Florida Education Association: Test tsunami drowns students
Florida is searching for a new education commissioner with the recent resignation of Gerard Robinson, even as the state moves ahead with reforms that will change the ways students are tested, teachers are paid and schools are held accountable. But leaders of the state's largest union for educators insist that Florida has gone test crazy and that business interests -- and a former governor -- are the power behind the throne when it comes to setting education policy. They say reforms are not considering the opinions of teachers, parents and students. Florida Education Association President Andy Ford and FEA attorney Ron Meyer talked this week with Sentinel editorial board members Mike Lafferty and Paul Owens.
Q: What is your take on why Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson resigned?
AF: Publicly, he said it was for his family. … I think it's just you're not able to do the job that you're hired [for]. The environment that's created here is one that does not allow a commissioner of education to actually lead the department. The strings are all pulled by people who are outside the department.
Q: Who's doing that?
AF: I think we have a system that's really set up so the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Jeb Bush's foundation run the show. The foundation has really been put in place to keep Jeb's legacy alive, and they've done a fairly good job trying to do that.
I don't think the commissioner gets to do what [he] actually wanted to do. Once the writing-scores problem developed, I think we knew there had to be a scapegoat and that he was the easiest one to pick on.
Q: Was there any daylight between Robinson's view of education and the views of Jeb Bush's foundation?
AF: Not that I was aware of. I think going forward we need a commissioner who's an educator, who understands Florida's culture and who is a collaborator. And I don't think we've had that in the past 12 months.
RM: They have not invited or allowed stakeholders across the board to have a meaningful dialogue. It's been a shame. To have an education program in this state that excludes large blocs of the educational community is doing a real disservice to the children.
Q: Are you more open-minded about testing than it appears on your website?
AF: We've created a system that's really based on testing and not anything else. I think we need to get away from the high-stakes testing, where you take a look at a snapshot of a couple of days and every decision that the school system makes is based on that test.
Right now those decisions are student promotion, school grades [and] teacher evaluations, and in 2014 it becomes teacher compensation. It's not the test that is the problem; it's how the test is used. We're open to a variety of ways to test student progress.
Q: If the system does move away from high-stakes testing, how else can you assess or measure the performance of teachers and schools in a way where it is a comparison between schools, between districts, between states and now, in a global economy, between countries?
AF: You can't do that now. ... Common core standards get us in the right direction … but we already have tests we could use for national comparisons. One of our criteria on the FCAT is that we haven't been able to verify whether it's actually measuring what it claims to measure.
RM: We don't oppose merit pay or accountability. We don't even oppose testing when done properly. ... Jeb Bush and the business community have always wanted to paint us like that. ... We're not going to let our employees' futures -- their very survival as professional educators -- turn on something that, one, we can't understand, and, two, the experts tell us won't work. I think there's plenty of room to improve, but it's always brought up in the context that you can't get rid of a nonperforming teacher, and that is just simply not true. If there's an inept teacher in a school building, then there's an incompetent principal not doing his or her job, because it's not hard to fire a tenured teacher for performance. ... The problem is nobody likes to fire people.
Scott talks up new testing system in video; teachers unimpressed
Florida public school students are heading back to class this week and with the new school year they will discover a new comprehensive testing system. In a video released by the Republican Party of Florida on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott promises parents a “better measurement of our children’s progress.” Florida is in the midst of transitioning from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to a testing system adopted by 44 other states. The union representing teachers and other school employees is not impressed by the Scott video. A spokesman said it looked like a public-relations spot designed to calm a backlash generated by a high-stakes comprehensive testing system. “It’s just not a good way to judge your public school system, your teachers or your students,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. In Florida there is a lot riding on how well children perform on standardized tests. Schools reap financial rewards when students perform well and face sanctions when they don’t. Teacher evaluations and salaries hinge on whether their students show progress. Student promotion depends on test scores. A grading snafu this spring and summer generated intense criticism from parents, teachers and administrators. When fourth-graders' writing scores dropped from an 87 percent passing level to 27 percent, the state lowered the passing grade. There were problems with FCAT tests for other subjects as well. Then after dropping the letter grade for more than 900 schools, the state announced it miscalculated school grades in 40 of the 67 school districts. Scott, in the video, says he's heard the complaints parents have about testing. “We got to get away from teaching to the test, and we got to have a testing program that we believe in, that is going to make sure when a child finishes K through 12 that they are ready for a career that they are ready for college,” Scott said Tuesday at an impromptu meeting with reporters outside the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee. One complaint mentioned by representatives for both the FEA and the FSBA is that the tests results are being used for tasks that the test was not designed to do, such as issuing a school a letter grade. “This whole system has been put in place without teachers, administrators or parents or education experts saying this is a good way about going about it,” Pudlow said. “I don’t hear him (Scott) talking about getting into a more collaborative approach where teachers, administrators and parents buy into the system.”
“It's all about softening the governor's image and trying to tamp down the idea that testing is going to play a role in this year's election for the Legislature,” said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow.
Americans overwhelmingly support investment in schools
While our nation is divided on many issues, the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools makes clear that the American people are overwhelmingly united in trusting public school teachers, investing in our public schools, and making sure our nation's public school teachers are just as prepared for the classroom as doctors are for the operating room and lawyers are for the courtroom, AFT President Randi Weingarten says. It's also clear that the American people are more leery of our nation's infatuation with testing than the policymakers who require it, Weingarten says. "Instead of the incessant demonization, marginalization and shaming of teachers, school districts, administrators and elected officials should be partnering with teachers on ways to bolster teaching and learning," she adds. "The American people are calling out for us to work together on what actually helps children learn and grow. "The AFT is answering that call by advancing solution-driven unionism that unites those we represent and those we serve. And the AFT's Quality Education Agenda tracks the public's support for more rigorous preparation for prospective teachers, more comprehensive approaches to narrow the achievement gap, and greater community engagement to address all of the needs of all our students."
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