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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Vitti’s selling of the QEA schools, insults teachers and is light on facts.

It’s no secret that Vitti has a lot riding on the QEA initiative to turn around some of our traditionally low performing schools and by low performing I mean do poor on the standardized tests that Florida gives. The biggest part of the QEA initiative is a talented teacher transfer initiative that will pay a few teachers an unprecedented amount to get them to transfer from higher performing schools, and by higher performing I mean do better on the states standardized tests to the lower performing ones. The problems here are legion.

First the district used VAM scores to determine who would be eligible for the transfer. If you don’ remember those are the wildly inaccurate scores generated by a complicated mathematical formula comparing how teachers are doing to what the VAM score predicted they should be doing. The problem here is the district has used a bad measurement. The department of education found a 36 percent error rate for value-added measurements.  That means a department that has touted VAM and has a lot riding on it’s success found that more than one in three are inaccurate (1). That is a poor starting point but it gets worse.

Paying the teachers, and I believe all teachers should be paid substantially more than they are, the extra money is really a form of merit pay and merit pay has never worked. Merit pay unfortunately tends to measure the motivation and ability of the student rather than the motivation and ability of the teacher (2) (3) (4). That hasn’t stopped Vitti and the rich businessmen who have donated the money from doubling down on this failed concept. We expect the businessmen not to understand education but not Vitti. 

Furthermore this talented teacher initiative has been attempted before to very mixed results. A department of education study filed 88 percent of the openings at low performing elementary and middle schools in the test area. It did see great gains at the elementary school level but none at the middle and didn’t even attempt it at the high school level. More telling though is when the money turned off only 60% of the transfers remained at the new school the year after (5). Well friends what is going to happen when the QEA money runs out in three years? 

While attempting to sell the QEA initiative superintendent Vitti was also misleading with his talking points. He said "Research indicates this, that the number one factor that influences student achievement — meaning students doing well academically — is teacher quality," (6). Well not so fast. From school matters: It’s true that every child deserves an excellent teacher. Yet, Goldhaber and colleagues have discovered that around 9 percent of variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. About 60 percent of variation is explainable by individual student characteristics, family characteristics, and such variables. All school input combined (teacher quality, class variables, etc.) account for approximately 21 percent of student outcomes. (7)

So if other factors (poverty) play a larger role (poverty), then why are we ignoring them (poverty)? Poverty is the number one measurable statistic in education; those kids that live in poverty do far worse than those that don’t. It is also the most ignored statistic in education and the QEA initiatives continue to do just that. Just look where the QEA schools are, you know the ones with all the bad teachers. They are in sections of town wracked by extreme poverty. Now look at where the teachers schools are that are coming to replace them. Invariably they are in the middle and upper middle class sides of town. The QEA in effect is addressing a blister on a toe and ignoring the broken leg. Let me ask you a question, what problem have you ever fixed by ignoring 80 percent of it? (8) (9)

Lets ignore all the facts, evidence and studies after all Vitti and the members of the QEA board have, but why does Vitti have to be so condescending to teachers? From Action News: “You're only as strong as your weakest link,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti told parents and educators Monday that nearly 200 low-performing teachers are now gone, removed from the 33 elementary and middle schools that feed into Jackson, Ribault and Raines high schools. (10)

Wow! Low performing! How about dedicated, hard working willing to tackle the challenges that most people and even many teachers wouldn’t.  These teachers may not have been able to overcome the dehibilitating effects of poverty that their students endured but I shutter to think where their kids would be without them and they deserve better than to be ridiculed by the super.

This is far from the first time Vitti has been dismissive of teachers too.

“Now, is the time to try to create a group of individuals who are deeply committed--and with either high level potential talent or proven talent--to work in these schools as we face these new (Florida) standards,” (11)

It's no secret that poor teacher morale has been a problem here in Jacksonville. The superintendent has mentioned it as well as various school board members. So what does the super say when a study comes out excoriating, I mean really slamming the districts teachers? Well according to the Times Union he gives it, high marks. (12) (13)

Then from the Times Union: Vitti said no one is labeling these teachers as failures. He predicted many will probably improve performance in a new environment, especially if the pressures and challenges of poverty are less at their new schools.
Vitti added that about five years ago, when he oversaw some 500 teacher transfers out of Miami’s 66 “transformation” schools, most of those teachers who left low-performing schools got better at their new jobs.

They got better? That or they went to schools where poverty wasn’t such a crippling factor.

Finaly I would like to address the QEA board, a bunch of rich white guys (and one girl) who have become a defacto unelected school board allowed to set policy behind closed doors. We without a doubt need the community to step up since Tallahassee has abdicated their responsibility to fund our schools, but what we don’t need is a lot of rich white guys (and one girl) dictating policy. (14) They aren’t from the neighborhoods, they are not teachers and they have never been in classrooms or schools too. The only thing they have more than money is hubris because they think their money and ideas disconnected from facts and evidence can fix our problems. 

I know I come off as negative here but I think some aspects of the QEA initiatives are good. I think getting our best teachers to our neediest students is a great idea, just using VAM scores and bribing them is a poor way to do it. Then upgrades in technology and an equitable distribution of resources are long over due. But with that being said, unless we address poverty, unless we put in reforms with evidence that say they work, like smaller classes and unless we put in both academic and behavioral supports for students and teachers alike then all it is a waste of time, effort and money.

We do have serious issues in education what we don’t have sadly is serious people coming up with serious solutions.



  1. I have been following the media coverage to date. I have not found any coverage on qualifying teachers at transformation schools that were placed for surplus. Am I the only one?

  2. What qualifications more than a 4-year degree does a teacher need to teach the alphabet and adding numbers, to high school students. In some countries around the world there are university lecturers with 4-year degrees who teach at universities. So why need more qualifications than a 4-year degree to teach kindergartners? It shows that Americans don't have faith in their own colleges and universities.