"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Republican Education Policy Coming From Florida?

If you want to know where Missouri's republican platform for education came from, you may not have to look any further than the Foundation for Florida's Future. FFF was started by Jeb Bush in 1994 as an education think tank. Here is their education formula for student achievement,
The Florida Formula encompasses a combination of reforms – rigorous academic standards, standardized measurement, data-based accountability, effective teaching, outcome-based funding, school choice – to improve the quality of education for Sunshine State students.  
Every one of these reforms was listed on the Missouri Republican platform.
The influence of FFF is dramatic. Its policies have been implemented through the legislature, despite opposition from the teachers union and parent groups, though both sides argue how influential the foundation actually is.  Last term, a parent trigger bill designed by FFF, which would have given parents the choice of how they wanted to turn around their failing school, died in session. 
Kathleen Oropeza who started a parent group Fund Education Now in 2009 said, "I was guilty of not really understanding how deeply Tallahassee affects me in my house and my kids' education, and so once I became more aware, it was startling. It became clear that every policy and every law and every new rule was somehow influenced by the Foundation for Florida's Future and was in fact, a continuation of Jeb Bush's governorship. It seemed to be an uninterrupted flow of policy."

Overall, however, the foundation claims that their policies have led to successful turn around in student academic performance in Florida.
Florida’s success dispels common myths about education.  Poverty, an absence of parental involvement, language barriers, disabilities, broken homes, even catastrophic natural disasters like hurricanes, are not valid excuses for a lack of learning in the classroom.
A bold statement in light of the fact that there was a dramatic drop in Florida's FCAT (standardized assessment) scores this year. For reading, it was 52 percent failing this year vs. 39 percent last year. For math, it was 47 percent failing this year vs. 26 percent failing last year. The drop was blamed on changes to the way the test was graded. The schools could have survived the adjustment except that teacher pay and retention decisions are now based on those scores. This had the Florida Board of Education scrambling to keep their school system from falling apart.

The changes in the grading may have been triggered by the desire to have more students ready for college. One of the Foundation's goals is to

make high school more rigorous to better prepare students for college and careers. Florida lawmakers provided state funding for all Florida 10th graders to take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) or the equivalent PLAN exam for the ACT. Officials forged a partnership with the College Board to use this data to identify students with the potential to pass Advance Placement (AP) coursework and exams. Was the recent drop in student scores simply a sign that the Board of Education (in conjunction with Pearson who designed and scored the test) bit off more than they can chew when they changed the standardized tests so rapidly? The schools did not have time to prepare the students for the tougher standard, but shouldn't a think tank and major assessment supplier have anticipated this a little better? Makes one wonder what other unintended consequences they have not considered.

The Foundation has worthwhile goals, but the latest news from Florida shows that education reform enthusiasm may have outstripped student reality. Ideally this is a short term problem that leaves minimum damage for the classes graduating high school in the next couple of years. But time will tell if locking schools into tight formulas which can cause these types of outcomes is the right thing to do for the students. Good teachers may be let go through no fault of their own. Many more teachers may decide to abandon the profession rather than wait for the random swing of the scoring ax to catch them.

In addition, rapid changes in standards create an uncertain environment for students. Those who had been receiving good grades in school who are suddenly rated very low by the standardized assessment are dealt a demoralizing blow. And there is already plenty of criticism for the way the Florida 3rd grade literacy requirement is handled.Those aren't suited for the college path may become discouraged by the rigor of the tests and drop out. It will be important for school districts to provide guidance counseling and alternatives for such students.

The reason Missouri voters should pay attention to this is because Jeb Bush may have his sights on being Education Secretary under a Republican president. A bit worrisome when considering the results of the reforms FFF has pushed for in Florida. Even more worrisome when you realize that J. Bush has praised the job Arne Duncan on the Charlie Rose show for the job he has done in the Obama administration. 

Both Romney and Bush stand on their records for improving student test scores by evaluating teachers, holding firm on standards and the testing of students. Evaluating the effectiveness of these reforms is tricky and a bit like predicting global warming based on a few years worth of data. Small gains may be achieved, but the losses must also be considered. It is just as important to constantly evaluate the effectiveness of your reforms and be willing to alter or remove them if they create more problems than they solve (i.e. one of the best math teachers in NYC was rated as the worst  due to the way rating was handled causing her to leave public teaching.) If those in charge of education policy would just hold this simple philosophy we might not still be dealing with NCLB.

1 comment:

  1. Absent parents is a huge factor. I teach at a private classical academy and this leg of the education stool is made clear twice a year a parent-teacher conferences. Those who regularly stop in are almost always the parents of the students who are well-behaved and doing academically well. The kids who are not doing well are the ones whose parents seldom communicate with me. Curricula, teachers and administrators are all in need of reform, but the student's success will still largely depend on the two most important people in the student's life: mom and dad. As either Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke (I cannot recall which) said, social and political problems are at root, moral and religious problems.


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