Back to drawing board with teacher evaluations

Nineteen months after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law overhauling how Florida public school teachers would be evaluated, its flaws are more obvious than ever. School districts' good-faith efforts to adhere to the law have forced them to rely on out-of-context data and dubious methodology that is further demoralizing the very employees whose motivation is needed to improve public schools. The Legislature needs to go back to the drawing board and fix this scheme not only in fairness to hardworking teachers, but also for students and their families. Accountability works only if the measurement tools are valid. The goal of the state's new teacher evaluation process -- passed as part of Senate Bill 736 by the 2011 Legislature -- is to try to assess a teacher's impact on students' learning versus other factors. In theory, it would be a more sophisticated and fair measurement than just scoring students' performance on a standardized test, and it would illuminate which faculty are superior at helping students learn. But from the start, critics have warned that attaining such measurements of teacher effectiveness weren't possible in the short time frame Florida lawmakers demanded. The law anticipated using students' performance on end-of-course subject exams to inform 50 percent of each teacher's evaluation. But such exams don't exist yet for the vast majority of classes students take. And the Legislature's backup plan, to rely on FCAT results, is just one more misappropriation of that test. As the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month, the result of such shortsightedness is now obvious after several counties, including Pinellas, used the plan for 2011-12 evaluations. Teachers who taught in grades or subjects that do not have FCAT tests ended up with evaluations based on their students' FCAT reading tests. That means kindergarten teachers' evaluations were based on how students performed years later on the FCAT reading test. It means students' scores on a reading test impacted the evaluations of physical education, Spanish and art teachers, and so on. In other words, in the rush to deliver accountability, lawmakers created a farce. Many teachers, already fatigued from a half-decade of stagnant pay and increasing criticism from Tallahassee, are receiving scores that are all but meaningless. The only upside, for now, is that the scores don't impact teacher pay — yet. Starting in 2014-15, the Legislature has mandated that this new evaluation process dictate teacher raises and which new teachers are retained. But it is far from certain whether districts, by then, will have had the resources and time to collect the battery of valid, end-of-course exams they will need to improve this process. The state Board of Education -- which has been ordered by an administrative judge to rewrite the rules implementing the new evaluation process due to a technicality -- should take this opportunity to push lawmakers to reconsider and devise a better plan. At the very least, the Legislature needs to reset the clock and dedicate the resources to develop meaningful measurements, not arbitrary ones. The broad goal of Senate Bill 736 remains valid: Florida should be evaluating and rewarding teachers more on their students' performance than on their seniority. But school districts can only do that fairly with accurate and transparent measurement tools. Until then, this exercise is little more than political posturing that undermines teacher morale and, even more importantly, the education of Florida's children.


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Scott’s education plan asks Floridians to have short memories

Gov. Rick Scott last week announced a new education plan, “College & Career FIRST.” The obligatory strained acronym stands for “Focusing Investments on Results for Students and Teachers.” The plan calls on the Legislature to spend more on education. It fudges; the governor commits only to current spending levels, but seeks more “investment” if the economy improves. Scott’s plan to protect education spending seeks to improve on what the last governor did when he cut education spending. That governor was…Rick Scott. In his first year, Scott cut $1.3 billion from education. In his new proposal, Scott praises himself for securing in the succeeding year “a billion dollars more in education funding.” As any student who can pass the math FCAT knows, that still leaves education funding in the hole during his time in office, even as the number of students increased. Scott does not note that his “billion dollars more” did not prevent universities from taking a $300 million hit this year. The governor promises that the state no longer will impose tests and assessments before it is fair to do so: “We heard from many teachers during our education listening tour that testing changes come down so often that they hardly have time to implement one year’s changes before they receive another round.” That would be a huge improvement over the last governor to mandate massive testing and evaluations before those tools were ready. That governor was … Rick Scott, whose “Student Success Act” decreed that teachers must be fired for failing an evaluation that still is being jury-rigged. Scott rolled out his plan with gushing testimonials from his captive state Board of Education, business types who swoon over talk of “choice” and “competition” and even from education leaders who correctly sense that it is better to play nice as long as possible. And Scott’s rhetoric is pretty good. Nobody objects to more money, valid tests, higher Common Core Standards and true two-way communication between educators and state education bureaucrats. But the success Scott touts is prospective. In the utopia his plan will engender, all public schools will enjoy the flexibility of mold-busting charter schools. Remember when the FCAT was going to initiate a golden age? Now Scott brags that the FCAT is going away. Remember when No Child Left Behind was going to have every student on grade level by 2014? Now Florida has an exemption from the law, and the same Board of Education praising Scott is in trouble for proposing race-based proficiency goals that assume minorities will lag. The few specifics in Scott’s plan promise a relative pittance for teacher training and supplies. Charter schools would get unlimited enrollment. So the tilt against traditional public schools continues. The plan plays more like a re-election document than education innovation. The innovation is political: Scott is running against … Scott. (Andy Ford quoted)


Lawmakers need to tighten loopholes for charter schools

No more excuses. No more self-serving propaganda. If Florida Department of Education officials and lawmakers fail to slow expansion and tighten loopholes in charter school regulations, they should all be dismissed as hypocrites or fools. That's not hyperbole, and it's not intended to shock. The simple truth is the current standards and policies have been exposed as a joke, and can no longer be ignored. Case in point: A charter high school in Orlando was recently closed due to poor performance. The principal, who was drawing a salary of $305,000, was handed a parting gift of more than $519,000 in taxpayer money, according to an Orlando Sentinel report. The principal's overall pay in the last year was more than double the school's entire education budget. Under charter school laws, this was perfectly legal. Case in point: A struggling charter in Manatee County recently ran a newspaper ad offering a free Nintendo handheld game system to any student who enrolled by a certain date. This was a bargain since the Nintendo was worth $150 and the school would reap roughly $6,000 in taxpayer funding for every public school student it could entice before the state did a final head count. This is also perfectly legal. Case in point: A charter school in Dunedin operated for more than two years and siphoned more $1.6 million in public funds while failing to provide basic class supplies and posting the worst standardized test scores in Pinellas County. Turning a profit, however, was perfectly legal. The state's response? Let's make an unscientific goal of doubling charters right away. Legislators have promoted charters with reckless zeal and have shown zero willingness to regulate them. They allocated $55 million for new construction of charter schools last year and not one penny for public schools.


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Players change in school-choice fight – but not the objective

Florida education interest-groups are waging a multi-front fight this fall over traditional public-school alternatives like charters and voucher programs. Gov. Rick Scott's 2013 "college and career first" education agenda unveiled last week adds a few new bells and whistles to Republican classroom goals, but also reiterates what's been an objective since Jeb Bush's administration: create more competition, and hope the quasi-market incentives prompt poorer-performing schools to shape up. A closer look at this fall's battles show that, in the decade-long conflict between unions and reformers, the players may change but not the game. A battle over electing more school-choice friendly lawmakers played out in the primaries – with mixed results. Now, the general election is all about keeping GOP majorities big enough to push through their agenda without much Democratic interference. Online learning firms, charters and for-profit colleges may wind up topping $2 million in total political giving.  Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA has doled out $207,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and a couple of Democratic primary losers who were charter supporters. The Florida Federation for Children, an ad-buying group run by the founder of Florida's corporate tax-credit scholarship program, has amassed more than $1.2 million – some of it from charter companies, but a lot from individuals who support the school-choice cause. The group "does have a small number of donors that operate charter schools. However, most of our donors are individuals … who do not operate schools of any kind," said Tampa businessman John Kirtley, who has put $150,000 into the fund this year. "They stand to gain nothing if FFC succeeds in its mission. They only wish to see better educational outcomes for low-income children." Kirtley's organizations in the past have routinely poured $1 million or more into Florida statewide and legislative races. And overall, "school-choice" giving isn't dramatically higher than in past elections. As usual, the Florida Education Association is pushing back. The teachers' union has raised $2.5 million alone in its Public Education Defense Fund to defeat Amendment 8, which it argues would open the door for more religious groups to take over public schools. It also has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Democratic candidates.,0,3446803.column


Florida teachers union called weak in new study
Florida's teachers union is among the weakest in the nation, working with limited resources and a "feeble reputation," according to a new national study released today. The Florida Education Association, however, called the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute "laughable" and of little value. "It's a right-wing think tank, and you have to question, what's the political game?" said Andy Ford, the association president. The institute, headquartered in Washington, is conservative-leaning and focused on overhauling education. It believes "too many American children receive an inferior education," particularly those from low-income families. It blames the problem, in part, on school districts "too often held hostage by adult interest groups, including but not limited to teacher unions," according to its website. The study ranked Florida's union 50th out of teachers unions in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. Only Arizona's union was rated weaker. Hawaii had the strongest teachers union in the country, the study said. Other strong unions were in the West and Northeast, while other weak ones were also in the South. The Florida union ranked low in part because the state, with its right-to-work law, limits union power. That means Florida's has lower membership and more-meager financial resources than many other unions. The Florida Education Association has about 56 percent of the state's teachers as members. In Hawaii, nearly 97 percent of teachers are union members. Florida's union also is considered weak because the state's Republican leadership has adopted laws -- such as a new one on teacher merit pay -- that run counter to what the association thinks is best. But the study noted that Florida's union has turned to the courts when it could not persuade lawmakers, and has had some success in those proceedings. Its lawsuit against the state for requiring teachers to contribute to their pensions was upheld by a district court, for example, though the Florida Supreme Court will make the final call. In another pending case, it has also sued the state over a new merit-pay law, which the union calls unconstitutional. In 2006, the association and other groups won their lawsuit against the state's first school-voucher program, which then ceased to operate. Ford said he doubts the association would get so much criticism if key state leaders viewed it as being as weak as the study found. If the union is irrelevant, he said, "why are we being beaten up so badly?",0,569153.story


Panel seeks stronger BOG

A stronger, more powerful Board of Governors would oversee Florida’s public universities if the governor and Legislature embrace recommendations coming from a task force studying higher education reform. The panel, assembled in May shortly after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have dramatically altered Florida’s university system -- pre-eminent universities legislation -- is scheduled to have its final two meetings today and Tuesday, with a Nov. 15 deadline for presenting recommendations to the governor. Task force members agreed last week that the BOG -- and not the Legislature -- would determine which of the state’s 12 public universities would have pre-eminent status, earning the right to increase tuition beyond the 15-percent maximum allowed by statute. Rep. Bill Proctor, chair of the House Higher Education Committee last session and chancellor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, said it is critical that the BOG be involved in individual university budgets and that it likewise have a role in presidential searches and hires. Dean Colson, a Miami attorney who chairs the Board of Governors, said he welcomes the opportunity for BOG to have a greater presence. “I think the system has to have that. I think it’s what the voters thought they were getting when they passed the constitutional amendment (creating BOG to replace the Board of Regents) in 2003,” Colson said. “I have complete confidence in our board’s ability to do this. You need a strong board to govern the system.”


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