," Major-Hundley says. "This is really scary, and other teachers are scared too."

Florida Senate Bill 736, called the "Student Success Act" by its legislative sponsors, ties teacher employment and pay to students’ FCAT and other end-of-year test scores, a concept known as performance pay or merit pay. The bill effectively eliminates teacher tenure and longstanding job protections, most notably the "last in, first out" policy that requires new teachers to be laid off before tenured teachers during budget cuts.

The law is steeped in a deep philosophical debate over how students learn and how teachers should be held accountable. It follows a national reform movement led by celebrity figures like Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and star of the education documentary Waiting for Superman, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They argue that any student, regardless of background, can excel if taught by a good teacher. They say teachers should be measured by something objective, like how their students perform on standardized tests. And they believe good teachers should be financially rewarded, while bad teachers should be fired—a process they say isn’t happening because of union contracts.

In Sarasota, schools officials say that while the law is well-intentioned, it is being implemented too quickly and ignores the realities teachers face in the classroom. Teachers say the law may even weaken education, coming at a time when they are seeing unprecedented budget cuts and being asked to drop more lesson plans in order to focus on preparing students for state-mandated tests. It’s also an unfunded mandate and could tack on untold expenses for the district to develop, administer and analyze new tests.

"I worry that it is not going to create better teaching," says Sarasota School Superintendent Lori White, who is feverishly working with administrators and teachers’ union leaders to implement the new law this school year. "I try to be objective and fair with this. Where I get passionate is on some of the unintended consequences that I think can endanger the system."

Teachers in the crosshairs

The traditional educational system, in Florida and across the country, is being targeted for major reforms from both sides of the aisle, and teachers are often in the crosshairs. There was, for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill earlier this year that stripped union bargaining rights for state workers—mostly teachers.

Right-wing pundits picked up the anti-union chant, describing a world of mediocre teachers leisurely going about their day and earning six-figure salaries working nine months a year.

"Teachers hear this stuff, and it affects them," says Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota County teachers union, Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association. "Teachers used to encourage students and their own kids to become teachers. Now, they tell them you can do anything you want, but don’t become a teacher."

Robin Ringo, a ninth-grade English teacher at Pine View School in Osprey, agrees. "I don’t know in this political climate if I’m going to last," Ringo says. "My students adore me and I do a good job for them. But who would want to be a teacher right now?"

Teacher accountability is not just the cry of extremists these days. There is a growing belief all across the political spectrum that the job security that has been a hallmark of the profession has allowed mediocre and incompetent teachers to hide within the system, earning the same salaries and benefits as the best. Even President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address said, "We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones."

Former D. C. chancellor Rhee, who has been an informal advisor for Florida Gov. Rick Scott since his inauguration, applauds Senate Bill 736. On her website, Rhee calls the Florida bill "the strongest language in the country" on tenure policy.

Few teacher firings in Sarasota

In Sarasota, the numbers do seem to bear out that hardly any teachers earn poor performance reviews and even fewer are actually fired.

Sarasota district records show that from 2008-2010, only 21 teachers earned "unsatisfactory" teacher ratings out of a total of 7,580, or less than 0.3 percent. About 1.2 percent of teachers received middle ratings of "developing" or "needs improvement," and about 98 percent earned the ratings of "competent," "proficient" or "accomplished."

But Sarasota principals say those numbers don’t tell the entire story, since many poorly performing teachers are identified early in the year and are coached under the district’s Performance Improvement Plan.

"Nine times out of 10 we see tremendous growth and improvement from our teachers," says Nancy Dubin, a 21-year principal who presides over the K-8 Laurel Nokomis School. "Every few years or so I have to not renew a teacher’s contract when they don’t improve. It does happen. But they are almost always motivated to learn, and when given that opportunity they do that."

Only 14 Sarasota teachers were fired from 2008 to 2010. District officials say that figure is artificially low because some teachers, after receiving multiple poor evaluations, chose to resign or retire rather than be fired. In 2010-11, for instance, 44 teachers went through the Performance Improvement Plan. Eleven have yet to complete the process, but of the 33 who did, 15 returned as satisfactory teachers, 13 chose to resign or retire or change to a teacher’s aide or other paraprofessional, and five were fired, according to district records.

Rachel Shelley, principal at Phoenix Academy, a school for struggling students, says she personally hired two teachers only to find that they were not suited for the particular challenges of her school.

"I was able to counsel them toward resignation rather than termination," says Shelley, who this year will take over as principal at Booker High School. "I support Sarasota’s system. It should really be about how to empower teachers to look at areas where they need to improve."

A rating for every teacher

Florida school districts knew a bill like this was coming, as nearly all of them signed off on a commitment to the national Race to the Top program. Florida is competing with other states for $4.35 billion in grant money by instituting education reform measures, including performance pay. Florida has so far received $700 million, of which the Sarasota County School District is poised to get $3.5 million.

"Race to the Top was a way for us to have some funds to begin the expensive process of developing tests and data infrastructure," White says. "Then we have Senate Bill 736, which certainly includes all the aspects of Race to the Top but has some significant additions that frankly have made it more challenging and difficult to swallow."

The bill is a close relative to last year’s Senate Bill 6, which was supported by state Republicans but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the wake of widespread teacher opposition. This year, an even more conservative legislature and new Gov. Scott pushed through Senate Bill 736 and other Bush-era education reforms that ease class size restrictions, increase funding for charter schools, add vouchers for students who wish to attend private schools, and expand and require some online courses.

Senate Bill 736 states that starting in the 2011-12 school year, every teacher will receive ratings of "highly effective," "effective," "needs improvement," and "unsatisfactory." Half of that rating will be based on how their students performed on the FCAT as compared to the previous two years (referred to as "learning growth"). The other half of a teacher’s rating will be from typical employee evaluations, such as classroom observations. Teachers will be fired if they receive two consecutive "unsatisfactory" ratings or three years of "unsatisfactory" and "needs improvement." Beginning in 2014, only teachers with "effective" and "highly effective" ratings will get pay raises (that only applies to new teachers; existing teachers can choose to remain on the current salary schedule that gives raises based on years of service). Principals and assistant principals will also be rated and given raises based on hiring and retaining highly rated teachers.

Since FCAT only tests reading, writing, math and science for grades three to 11, new state- or district-created tests will be added until all courses have a standardized end-of-year test by 2014. The bill also requires teachers of art, physical education, music and other non-core studies to be rated using some form of yet-to-be-determined test. The state still must decide exactly how it will measure student learning growth once they get the test scores, but the bill mandates the state must consider a student’s attendance record, disabilities and English proficiency. However, the bill forbids considering a student’s gender, race or socioeconomic status.

Senate Bill 736’s sponsor, Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, says this year’s law succeeded, in large part, because of months of talks with state education leaders to make it less "draconian" than last year’s Senate Bill 6. He says his bill moves toward treating education like a business, where progress is measures and employee performance is rewarded. Or he likens it to a baseball team.

"Baseball players are paid on performance," Wise says. "The idea is ‘how do I get that pitcher to pitch better?’ We’re going to pay on performance. If you’re hitting the ball and doing what you need to do and the kids are performing, then you’re going to get rewarded."

Does money motivate?

Daniel Pink, the national best-selling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, argues against teacher merit-pay systems based on 50 years of human motivational research.

"I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair," Pink writes in a recent newsletter. "What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars. Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already."

New York Times

"When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t say, ‘It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan,’" the pair wrote in their April 30 piece. "No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the generals, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition. And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources."

Pink and others point to recent studies that show performance pay systems don’t improve student performance. The first study was in 2010 and looked at Tennessee’s experiment of providing random monetary incentives to nearly 300 middle school math teachers. Those teachers’ students showed little to no testing gains. The most recent study by Harvard University of New York’s three-year-old performance pay system showed no increase in student test scores in that time.

"I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior," Harvard economist Roland Fryer writes in his summary of the study. "If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools."

Still, the Florida Bill passed quickly and along party lines: 80-39 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate. All of Sarasota’s legislators—Reps. Ray Pilon, Doug Holder and Ken Roberson and Sens. Mike Bennett and Nancy Detert, all Republicans—voted in favor of the bill.

Detert, a former Sarasota County School Board member, chaired the Senate’s K-12 Education Committee last year when Senate Bill 6 surfaced. She says Senate Bill 736 isn’t perfect, but it is a good foundation for reform. She discounts the studies done of the performance pay reforms in other states and seems confident the bill will result in student achievement. Like Wise, Detert uses a business analogy.

"You need a new business model, because the old one is not working and is not financially stable," Detert says. "We’re not looking to punish anybody or to make it a political thing or any of that paranoia. This thing will evolve to fit what the teachers need."

What teachers need

Many teachers say what they need is less emphasis on FCAT and other testing, which has grown in importance in Florida in determining student progress, school grades and, most importantly, district funding.

Sarasota’s Deb Bryan, who teaches English at Riverview High School, says preparing for the FCAT takes so much time that she now can rarely offer her students the kind of engaging lessons—like acting out a scene from Shakespeare—that helped win her the title of Sarasota’s Teacher of the Year in 2000. She and other Sarasota teachers say their most creative—and most effective—lessons might further erode under pressures to prepare students for new tests that will be required under Senate Bill 736.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, agrees. Ravitch recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to attack the dogmatic insistence on testing in public schools.

"Schools have been turned into testing factories. We have schools cutting the arts completely, less time for science, less time for history, for physical education, for civics—all the things that make school interesting," Ravitch told Stewart. "Kids have to have a reason to want to come to school, and I’ve never met any child who said, ‘I can’t wait to get to school for test prep.’"

That’s echoed by the students in Bryan’s ninth-grade English class. In a class discussion this May, almost all said they are tired of being taught to the test, and so is their Teacher of the Year.

"I look back at the good old days, when teaching was fun," Bryan says. "I loved what I did, and I’m not sure I love it like I used to. That’s depressing, because I love these kids and I want to enlighten them and help them be better citizens and be more aware of the world around them. But there’s no time for that now. Now, it’s all about that 140-minute test."

The poverty divide

The most controversial aspect of the new law may be that it rules out considering a student’s socioeconomic status in his or her testing growth from year to year. As a result, teachers at schools with large populations of low-income students could be more at risk of losing pay or their jobs than teachers at schools with higher-income students.The Sarasota County School District, in cooperation with the union, examined two earlier performance-pay models promoted by the state in 2006 and 2007. The groups found that teachers at schools with lower-income students—and historically lower FCAT scores—would not be evaluated fairly. Teachers overwhelmingly voted down the program.

"It did not seem to level the playing field for schools that had a large proportion of students living in poverty. It was really damaging," White says. "We found we would have more effective teachers at [honors school] Pine View than we would at Emma E. Booker Elementary, and we weren’t sure that was an accurate portrayal."

The issue of socioeconomic status is an ideological one for proponents of the bill, who argue that any child, regardless of where he comes from, can learn as long as he has an effective teacher. That is the position of the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the two Jeb Bush-founded groups that essentially wrote Senate Bills 6 and 736.

"What we don’t want is to create lower standards and lower expectations," says Jaryn Emhof, communications director for both foundations. Emhof adds that the bill allows for measuring students’ growth from one year to the next, and doesn’t just base a teacher’s rating on if a student scores high or low.

Joe Williams, executive director for Democrats for Education Reform, applauds the Florida bill and says, "Part of what motivates people associated with our group is the belief that for a long time the bar was set much lower for low-income students."

Sen. Wise says legislators debated the issue of including socioeconomic status in how the state determines student testing growth, but many felt it was racist to hold poorer—usually black—students to lower standards.

"One of the African-American senators said, ‘I came from the ghetto and I’m a lawyer. Does that mean I couldn’t learn because I had a single mom and I was from the projects?’" Wise says. "A good teacher can turn on a kid to things that can make them excited to learn."

In Sarasota, there appears to be a strong correlation between poverty level of students and FCAT scores. Booker Elementary has the highest percentage of low-income students of any school in Sarasota County, based on the amount of free and reduced-price lunches offered—the only way the district can track income demographics. Nearly 93 percent, or about 490 students, received free or reduced-price lunches as a result of their household income. More than 83 percent of students at Booker Elementary are black or Hispanic, far more than any other Sarasota school.

Booker Elementary also has some of the lowest scores on the FCAT. Last year, 59 percent of students performed at grade level or better on the reading test. The figures were 51 percent for math, 61 percent for writing and 26 percent for science. District averages were all higher at 80, 79, 73 and 62 percent.

That goes along with various studies showing strong correlation between household income and test scores. For instance, a 2009 New York Times study showed that American high school students scored about 12 points higher on the math SAT for every $20,000 extra their family earned.

But Emma Booker principal Dawn Clayton says her school’s lower FCAT scores aren’t due to lower student expectations or because she has inferior teachers. It has to do with powerful forces outside a teacher’s control.

"These students are coming to us from families in crisis. They could be hungry, living alone while a single parent works or are being foreclosed on, and they internalize this," Clayton says. "There are students like this in every school, but it is more concentrated at my school. [Because of the new bill] there will undoubtedly be a reluctance for the most qualified and most talented staff to come and work at a school like ours."

Legislators, educators and the public all have the same goal: better schools and better-educated students. But Florida’s new law illustrates the challenge facing reformers. Every new idea brings with it unintended consequences, and tempting as it is to search for one simple, logical solution, so far, no magic bullet has emerged. Some experts point to countries like Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which perform the best on standardized tests. These countries have strong unions, generally pay for teacher training and pay their teachers higher salaries. In South Korea, for example, pay is about 250 percent more than teachers are paid in America. (Motivational expert Pink also suggests raising teacher pay—along with weeding out poor teachers—as the way to attract and retain good teachers.)

Katie Lawrenz, a young, energetic Sarasota native, graduates from University of South Florida this summer and has her eye on a teaching job in her home town. But as the future of Sarasota’s teaching profession, Lawrenz, now an intern at Booker Elementary, may be a sobering indicator of what’s to come.

"I’d like to teach at Booker, but I’m not sure now. I’m worried about the new law," she says. "I’ve taught at other schools, and this is more of a challenge. The teachers here are great, and they might be even better than your average teacher. I don’t know why the state would want to hinder us like this."

Sarasota freelance photographer and journalist David Ball contributes to a number of Florida publications. In 2010, he was recognized by the Florida Press Association for his investigative series for the Miami Herald’s The Reporter about a financial scandal that embroiled the Monroe County School District. He is currently working on a book about the scandal.

Republicans seek to raise taxes... on the poor...

From Think Progress

by Travis Waldron

Throughout the debate about raising the federal debt ceiling, Republicans have denied deal after deal because Democrats insist on adding new revenues to trillions of dollars in spending cuts. Republicans have opposed repealing oil and gas subsidies, removing a tax loophole for corporate jet owners, letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and all other forms of revenue Democrats have suggested. Raising taxes in a weak economy, they argue, is unthinkable — even if conservative patriarch Ronald Reagan did just that.

But there is one tax increase some Republicans seem to favor: raising taxes on the working poor, senior citizens, and other low-income Americans.

While they fight the expiration of the budget-busting Bush tax cuts, Republicans have continually cited a report that shows that 51 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, even admitting that middle- and lower-class Americans need to shoulder a larger burden in deficit reduction efforts. Here is a sample of Republicans who have made that argument:

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): In a May 5 appearance on MSNBC, Hatch said, “The place where you’ve got to get revenues has to come from the middle class,” saying the poor needed to understand “that there’s a civic duty on the part of every one of us to help this government to, uh, to be better.” On the Senate floor July 7, Hatch said the poor “need to share some of the responsibility” for deficit reduction.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): Cornyn also cited the report on the Senate floor July 7, when he said Congress needed to address tax reform to make the system “flatter, fairer, and simpler.” He then cited the report, saying, “51 percent — that is — a majority of American households — paid no income tax in 2009. Zero. Zip. Nada.”

Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN): Coats echoed the talking point last weekend, saying “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.” He added: “I realize that some with low incomes and not much money are not paying much in taxes. Nonetheless, we all have a stake in this country and what needs to be done. I think it’s important that this burden not just fall on 50 percent of the people but falls on all of us in some form.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA): Cantor was among the first Republicans to begin hitting this particular talking point, doing so in April on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “We also have a situation in this country where you’re nearing 50 percent of people who don’t even pay income taxes,” he said.

Republicans, of course, ignore why most of the 51 percent do not pay income taxes and the myriad ways in which they are subject to other forms of taxation. The majority who do not pay federal income taxes simply do not make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket. But they do contribute through payroll, state, and sales taxes. Less than a quarter of Americans don’t contribute to federal tax receipts, and the majority of those are students, the elderly, or the unemployed.

Meanwhile, the richest Americans are paying less than they were a generation ago, leaving the United States with one of the largest income gaps in the industrialized world.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teachers unions recognized for their contributions

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Marlene Sokol

TAMPA — Their deliveries varied but their messages were the same: Love your job as a Hillsborough County teacher. Do it professionally.

And join the union.

"You probably have not seen or thought or heard of an administrator, or particularly a superintendent, telling you how great the union is," superintendent MaryEllen Elia told more than 600 new teachers Wednesday.

"But I'm here to tell you it's a huge part of the work that we do, and it's a huge part of success for the students and teachers in the school district."

Elia and other school district officials spoke for more than an hour during the third day of teacher training at New Tampa's Freedom High School.

Several drew on their own new-teacher memories. Elia recalled how, in 1970, she was often second-guessed by her students. They were high school seniors, she explained, "and it was 1970."

School Board chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb described entering her first school as a new teacher in 1964 with a list of 35 students — and perhaps 25 seats for them.

"The kind of support that you have, I would have died to have that support," she said. She invited dozens of officials and union leaders to the front of the auditorium to prove her point.

And she implored the new teachers to reflect soberly on what they might accomplish.

"You're going to encourage, impress, you're going to motivate, you're going to inspire, you're going to provoke, you're going to evoke, you're going to build dreams," she said.

"You're going to be, for some of the schools that you are going into, the only true model of success some students know and see and have contact with every day. That's powerful. Please don't take it for granted."

The speeches were mostly upbeat, as Hillsborough has been able to avoid the layoffs and furloughs seen in other districts.

Elia, acknowledging a lack of respect teachers experience in some political and media circles, urged the teachers to help turn that image around.

"You have to see yourself as a professional," she told them. "And when people ask you what you do, you have to talk about your profession. Because that is how we will switch what happens in people's minds when they think of a teacher."

She and her staff also touted "Empowering Effective Teachers," a massive training, mentoring and evaluative system in Hillsborough that has enjoyed national attention. The program's success rests in part on Hillsborough's amicable relationship with the Classroom Teachers Association, which itself has been hailed as a model.

Raising standards is crucial, Elia said, to prepare students for today's global economy.

"No kid can be left without the supports they need," she said. "And you're the ones giving it to them."

Are the poor are about to get ****** or really ******

From NPR

Dr. Cornell West isn't one to mince words.

In an interview with Tell Me More's Michel Martin, the author and Princeton University professor took some heavy shots at the budget plans presented this week by Democrats and Republicans, who he believes are in the pocket of "Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats."

"We have a choice between a Reid plan, which is one of Milquetoast spinelessness and we've got the Boehner plan, which is catastrophic mean spiritedness," he said. "Poor people will lose based on both plans. Working people will lose based on both plans."

Over the past few months, West has been airing some very personal criticism of President Obama, whom he supported during the 2008 campaign. But beyond all the theatrics — like West's complaints that he did not get tickets to Obama's inauguration or him calling Obama the "black mascot of Wall Street" — West's criticism of the president is fairly simple: President Obama, he said, came into office promising to follow the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. But during the first two years of his administration, Obama, he says, "has not made poor people a priority."

To that end, West is embarking on a 16-city "poverty tour" with public radio personality Tavis Smiley, the co-host of Smiley & West from Public Radio International.

"What we are trying to do is cast ... a spotlight on the plight of poor people, working people, accenting their humanity, their dignity and their sense of resiliency."

During his interview with Martin, West did talk about the criticism he has received within the black community, specifically from radio personality Tom Joyner, who said West and Smiley have "set the tone" for attacks on the president from the far right.

West called Joyner's comments "ridiculous." But he always brought the conversation back to what he feels is Obama's abandonment of poor people.

"[Joyner's comments are part of ] a backward looking view that says that somehow black folk ought to close ranks and in no way engage in criticism of a black president," he said. But, he added, when 38 percent of black babies are living in poverty and 20 percent of all babies are living in poverty, West said he would criticize.

"The legacy of Martin Luther King was, I'm critical of black mayors, I'm critical of black governors and now ... we're going to be critical of black presidents," West said.

The bottom line, said West, is that he's telling the president, "You have done more for oligarchs, than you have for homeowners. You have done more for corporate plutocrats than you've done for poor people."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In Florida not only are the elderly, sick, disabled and children neglected but so are it's turtles

Florida what happened to you? -cpg

From the St. Petersburg Times

By Craig Pittman

Florida's gopher tortoises deserve to be added to the nation's list of endangered and threatened species — but the federal agency in charge said Tuesday that it doesn't have the money to do the job.

"We believe it warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act," said Cindy Dohner, regional administrator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Atlanta office.

But instead of adding gophers to the endangered list, the federal agency will put it on a waiting list with about 250 other species that are also in a holding pattern. That means there will be no new regulations to protect them or their habitat for at least several years.

The cost of completing the job could run as high as $350,000, federal officials said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. Instead, they hope to work with private landowners on finding ways to preserve what's left of the tortoise population.

"Bad decision," said Roy "Robin" Lewis, a board member of WildLaw, a nonprofit environmental law firm that had pushed for the listing. "We are considering an appeal."

Homely as a prune, older than the dinosaurs, gopher tortoises were once common throughout the Southeast, thriving in the scrub sandhills, oak hammocks and wiregrass flatwoods. First described by naturalist William Bartram in 1791, gophers were plentiful enough in the days of the Great Depression that hungry Floridians nicknamed them "Hoover chickens."

They get their gopher name from their habit of making their homes by digging burrows in the sandy soil. The burrows serve as nature's apartment buildings, offering shelter to more than 300 other species, including the gopher frog and the eastern indigo snake, which is a federally protected species.

But the habitat gophers favor also is popular with developers. By 2003, more than 1.7 million acres of Florida land that was once gopher tortoise habitat had been turned into home sites, roads, shopping centers and the like, according to state wildlife officials.

For 16 years, the state's wildlife agency issued permits allowing developers to bury gopher tortoises alive, suffocating them and all the other animals in their burrows.

Between 1991 and 2007, when it ended the "pay-to-pave" program, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 2,900 permits allowing the death of an estimated 94,000 gopher tortoises.

A report issued in 2006 by a panel of state wildlife experts estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida had declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years.

That persuaded state officials to bump the tortoise up on the state's own endangered list to "threatened," one rung below "endangered." Then the agency's board voted unanimously to end the pay-to-pave program, condemned as inhumane and immoral by animal advocates.

"This is long overdue," state wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said at the time. "What we've done here is wrong, and it's time we made it right."

The suffocation deaths did not play as big a role in the federal agency's decision as the fragmentation of habitat and the mysterious decline in the gophers' reproduction rate, said Dave Hankla of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Jacksonville office.

Gopher tortoises are already listed by federal officials as threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In 2006, a coalition of environmental groups represented by WildLaw petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to add to the endangered list the gophers living east of those rivers in Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.

But the agency had such a backlog of other species to consider, and so little money, that it took five years to reach a conclusion.

"We're happy that the service concluded the science supports listing, but frustrated that the service generally lacks sufficient funding for their (endangered species) obligations," WildLaw senior staff attorney Brett Paben said in an e-mail to the Times. "We are also disappointed that the service apparently doesn't believe the gopher tortoise warrants higher priority treatment."

Craig Pittman can be reached at

Does Rick Scott plan to stick it to the public universities too?


by Lilly Rockwell

Controversial changes that have rocked Texas higher education system may be coming to Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott has begun discreetly promoting the same changes to the higher education system that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has championed. The proposals include some of the same reforms pushed by conservatives in K-12 schools: merit pay for professors, tenure reform, and generally a much greater emphasis on measurement of whether professors are turning out students that meet certain goals.

The attempt in Texas has caused something of an identity crisis in that states higher education community, with opponents saying what needs to be reformed is Perrys control over university policies.

Scott told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday that he has discussed the Texas reforms with his appointees to university and college governing boards in an effort to line up support for a nascent campaign to dramatically change how universities and colleges are funded, overhaul professor tenure, emphasize teaching over research, and give students more influence.

An admirer of Texas, Scott has developed a friendly relationship with Perry, who is flirting with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2012. Texas is regularly praised for its business-friendly climate and has weathered the economic recession better than most states.

But Perrys higher education reform efforts were not welcomed with open arms.

Perrys proposal tries to mold state universities into operating more like businesses, treating students more like customers, and universities like companies that offer a product - a degree.

The suggested changes include, in addition to professor merit pay, a greater emphasis on student evaluations and teaching in awarding tenure, abandoning the traditional accreditation system, and giving more state funding directly to students. Many of these ideas are outlined in a report called Seven Breakthrough Solutions, put out by a Perry donor named Jeff Sandefer and the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2008.

Perry also has called for a tuition freeze and the development of a $10,000 bachelors degree.

One of the things I really like about what he has in there is the fact that we should be measuring our professors, Scott said in an interview with the News Service of Florida on Tuesday. I believe students ought to be measuring the effectiveness of our professors because ultimately, it is the familys money paying for this. We really ought to have a measurement system (that is) student-centered.

Scott also praised the idea of merit pay and putting more money in the hands of students.

Our higher education system should work for the benefit of the students, Scott said.

In Texas, Perrys reforms have encountered pointed resistance from most universities.

Perrys office did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.

Gerry Griffin, a former member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and former director of NASAs Johnson Space Center, is part of a group opposing Perrys changes.

Griffin, an alumnus of Texas A&M University, said the group is concerned and trying to take the stance that we are against these kinds of reforms that have been shoved on our universities.

The group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, includes former members of university governing boards, former university presidents, and prominent alumni and business leaders, such as Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines.

Griffin said the solutions are too simplistic.

Universities are not a factory, he said.

Top-tier research institutions such as Texas A&M University and the University of Texas would become diploma mills if the full extent of the reforms were implemented, Griffin added.

At the end of the day, the reformers that started down this path only thought of numbers, Griffin said. They didnt think about the quality of education.

At Texas A&M, one effort to put into practice the Perry reforms involved a publicly available spreadsheet rating how much money each faculty member brought in to the university. It was so controversial it was taken down. The university also undertook an effort to pay faculty based on evaluations, but that was also cancelled, noted the Texas Tribune.

In Florida, groups like the United Faculty of Florida, which represents 23,000 faculty members and graduate assistants in the state, are alarmed by the reform proposals in Texas.

Tom Auxter, the statewide president for UFF and a philosophy professor at the University of Florida cautioned against trying to make universities run like a business.

You cant reduce higher education to a commercial model where you have products and customers, he said. Its not just a business, it is a profession and it is a future for students.

Auxter said there already is merit pay for university faculty and an extensive peer review system that is designed to weed out ineffective teachers and researchers. Students, too, weigh in through teacher evaluations.

We have systems for recognizing merit already, Auxter said.

Though many of Perrys reforms require legislative approval, he has gained allies by appointing to boards that govern universities in Texas people who support his reforms.

Scott appears to be taking a page out of that part of Perrys playbook. Scott said when he interviews people for positions on a university or colleges board of trustees, he gives them a copy of Seven Breakthrough Solutions.

I send them a copy of (the proposals) and say What do you think? Scott said.

In Florida, Scott appoints some, but not all, members of the boards of trustees for each university. He also selects all the appointed members of the Board of Governors, which oversees all Florida public universities. There are three members of the Board of Governors who are not appointed. They include the Commissioner of Education, a representative of the Florida Student Association, and a faculty member.

Scott acknowledged that Florida politics are different than Texas politics and said he was interested in merely raising the issues. By sending a copy of that to them, it starts the conversation, Scott said. Ultimately, he wants to understand how people think if Im going to put them on the board of a university.

Scotts interest in higher education reforms might come as surprise to some. In speeches and in media interviews, he focuses on his pledge to create jobs and stimulate Floridas economy, rarely straying into higher education topics.

But Scott said he eventually plans to lobby more aggressively for the changes. First, he is soliciting feedback from universities. If somebody has a better idea, Id like to understand those ideas first, Scott said.

It remains to be seen whether Scotts burgeoning plan to change higher education in Florida will be received more warmly than in Texas. Two lawmakers in charge of crafting higher education policy in Florida said Tuesday they had not even spoken to anyone in Scotts office about the reforms.

But Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, who is in charge of the House Education Committee, said on his own he is researching what Perry is trying to accomplish in Texas and just this week asked his staff to dig up more information.

If this past legislative session is any indication, Florida colleges and universities may be resistant to tinkering from outsiders. A proposal briefly floated by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, that would have eliminated tenure at state and community colleges was killed after the Florida College System voted to oppose it.

Jeb Bush continues to stick it to teachers

From Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sikes

From the FB page of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education:

“Amendment 7 is not about vouchers. It is about providing Floridians high-quality public services (social, healthcare, and education), irrespective of the provider’s religious affiliation. The amendment simply aligns the Florida Constitution with protections that already exist in the U.S. Constitution. Unions are more interested in protecting political monopolies than ensuring every Floridian has access to the high-quality services that best fit their needs. By making this about vouchers and educational choice, the teachers unions are again proving they care more about power than equipping Sunshine State students for success.”
This is low rent propaganda at it’s worst. Even the casual observer to the education debate knows this is about vouchers. Bush wouldn’t even be saying anything if it weren’t. His continued use this sort of inflammatory rhetoric smears the integrity of the state’s teachers. You cannot be against teachers but for children.

At any rate, its useful to consider what would result in the repeal of Blaine. If faith-based schools are able to compete for taxpayers dollars, it would have to include all faiths. While school boards would be sure have the final say, is Bush prepared to have radical Madrasahs apply for a charter or opportunity scholarships?

Probably not. But in the zeal to force total privatization of the state’s schools, Florida’s republican legislature never considered that. Or is that they will look at any mechanism to advance their agenda?

Standardized tests fail, when it comes to critical thinking

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

by Anthony Cody

Educator Marion Brady offers us some words to chew over:

“Kids can’t be taught to think better using tests that can’t measure how well they think.

The logic should be obvious. What gets tested gets taught. Complex thinking skills -- skills essential to survival--can’t be tested, so they don’t get taught. That failure doesn’t simply rise to the level of a problem. It’s unethical.”

This is the reason so many of us are so fed up that we will take our own money and time to go to Washington, D.C. this week to protest.

Test-based accountability has taken our schools and made it their central mission to increase test scores. No Child Left Behind did this through labeling of entire schools as failures, and the Obama administration has doubled down, having states tie teacher pay and evaluations to test scores.

Teachers are in an inescapable ethical bind. We know that the tests do not measure critical thinking.

As a science teacher, I believe that the essence of science is the exploration of the natural world. It is all about inquiry: asking good questions, and then using all the tools we can muster to investigate and answer those questions.

To get a student to behave as a scientist, the key is to put them in the role of a scientist. Challenge them with open-ended questions. Find out what THEY are curious about and inspire them to wrestle with that so they can truly understand it.

Great teaching is about provoking curiosity among our students, and then using that innate inquisitiveness to drive learning in a discipline. I think this is true for every subject, not just science.

Great history teaching is about provoking student curiosity about the past, and getting them to investigate the evidence to develop explanations of what really happened and why. Great math teaching is about delving into puzzles of one sort or another, helping students understand clever ways to manipulate numbers to do wonderful things. And English teaching at its best is provoking students to read, to wonder, and to express themselves in ways that can be shared with others.

In each case, this provocation works best when it is driven by spontaneous discovery and innovation. The best teachers are constantly scanning the environment for hooks that we can use to catch student interest. I remember one year we were studying insects and a student brought in a particularly large potato bug. I created a challenge on my web site: Could anyone find one that was bigger? We even had a visit from the local newspaper as a result.

I used explorations with dry ice to drive a whole series of investigations, getting students to come up with their own questions as the basis for our investigation.

The objective with this approach is to get students to develop their ability to ask good questions, to design thoughtful experiments that will yield solid data, and to explain their results, using evidence from their research and experimentation. This is critical thinking applied to science.

I have not seen a standardized test that measures this. Instead we get questions that are best prepared for by memorizing things in one way or another. There is nothing inherently wrong with memorization. There is nothing wrong with learning much of what is tested. But it is not our highest calling as teachers. It is not the reason I became a teacher. And when it is defined as our goal, it systematically devalues and undermines the sort of learning I have described here.

That is why I am standing up at the Save Our Schools March on July 30th, with as many of my colleagues and allies I can gather.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Florida turns down 50 million to prevent child abuse

From the Miami Herald

By Carol Marbin Miller

Florida lawmakers have rejected more than $50 million in federal child-abuse prevention money. The grants were tied to the Obama administration’s healthcare reform package, which many lawmakers oppose on philosophical grounds.

The money, offered through the federal Affordable Health Care Act passed last year, would have paid, among other things, for a visiting nurse program run by Healthy Families Florida, one of the most successful child-abuse prevention efforts in the nation. Healthy Families’ budget was cut in last year’s spending plan by close to $10 million.

And because the federal Race to the Top educational-reform effort is tied to the child-abuse prevention program that Healthy Families administers, the state may also lose a four-year block grant worth an additional $100 million in federal dollars, records show.

“This is just crazy,” said Gwen Wurm, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami, and a board member of the Our Kids foster care agency. “This is the model for what you want in a prevention program. They have proven results.”

Healthy Families, which started with a $10 million budget in 1998, provides trained home visitors — many of whom are nurses — to work with young parents who, based on a questionnaire filled out at child birth, are deemed at risk of abusing or neglecting their children. The visitors offer guidance on everything from healthy eating habits and early childhood development to recognizing safety hazards, such as pools and sweltering, sealed automobiles.

Wurm said the model is particularly effective because it is hands-on and offers parents concrete advice on how to care for their kids — not just a laundry list of things they shouldn’t do. “If I just tell you, ‘Do not shake your baby,’ and your baby is still screaming, I have not solved your problem,” Wurm said. “They are not just telling parents what not to do.”

Richard Gelles, dean of the Department of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, said prevention models such as Healthy Families have been the most successful in the country in preventing child abuse and encouraging appropriate child development — but also saving states millions of dollars down the line in costs associated with foster care, delinquency and healthcare.

The most recent year the program was studied, budget year 2010, 95 percent of the parents who participated avoided any verified reports of child abuse or neglect within a year of completing the program, records show. Almost two-thirds of the parents who were unemployed when they entered the program had found a job by the time they completed it.

Healthy Families has seldom enjoyed wide support within Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature.

From budget year 2010 to budget year 2011, lawmakers cut the program’s spending plan from $28 million to $18 million, including $2 million in non-recurring dollars added late in the process. Administrators estimated the cuts would translate to a reduction in services from 12,099 families and 20,919 children to 8,130 families and 13,821 children.

State Sen. Joe Negron, who chairs his chamber’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he long has been philosophically opposed to Healthy Families, which he views as an intrusion into the private lives of parents.

“I believe in providing basic information to parents at hospitals and medical settings,” said Negron, a Palm City Republican. “I am not persuaded that it is a good idea to show up at a family’s home year after year giving advice and guidance. I do not think that is a core, essential function of government.”

Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is vice chairwoman of Negron’s appropriations subcommittee and sits on the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the decision to forego the funding ultimately will hurt children. Most other states have capitalized on the federal grants, Rich said, and failing to do so means Florida taxpayers will get fewer healthcare dollars than taxpayers elsewhere.

On Wednesday, leaders of the state House and Senate and the governor’s office all insisted they had nothing to do with rejecting the money.

“The grant was included in [the state Department of Health’s] legislative budget request, but beyond that, the executive branch never advocated for it and a budget amendment was not submitted,” said Katherine Betta, spokeswoman for Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park.

Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said Scott did ask for the money. Burgess produced a budget request that has the proposal. “If there is to be finger-pointing,” he said, “it should be directed elsewhere.”

Herald political reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Read more:

Why giving standardized tests to children is dumb

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By David Berliner

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman opined that science is the belief that everyone in authority is ignorant. I am a social scientist; politicians have authority; therefore, politicians are quite likely to be ignorant. Their ignorance cannot show up any clearer than in their recent desire to give tests to very young children.

Some states currently are preparing proposals to engage in another round of Race to the Trough [otherwise known as Race to the Top]. They are seeking a share of the $700 million federal dollars allocated for early learning in the 2011 education budget. States can get this money if they design, develop, and administer pre-kindergarten assessments and kindergarten readiness tests. Common sense and research both suggest that this is really dumb!

If any of these authorities can remember what their own children were like at ages 3, 4 and 5, they would immediately know that any assessments of children at this age are unreliable.

Distinguished developmental psychologist Samuel Meisels believes that most young children have a restricted ability to comprehend the formal, spoken instructions required for most standardized assessments, thus they fail to pick up the cues that older children use to determine what is expected of them in an assessment environment. Younger children also lack the sophistication to interpret situational cues, or written instructions.

Similarly, questions that require complex information-processing skills, such as giving differential weights to alternative choices, distinguishing recency from primacy, or responding correctly to multistep directions, may easily cause a child to give the wrong answer to a question.

In fact, what a child had for lunch, whether they could play outside that day, and whether Sarah hit Johnny or told him he could play dress up with her, has more to do with a test score than the knowledge stored in memory. Furthermore, the knowledge assessed is not exactly what might be called “critical thinking.” The questions often do no more than ask the young child to correctly identify which color is green, which stick is bigger, and which one of the pictures shown is a cow!

Suppose the child missed all three of these common item types used for assessing young children? Are the lives of those children ruined? Or, is it more plausible to expect that they will pick up that knowledge eventually? Except for the severely cognitively challenged, who are easily identified by all early childhood teachers, all other children will learn these “big” ideas eventually.

In fact, when longitudinal studies of testing were examined to see if the achievement test scores of young children could predict the achievement test scores received by those same children a few years later, the answer was that the tests did not predict well at all. And the scores received by young children on assessments of their social and behavioral skills turned out to be completely useless as predictors of the scores the children received on the same measures a few years later. The research quite convincingly shows that for young children, even over relatively short time periods, predictions from one administration of a test to the next are not usually accurate enough to engender any confidence that this year’s performance will tell us much about next years’ performance.

This is what any rational parent or informed politician should expect since young children are undergoing significant changes in brain growth, physiology, and emotional regulation throughout their first eight years of life. As Meisels noted, any brief snapshot of a child’s skills and abilities taken on a single occasion is simply unable to capture the shifts and changes in that child’s development. In addition to the developmental changes we expect of all children, among poor children there are also more frequent changes in family income, housing, caretakers, food security, and so forth. That is, the instability in the scores of middle-class children is expected to be even greater among lower-class children.

The current efforts to assess young children also reflect America’s remarkable amnesia. The federal government tried to assess young children once before, when it mandated a test to assess the effects of Head Start. The government spent millions of dollars to develop the National Reporting System (NRS) to assess 4-year-olds in Head Start programs. But the NRS was a complete failure.

It failed because a compelling purpose for the test could never be clearly specified. Too few people asked why it is we needed those tests. Too few wondered whether teachers already knew most of what we needed to know about the children that were served.

The test also failed because it could not conform to basic professional standards of test development. The test developers could not provide evidence that reliability and validity were sufficient for the test to be useful. The test failed also because it tapped a narrow sample of children’s skills, as so many tests do. Finally, the test failed because, like so many high-stakes tests, it promoted a curriculum for Head Start that was drill oriented so it would look like the students in that program had rising test scores.

In retrospect, the NRS failed most of all because it ignored the complexity of early development. Meisels and virtually all other scholars in this field teach us that no single indicator, especially a formal test, can reliably and validly assess a young child’s skills, achievements, or personality. It is quite fair to say that no collection of standardized indicators can produce an assessment of any lasting value.

So now, less than a decade after the NRS debacle, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and other federal and state personnel are out to test young children again. Ignorance redux. I was taught that one definition of insanity was repeating the same thing time and time again, expecting a different outcome. Secretary Duncan has apparently never come across that bit of wisdom.

My own scholarship bears on this issue as well. Arizona, like some other states, tests all children at second grade, a grade below that required by the NCLB legislation. And it is not unusual for districts to test children in first grade and in Kindergarten.

When I asked Arizona State Department of Instruction and district personnel why this was done, the answer was always the same: So they could learn which children needed help and which did not. I asked if they could get that information from teachers, but I was told that such information would not be “objective,” that teacher ratings were “untrustworthy.”
The state and district administrators I talked with believed that professional teachers did not and could not know enough about the skills and abilities of their students, even after spending eight months with them. I thought they were wrong. So in a series of studies with colleagues Annapurna Ganesh, Joseph Riley, and others, I tried to get the information the State of Arizona wanted from their testing of young children by means of an alternative. I simply asked teachers. I thought that if teachers could reliably identify children who need more help we could save time and money, as well as reduce the anxiety that teachers and students feel at assessment time.

These were simple studies. We asked classroom teachers in grades two to six to rank order the students in their classes in terms of how they would do on the state’s No Child Left Behind accountability test. Following is some information obtained from only the two lowest grades.

In grade two, 36 teachers participated, with class sizes ranging from 17 to 30; in grade three, 30 teachers participated, with class sizes ranging between 22 to 32 students. The correlation coefficients of the teachers’ ranking of their students’ performance with the students’ rank on the state test revealed only strong positive correlation coefficients. In third grade reading and mathematics teachers’ ranks of their students correlated with the rank the student obtained on the test about .84, about as high as the reliability of the tests themselves. Many teachers exhibited correlations greater than .90, indicating that teachers are quite capable of providing the state with information about who needs help and who does not in about 10 minutes, and at the savings of millions of dollars.

In second grade, we expected lower correlations because, as described above, the test scores of children at this age are less reliable. Yet we still found correlations between the teachers ranking and the child’s rank on the test to be about .70 in both reading and mathematics. This correlation is probably as high as the test would correlate with itself a week later (its one week stability reliability), and at the extremes, the rankings by the teachers of the highest and lowest performing students were remarkably accurate.

These results once again indicate that if the state’s interest is identifying students who need help, teachers can do this as well as the test.

Moreover, it is likely that the teachers’ ranking provides more valid information about a child’s performance vis a vis others since it is ordinarily based on thousands of hours of teaching experience, hundreds of hours of observation of that particular child, and interviews with parents and guardians, rather than based on just a few hundred minutes of standardized testing.

To compound the irony, even when the State of Arizona identified through its testing program the young children who appeared to need help, little or no help was given because there were no funds to do so.

Testing young children may be cruel, has not worked out well in the past, often provides unreliable scores and therefore invalid inferences about the abilities of children are made too often. Potentially more valid information, at least as reliable as the tests themselves, and unlikely to elicit anxiety on the part of teachers or students can be obtained from professional educators much quicker and for drastically less money. The funds saved, of course, in any sane world would be used to help the children that teachers identify as needing help.

We certainly do not need more formal testing of young children, but I do think we need sanity tests for those in authority who deny the experiences they have had with their own or other peoples’ children.

Race to the top is actualy a race to the bottom

With a nod to Grumpy Educators

Republican lawmakers and corporations have a new target: kids in special ed

From the Progressive

by Ruth Coniff

Republican lawmakers and corporations have a new target: kids in special ed.

It sounds like a sick joke, but it’s true.

Like cartoon schoolyard bullies, the American Legislative Exchange Council(ALEC)—the powerful coalition of corporations and rightwing legislators—has worked out plans to trick special ed students and their families into giving up their federally protected educational benefits, in exchange for cheap vouchers that can be used in unregulated, fly-by-night academies.

Working off ALEC’s proposed legislation--recently leaked by a whistleblower to the Center for Media and Democracy, and viewable on the web site ALEC Exposed--Republicans are pushing private-school voucher bills for kids with disabilities in states across the country.

At first glance, these bills don’t seem all bad. Whether or not you agree with the idea of using public school funds to send kids to private school, individual disabled children whose needs aren’t met in public schools might benefit from being able to use private school vouchers, right?


Advocates for the disabled strongly oppose special ed voucher legislation—and not because the vouchers drain resources from the public schools.

What a lot of people don’t understand, says Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, is that disabled students who take advantage of special ed vouchers forfeit their rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

That means they no longer have a right to a “free, appropriate public education” or the specific services that come along with that.

Not only that, they give up their chance to get their school districts to cover the costs of private education, if the local public schools can’t meet their needs.

“Embedded in the law is the ability to either voluntarily or legally force school districts to pay for private schools, at significant expense,” says Spitzer-Resnick.

He should know, since he has forced school districts to pay for students’ private education more than once. Under the voucher program, those kids would never be able to afford such an expensive deal. The voucher system drafted by ALEC and before the state assembly in Wisconsin in the form of AB110 gives parents of disabled kids the option to trade their rights for a voucher worth whatever costs less: private school tuition or the value of their special education services.

The result of this cost-saving, rights-stripping approach is on display in Florida, where the nation’s first special ed voucher program recently exploded into the news with a spectacular scandal involving rampant fraud and abuse.

ALEC praised Florida’s McKay special education scholarship fund in a 2003 resolution (viewable on ALEC Exposed) promoting school choice for children with disabilities and decrying the “burdensome regulations” of the current special education system. ALEC criticized the federal law’s “adversarial process, pitting parent against educator, that encourages litigation, not mediation” and contrasted it with Florida’s. “In the state of Florida, where school choice scholarships are offered, achievement is up and the cost of services is down,” the resolution declared.

Reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts from Miami’s New Times visited the special ed voucher schools in Florida, and blew that assertion all to hell in a scathing June expose headlined “McKay Scholarship Program Sparks a Cottage Industry of Fraud and Chaos.”

Garcia-Roberts told of fly-by-night schools for the disabled in Florida, including South Florida Prep, where “two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor.” Students zoned out in front of blaxploitation flicks, supervised by inexperienced staff with no books and no curriculum requirements. At one school, parents complained that an administrator spanked his charges with a paddle, telling them the state had no jurisdiction to make him stop. (Turns out he was not far off: The Department of Ed can’t pull McKay scholarship funds from a school based on its disciplinary policies.)

Since then-governor Jeb Bush introduced the program twelve years ago, it has grown to consume $148.6 million in the last year, the New Times reports—up 38 percent from five years ago. With virtually no oversight and no strings attached, the state has handed out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to schools run by unsupervised administrators, including “criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary,” the New Times reports.

But this hasn’t stopped Bush from becoming a star among school choice advocates, including the American Federation for Children. Lately, he has been touring the country promoting Florida’s school reform plans.

Besides siphoning off public funds, there is another motivation for running cheap schools for the disabled, the New Times article points out: “Failing kids, who would sabotage all-important standardized test scores, are herded en masse to dubious McKay schools.”

This is exactly what advocates for the disabled fear in Wisconsin, where AB110, a bill that borrows language directly from ALEC’s model bill, the “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” is before the state Assembly.

The bill “guarantees nothing in these private schools,” says Spitzer-Resnick.

Advocates fear that special ed vouchers will undo decades of work getting special-needs kids into regular, public schools. Instead, we will have segregation. Disabled kids will go to separate schools for autism, behavioral and cognitive disorders, and other disabilities.

Pulling disabled kids out of the community and locking them away in segregated institutions flies in the face of research that shows that mainstreaming disabled kids not only helps the disabled, it benefits the non-disabled kids who learn alongside them.

I have seen this in my own kids’ school, where, in my daughter’s first-grade class, the teacher cultivated such a loving, respectful relationship between a student with severe autism and his peers that the other kids glowed with pride along with him as he learned and grew throughout the year. Seeing their sibling-like, cooperative relationship literally brought tears to my eyes.

That sense of community and caring is threatened by budget cuts and a race-to-the-bottom mentality.

As schools are increasingly financially squeezed, conflict arises between parents of special needs kids and other parents.

“No one else gets ‘free, appropriate education,’ ” Spitzer-Resnick points out. “People get angry. There’s resentment: ‘We lost our art teacher because of these kids.’ No one wants that.”

It shows you how far we’ve fallen as a society that parents of non-disabled kids begrudge special needs kids extra therapy and tutoring.

Worse, shadowy, corporate interests are deliberately manipulating people’s fears.

Spitzer-Resnick says a Facebook friend of his who is the mother of a disabled child “liked” the special education voucher page put up by the American Federation for Children.

“It made me realize people are vulnerable,” Spitzer-Resnick says. “This whole movement is predicated on trading on parents’ legitimate frustrations for what their kids are not receiving and then sprinkling magic fairy dust by saying, ‘Here, we’ll give you a voucher and all your frustrations will go away.’ ”

In general, private-school vouchers are an assault on the whole idea of high-quality, universal public education. But in places like Milwaukee, at least they have helped some low-income families send their kids to decent private schools. With special ed vouchers, ALEC and Republican state legislators have hit a new low: stealing money, and prospects for a good education and a good future, from mentally and physically disabled children. It's hard to imagine a worse public policy than that.

Jacksonville's FCAT woes are about to get a lot worse

This is the one part of the test that the Intervene Schools did well on.

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

Yes, kids, spelling counts.

So does grammar, punctuation and the ability to make logical arguments backed up by relevant details.

Oh, and forget about phrases such as "a potpourri of iridescent colors." No one wants to read "pretentious language" in student essays.

The FCAT writing exam — the oldest and, by most measures, the easiest in Florida's testing arsenal — is to be graded on a tougher scale starting next year.

The move comes as Florida prepares for national academic standards, set to be in place in 2013, and new, beefed up standardized tests a year later. The idea is to pump up the requirements on FCAT writing, so Florida students are ready for the more demanding exams to come.

Central Florida educators expected the change and have been working to improve writing instruction to help students meet the challenge of a stricter grading system.

The essay section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is taken by students in grades 4, 8 and 10. They have 45 minutes to write an essay on an assigned topic.

Under the new grading system, there will be "increased attention to the correct use of standard English conventions," including spelling, grammar and punctuation, the Florida Department of Education stated in a recent memo to school districts.

"Scoring of this element in the past has been applied with leniency," wrote Deputy Commissioner Kris Ellington.

Students also will be expected to make logical arguments using relevant, specific details — not "contrived statistical claims or unsubstantiated generalities," Ellington wrote.

Finally, the department doesn't want to see evidence that students have memorized phrases to use on their FCAT essays.

"Rote memorization or overuse of compositional techniques, such as rhetorical questions, implausible statistics, or pretentious language is not the expectation for quality writing at any grade level," the memo stated.

The use of memorized phrases, or what the department calls "template writing," is one the state has been trying to stamp out for several years.

The practice, state officials have said, involves students at the same school using the same phrases in their essays, suggesting they've been "coached" to employ them. The phrases include over-the-top language such as "a potpourri of iridescent colors surrounded me," and similar, contrived story conventions such as writing, "POOF!" and then describing the character suddenly being in a land of dragons, pirates or fairies.

Ideally, the department wants students to write coherent, logical essays that show they have a "command of English language conventions."

They will be expected to spell commonly used words correctly but won't be harmed if they take a "compositional risk" and use, but misspell, a difficult word.

A fourth grader, for example, wouldn't be penalized for misspelling rhinoceros.

FCAT writing, then called FCAT Writes!, was first given in 1992 to fourth graders. The exam is graded on a six-point scale and this year the state wanted students to score a 4 or better. More than 79 percent did.

In Orange County, aware of the coming demands, schools have ramped up writing lessons by encouraging writing in all subjects, not just in language arts classes, said Diane Knight, senior administrator for curriculum services.

That means students write about what they observe in science lessons and write their analysis of documents they read in social studies.

At a principal meeting this summer, curriculum leaders even suggested schools put the question, "What is the writing experience that you are requiring students to do today?" in all teachers' lesson plan documents, said Linda Dove, director of curriculum services.

Educators are eager to see examples of student essays scored under the new system, said Anna-Marie Cote, deputy superintendent of Seminole County schools.

Later this month, the education department is to release those documents, showing what short of essays would earn what scores under the new requirements.

Though teachers teach writing — and spelling and grammar — in many classes, they may need to put additional emphasis on certain skills, Cote said.

"We'll have to work on it a little more," she added. or 407-420-5273.,0,966982.story

Charter schools 55 million, public schools zero

From First Coast

by Ken Ammaro

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Duval schools were expecting $10 million this school year for maintenance, repairs, renovations and remodeling, but the legislature has opted not to give public schools a penny.

"They're undermining public education," said Tommy Hazouri, a member of the Duval County Public Schools Board.

He said the governor and the legislature are sending the wrong message about public education. "Fifty percent of our schools are in need of repairs; they're old," said Hazouri.

Last year, Duval County schools received $7 million from the legislature for maintenance, remodeling and repair; this year it was expecting $10.3 million but will get nothing.

"While we can rework the numbers, this is a tremendous hit and loss for our capital program," said Doug Ayars, COO of Duval schools.

Last year public schools in Florida received $122 million for maintenance but this year lawmakers declined to appropriate a dime.

"We will prioritize and fix what is a safety issue," said Hazouri.

Last year public schools in Florida received $122 million for maintenance but this year lawmakers declined to appropriate a dime.

Yet, they approved $55 million dollars for maintenance and repair of charter schools only.

Colleen Wood is the executive director of Save Duval Schools. "I think it shows the favoritism that's been happening with charter schools over public schools," she said.

Hazouri said the cut in capital outlay funding also means Duval County will have to cut back on the IT projects.

This is a critical time for public education and lawmakers are directing tax dollars in the wrong direction, said Wood. "It is not a good thing; our budget shows where our values are and right now our state seems to be valuing charter schools over traditional public schools," said Wood.|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|t

Monday, July 25, 2011

How my school got on the Intervene list

I am not allowed to say what school I work out but if you were to guess that it was one of the schools that made the intervene list I don’t think it would be against the rules for me to nod my head yes. If you didn’t know it, the intervene schools are considered the failing schools in Florida, the bottom of the bottom and Jacksonville has more intervene schools than anywhere else in the state, (7 out of 27). Here we have one k-8 school and then six high schools on the list; all of the schools by the way are North of Beaver Street and West of Casset.

My school hasn’t always been an intervene school, though for years I have been warning that it would be and this is how it happened.

Five years ago despite our huge special education population we were a C school of some note. We had a well renowned physics club, a model UN team that was one of the best in the state. A Drama program that put on several performances a year and an art department that was routinely represented at shows. We also had a veteran staff that knew what it was doing and dedicated to the school’s children. Fast forward and after a few years of fluctuating between a F and a D we are on the intervene list and we have none of the above.

It started when 300 students arrived from the first round of intervene schools. The statistics show that kids on opportunity scholarships do not improve when they get to their new school and the new schools often suffer but despite that the state continues to insist districts move these kids around. My school was no exception and within two years we went from a C to an F. I imagine the same thing will soon happen at Mandarin, the destination of our opportunity scholarship students.

Thus the downfall of our school began and the next step was the micromanagement and subsequent departure of our staff.

No longer were teachers allowed autonomy and creativity, instead the teachers had to adhere to a rigorous group of requirements that stunningly had no evidence proving they worked. Word walls, complicated agendas, data notebooks and two-page lesson plans were what the state and our administrators began to look for rather than good instruction. All of these things sucked up teacher’s precious time and took them away from doing the things that were more important. Pressure began to increase and many of our teachers began to leave.

Our veteran teachers began to trickle away. There is a direct pipeline from my school to Fleming Island high school considered one of the best in the state. At last count, 8 teachers had left my school for that one and they are among dozens of others who also left for greener pastures. And who can blame the veteran teachers who had already proved themselves for leaving? Less stress, kids that were interested in learning and didn’t misbehave, cultures of creativity and autonomy, and the same pay was their reward for doing so.

Next we stopped disciplining our kids. Teachers at my school learned to put up with maladaptive behavior, well the teachers that stayed anyways. If we wrote kids on referrals we would be the ones questioned and the kids wouldn’t receive consequences anyways. On occasion as they left the room they would brag that we would be the ones who got in trouble and in truth they weren’t far off.

Why did we stop disciplining kids? Well its because referrals and suspensions play a role in determining the school and a districts grade; the more referrals and suspensions the worse the grade. It became the unofficial mandate of the district that if we weren’t going to be doing well then we would at least appear to be doing well. That’s also one of the reasons some kids leave their intensive reading classes and head to their Advanced Placement literature classes.

About then the district raised the stakes and enhanced our graduation requirements something that state has followed suit with. Kids arrived at our school without the skills they need to be successful and without a work ethic. Teachers with a wink and a nod were told to pass them along no matter what and if you want evidence of this look at the districts grade recovery policies.

Grade recovery used to be for the kids that tried hard but just didn’t get it or who were sick or had a legitimate reason for missing a lot of days. Now anybody can partake in grade recovery for any reason. The kid could have been in class all year long and been a holly terror too, doing nothing but disrupting class and teachers are required to allow them grade recovery. Attendance and behavior no longer mattered.

Then we had a leadership vacuum. Our long term principal left and he was replaced with somebody who just wasn’t ready to run a school of our size and with our problems. I believe he was chosen because of his race. The district has another unwritten policy that it wants African American leaders at African American schools and after the opportunity scholarship kids arrived that is what my school became. I don’t have a problem with this if the leader is ready and capable but I think a better plan is to employ the best possible applicants regardless of race. Suddenly white teachers became implied racists if they wrote up black kids and were told they didn’t know how to deal with African American students because their behavior was a cultural thing that they just couldn’t understand.

Moral sank, more teachers left and now we have a faculty, which is over half first and second year teachers. Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and some education deformers will have the public believe that first year teachers are just as capable as veteran ones but the reality is much different. We do have some first year teachers that hit the ground running but most take years to develop their craft. I don’t know any veteran teacher that thinks they were better when they first started than they are now. Now I am not saying the new teachers aren’t dedicated and hard working because they are. The thing is many don’t even know what they don’t know yet. That takes time and experience.

This was all exacerbated by the fact we got rid of all the things described in the first paragraph. Gone are the physics club, model UN, drama and most of the art department and for good measure we also cut home ecc. You know those things that make school worth going to for so many kids.

Bad policies, bad procedures, a lack of discipline, an unrealistic curriculum, poor leadership and a plethora of new teachers led to our downfall. All of this led to my fairly successful school being placed on the list of one of the worst schools in the state. A perfect storm struck and once the first domino fell there was no stopping the decent.

That’s how my school became an intervene school.

What do we have to look forward to? What is the district’s plan to get us out of the hole we are in? My guess would be more of the same.