Today's news -- March 21, 2012


“In fact, fixing or finessing the classroom is a major focus of educational psychology, and there’s a lot of research into new teaching techniques. The same teacher can get radically different results by using different teaching techniques. This suggests that while we are learning what works and what doesn’t, we should be assessing teaching techniques, not the teachers trying them out. Turning to a success story, medicine made enormous progress during the last two centuries not by assessing doctors, but by assessing techniques and therapies. Does bleeding cure a fever? Does penicillin cure pneumonia? Does laetrile cure cancer? Does aspirin reduce inflammation? Doctors – not politicians and pundits, but doctors and allied scientists – used statistical analysis to determine what worked and what didn’t. And now almost all children live to adulthood, pneumonia is largely segregated to the very old, and lack of a cure for an infectious disease is a scandal and not a fact of life. Focusing on teachers rather than the techniques they use has poisoned the debate and made assessment itself the issue. Recent studies suggest that teacher reward-punishment systems based on frequent assessments are not very successful in raising scores. Many solutions that have little to do with the debate – like abolishing unions or privatizing schools – have only convinced many educators that this isn’t about education at all, which only undermines the credibility of assessment as a tool. If we are going to make American classrooms work, we must focus on what teachers do, and how to improve what they do. And that is what the colleges of education are doing.”

-- Gregory McColm, associate professor of mathematics and statistics at USF.






Battle over Florida charter schools could lead to bargain

Two controversial, failed bills that would have allowed Florida charter schools to grab a good chunk of public school construction money and, potentially, some public schools themselves likely will re-emerge next year. Perennial points of contention -- how much money charters should get and whether they should be held to the same standards as traditional public schools -- were back in 2012, and the disagreements led to the defeat of legislation backed by two First Coast lawmakers. Dialogue this year got everyone on the same page, according to former Education Commissioner Jim Horne. He said everyone now agrees charters are public schools and deserve some public funding -- they just differ on how much. Maybe, Horne said, it was a case of trying to get too much, too soon. “I’ll be the first to admit that we wanted to go from the starting gun to the finish line,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a very complicated subject it takes a little bit more time to get there.” A House-Senate pitch that came from Northeast Florida legislators would have required 40 school districts to give charters about $140 million from $1.9 billion used for building and repairs. That translates to about $3.4 million for Duval and St. Johns’ 21 charter schools serving elementary through high school students. Existing law allows it, but most districts don’t do it. It failed this year. And getting there next year will either mean changes in the way the bill is written or how this particular pot is spent, according to Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association. Charter school advocates wanted a proportional piece of the pie based on how many students are enrolled. But that’s not the way the system works, Melton said. “The state dollars are not distributed so much on the number of students being served,” Melton said. “They’re more likely based on the needs of the facility and the school district.” School districts put together need-based, five-year construction plans, Melton said. To get the money, charter schools would have to submit their needs to their local districts. Right now that’s not a state requirement, so for the most part the charters don’t get any. Colleen Wood, who leads the nonprofit public school advocacy group Save Duval Schools, said she could support sharing the locally raised construction money, but only with more transparency from charters. “If you want equal funding, then you have to provide equal accountability,” Wood said. “If charter schools were willing to work with their districts in becoming part of their five-year plan, I think that would be something we’d be willing to look at.” Save Duval Schools supports nonprofit charters, Wood said, but not those run by for-profit companies. She would not want to see private businesses getting public construction money.


Schools brace for expansion in remedial classes

Public schools across Florida may soon have to open their classrooms to an onslaught of new students in need of remedial courses. That's because the state will be using the toughest-ever FCAT grading scale to determine if students are at grade level in reading, math and other subjects. While the tougher scale is aimed at raising the academic bar and leveling the scoring system for the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the results likely will force thousands of students -- many of whom probably never had to worry about failing the test -- to accompany the scores of kids already taking remedial classes. School districts, meanwhile, are preparing to make some important changes to accommodate those suddenly in need of remedial help when FCAT results are released in June -- from spending more money on teachers and supplies, to eliminating elective courses. "You have to assume that you'll need more materials and supplies and possibly personnel," said Orange County Schools Superintendent Ron Blocker. In December, the State Board of Education approved changes to the FCAT scoring system that will affect students' math and reading exams. Students in grade 3-10 take the standardized test every year in math, reading, writing and science, which can determine in some cases whether a student moves on to the next grade, or graduates. Orange County estimates that 2,100 third graders alone could be at risk of falling short of the higher standard in reading alone. It's not clear at this point how many extra teachers or services might be necessary, but many school districts are already preparing. A continuing shortage of money, combined with an increasingly busy school day, could also mean some schools will be forced to eliminate some electives because so many students will be needing to take remedial classes instead. News of the changes comes as a shock to many parents, many of whom are furious and believe their kids are already under enough pressure from the FCAT. "It's probably too much to put on the kids and the teachers and the whole school system," said Sherri Ezell, a Tavares mother who has three children in Lake County Schools. "Everybody's going to be a big ball of stress."


Lee school district needs better teacher retention, superintendent says (TALC mentioned)


Pasco rejects four-day school week


Sarasota school cuts likely to hit where they hurt worst


Survey: Teachers place little value on standardized tests

Most teachers do not believe standardized tests have significant value as measures of student performance, according to a new report published jointly by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report, based on a survey of more than 10,000 public school teachers, finds that only 28 percent of educators see state-required standardized tests as an essential or very important gauge of student achievement. In addition, only 26 percent of teachers say standardized tests are an accurate reflection of what students know. One potential explanation for those low marks lies in another of the survey's findings -- that is, only 45 percent of teachers think their students take standardized tests seriously or perform to the best of their ability on them. Overall, according to the report, teachers see ongoing formative assessments, class participation, and performance on class assignments as much more important measures of student learning. At the same time, most teachers (85 percent) agree that their students' growth over the course of the year should contribute significantly to evaluations of their own performance. Teacher-effectiveness authority Charlotte Danielson said that "not a single one of the 21st-century skills can be assessed on a multiple-choice test." She said that the appeal of standardized test scores is that they "give you a number" but that teaching is too complex to be captured in that way.


AFT raises concerns about new report on education (Randi Weingarten quoted)


Scott urged to reject school prayer bill


FAU student threatens to kill professor and classmates


Ordinary citizens fuel democracy


Tense debate over Florida Senate map yields no agreement

The day began with the Senate redistricting chairman offering bagels and cream cheese to his colleagues, but the magnanimous gesture was short-lived as Republicans intensely feuded over how to draw maps for the next decade. After nine hours of grueling debate Tuesday, the Republican-dominated Senate Reapportionment Committee could not agree on anything. Committee chairman Don Gaetz decided to reconvene the committee again today for six more hours. "This happens once every 10 years,'' said Gaetz icily at the end of the meeting, his pleasant demeanor tested by the long debate. "I don't consider it angst. I consider it a thoughtful, deliberative process." The map proposed on Saturday by Gaetz, R-Niceville, remained the only proposal in play, despite attempts by a handful of senators to reconfigure it to shift Hispanic districts in Miami or Republican districts in Central Florida. Gaetz's plan would create 23 solid Republican districts, hand over three more districts to Democrats, bringing their total to 15, and create at least two competitive seats. Alternative maps proposed by Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, were withdrawn, only to have their sponsors suggest they would bring them up again Thursday when Gaetz's map comes up for a floor vote. Unlike the last round, this is the Senate's last shot to design a map that complies with the new anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters and fixes objections outlined by the Florida Supreme Court. The court rejected the Senate map, but approved the House map. If the Senate plan doesn't get court approval this time, the court itself will draw the Senate map.


Thrasher says Gardiner now has his full support, 2014 Senate president fight is over


Scott declares victory. Did you win too?


Florida’s economic development hoax


Feds: Tax fraud an epidemic in Florida and spreading nationwide


New property tax appeals process could surprise homeowners


Scott tells agencies to hold off on drug tests until lawsuit ruling


Cabinet to look into salaries of agency heads


Sebelius touts health care reform benefits for women during appearance in Miami


ACLU to hold “Know Your Rights” forum focused on Republican convention


House GOP lays down marker with new budget plan (Randi Weingarten quoted)


The careless House budget


Paul Ryan, helping the poor by hurting them


Inequality undermines democracy

Americans have never been too worried about the income gap. The gap between the rich and the rest has been much wider in the United States than in other developed nations for decades. Still, polls show we are much less concerned about it than people in those other nations are. Policymakers haven’t cared much either. The United States does less than other rich countries to transfer income from the affluent to the less fortunate. Even as the income gap has grown enormously over the last 30 years, government has done little to curb the trend. Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.” There are signs that the political strategy has traction. Inequality isn’t quite the top priority of voters: only 17 percent of Americans think it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey last November. That is about half the share that said reigniting economic growth was crucial. But a slightly different question indicates views have changed: 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998. Americans have been less willing to take from the rich and give to the poor in part because of a belief that each of us has a decent shot at prosperity. In 1952, 87 percent of Americans thought there was plenty of opportunity for progress; only 8 percent disagreed. As income inequality has grown, though, many have changed their minds.


“Right to Work” bills face uncertain future in an election year

For the first time in more than three decades, Minnesota Republicans are basking in majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, so on matters that need no signature from the Democratic governor, they can do as they please. Priority No. 1, to some: put a measure on the ballot that would allow workers to avoid paying fees to unions they choose not to join. Critics view the proposed measure, which would amend the state Constitution, as a plain attack on unions. And yet, on a recent afternoon, Sen. Dave Thompson said he had grown doubtful that the “right to work” amendment he hoped to put before voters this fall -- a proposition requiring no approval by the governor -- would survive a vote of his fellow Republican legislators, or even find its way out of Republican-controlled committees. “I’ve been told that no hearing has been scheduled and that a lot of people are concerned, so I guess this isn’t going to move anywhere,” Thompson said after the proposal drew hundreds of protesting union supporters to the halls of the Legislature, and after an advertising campaign critical of the idea began airing around Minnesota. “It’s not about the policy. There is a tremendous fear of the political ramifications -- it boils down to that, nothing more or less,” he said. After costly, bruising political showdowns with union forces last year in Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans in some state legislatures are facing a tugging match within their party -- between passionate conservative members like Thompson, a freshman who was among hundreds of legislators swept into statehouses in 2010 who want to push forward, and a more moderate bloc not sure it is wise to take on labor so directly now. The dueling pressure comes at a key moment in an election year -- not only for the presidency, but for more than 5,900 state legislative seats around the nation -- with Republican leaders eager to keep newfound legislative majorities in capitals like this one. The much-publicized union battles last year, which led to a recall campaign against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and to the repeal of a bill limiting collective bargaining backed by Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, seemed likely to quiet such efforts. But some Republicans have pushed ahead, to the discomfort, in some cases, of their fellow Republicans.


The power of recalls in Wisconsin

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