Florida ed reform passes: Is it a model or disaster?
It's now up to to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to decide whether to sign legislation that would end job security for teachers and link their pay to student test scores.
House Bill 7189 passed the chamber before dawn today after hours of impassioned debate, and after conservative House Republicans ran over more moderate members of their own party who offered amendments to ease the measure's most controversial provisions.
Backers hailed the legislation as a model of reform for the nation, while many educators in the Sunshine State and beyond said it makes them fear for public education.
Already approved by the Senate, the legislation now rests with Crist, who first said he supported it but has been hinting that he may now use his veto because it is so unpopular.
Teachers, parents and students have been loudly protesting the legislation, which, if it becomes law, would:
*Make Florida the first state to eliminate tenure for new teachers, putting them all on one-year contracts for the first five years.
*Eliminate class experience and advanced degrees (in most cases) as factors in teacher evaluations and pay increases.
*Require that at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and pay increases, be based on standardized test scores. Test experts say this method is faulty because teachers can’t control every factor that affects the test-taking process.
*Require the creation of a slew of new standardized tests for every subject, in every grade that is not already assessed. This must come as good news to companies that create tests and that prepare students for taking tests. There could be a lot of new business for them in Florida [Disclosure: The Washington Post owns Kaplan, an education company with a test prep divison.]
A look at some of the details of the bill passed by the House helps explain why critics say it was not thought out or written with much care.
It requires all school districts in the state to develop end-of-course exams that will determine “learning gains” made by students ( a plan that also would require exams to be given at the beginning of the school year, too, so that student progress can be measured). It doesn't, however, explain what a student “learning gain” -- on which teachers will be judged-- actually is.
Within a few years, Florida second-graders could, perhaps, sit down, with pencil in hand, to take a test on how well they did in art class that year. What kind of test? Nobody knows. The bill doesn’t say.
The new tests will cost millions of dollars. A legislator from Duval County told the House that the state Education Department is developing three end-of course exams right now, at a cost of more than $1 million. The Miami-Dade County school system alone has something like 900 course offerings.
To pay for the course development and performance pay for teachers and other parts of the legislation, 5 percent of federal, state and local Florida Education Finance Program funds are to be set aside beginning in 2011. That’s about $900 million.
But here’s the catch: It’s not new money. It would come out of the already stretched budgets of county school systems. School officials say they can't possibly afford this.
The bill also doesn’t mention how special-needs students should be factored in, although Crist said this week he was concerned about this omission.
The backers of the bill say these are details that can be worked out later in rules by the Department of Education.
That’s the same thing they said when former Florida governor Jeb Bush pushed through a statewide standardized testing program called the FCAT. The legislation had few details, which had to be worked out over years. The adults fiddled while students had to suffer taking tests that had no meaning.
The bill has been hailed by some conservatives outside the state, including Stanford University economist Eric Hanusek, who praised Florida in the April edition of Education Next magazine for being "poised to lead the nation in crafting student policies."
Hanusek was a big supporter of then-president George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform, once writing that it was "raising overall student performance." Bush's own administration issued reports showing that it did not, in fact, raise overall student performance.
Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former official in the administration of president George H.W. Bush who once supported NCLB, has looked at data and changed her mind, saying it actually harmed education, in part by emphasizing high-stakes standardized tests. The New York University professor wrote an open letter to the Florida legislature expressing her opposition to the state's reform approach.
The legislation's supporters have repeatedly said that its reforms will improve schools and encourage good teachers to stay in the profession because they will be paid more for their good work. Supporters may indeed believe this. But good teachers know that they can't fairly be judged by test scores alone. It isn't surprising that no teachers were involved in the drafting of the legislation.
Certainly there are teachers in every school system who should not be in the classroom, and certainly principals should have the flexibility to remove ineffective teachers. In fact, in some counties, they do already. Nobody wants bad teachers to be forced out better than good teachers. But taking away job security, linking pay to test scores and forcing kids to take more tests is going to hurt the good teachers as least as much as the bad.
Opponents of the bill accuse its sponsors of disliking teachers and trying to tear down public education. Sen. John Thrasher, sponsor the Senate bill on teacher tenure and testing, who was recently installed as chairman of Florida’s Republican Party with the help of former governor Jeb Bush, denied this. Incidentally, he didn't ask any educators for their input on the reform.
During a recent debate on the Senate floor, Thrasher pointed to his daughter who was sitting in the gallery. She’s a former teacher, according to this piece from WUSF, Tampa Bay’s public broadcasting station.
“She’s told me she’s not fearful of this bill. Because she thinks that when this bill passes, it’s gonna inspire teachers to get into the classroom, and do a better job than they’ve been doing, even now,” Thrasher said.
Of course she's not fearful. She doesn’t teach anymore.
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| April 9, 2010; 9:42 AM ET
Tags: Charlie Crist, Florida, Florida governor, Florida teachers, Gov Crist, House bill 7189, NCLB, Senate Bill 6, jeb bush, protester faints, school reform, teacher pay, teacher tenure bill, teachers and protest
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