Saturday, February 13, 2010

Open letter to Florida PIRG

To Florida Public Interest Research Group:

I am a former journalist who often benefited from the accuracy of your organization. I retired and became a teacher.

I believe education warrants Florida PIRG's attention. Florida's official school-reform agenda, based on heavy use of standardized testing, has yet to be thoroughly vetted for its effectiveness. Also troubling is the general lack of information about private interests receiving public money meant for school children.

Florida did receive kudos from one study, but the source, Education Week, appeared less than neutral and the praise itself wasn't for learning, but for collecting data. The public needs a credible, neutral expert to find out if this decade of reform based on more and more testing is actually producing results.

WHO GETS WHAT EXACTLY?

I recently read in The Orlando Sentinel that Florida's Memo of Understanding for the Race to the Top grant asks for half of the grant to remain in Tallahassee. Of that half, about 80 percent is set aside for private contracts.

So if these percentages hold up, and Florida gets the $1 billion it seeks, $400 million would go for private contracts. Maybe it's fair to ask if that money should instead be sent into classrooms, to benefit students. What happens if we keep a fund of that size in the hands of state officials, to be awarded to private interests? Could we be inviting cronyism, or even corruption?

As testing increases, test-related demands on schools increase and parents grow concerned about budget cuts. See Fund Education Now.

Many have expressed concerns that Florida's blend of over-testing and budget cuts narrowed the curriculum. Schools have been forced to focus on testing, downplaying or eliminating the dramatic arts, languages, music, and electives that build knowledge for college.

As a taxpayer who believes accountability starts at the top, I think education funding and school statistics could benefit from careful attention by Florida PIRG. Here are a few questions, for example, that you could answer in depth, with your customary precision and politically neutral context:

1. Where does school money really come from and where does it really go?
2. How does that compare to states with high graduation rates and high SAT scores?
(note: Some tests do matter. SAT helps young folks get into college. Why not focus on that goal?)
3. How much does Florida spend on testing?
(note: The state appears to delete from its report any costs associated with teaching time and test administration at the school level. Schools lose weeks to practice testing, testing, retesting, make-up testing, etc. School administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers lose time needed for academics.)
4. Who gets the money Florida spends on test development and test preparation?
5. Who benefits most from new laws and rules that force students to take more and more bubble tests? Where did the idea for these laws originate?
6. What is the real educational value of standardized testing, and is Florida following best practices? Where's the role model and how does Florida stack up?
7. What hard education research exists to justify Florida's testing program?

TESTING DOES NOT EQUAL TEACHING

Teachers and school principals have been passive scapegoats for years now. The misuse of education data by sloganeering state leaders creates false impressions about the quality of teachers and principals, and this is especially painful and unfair when the mainstream media just parrots the slogans, without bothering to check into real education problems that exist at the state level.

This scapegoating of teachers and principals flows from the widely accepted but grossly oversimplified premise that standardized test scores are the accurate way to assess performance of teachers and principals. As Orwell tried to teach us, two plus two does not equal five - unless you're under the spell of institutionalized disinformation.

Do all patients follow doctor's orders and get better? Do all clients divulge all relevant information to their attorneys? Of course not.

Patients and clients vary, even as mature, thoughtful adults. Imagine then how students vary. They vary by motivation, by home life, by ability levels at various growth stages, by parental support, by reading resources at home, by nutrition, health, emotional well-being, and other factors beyond the school's control. Poverty, for instance, makes a huge difference.

Pretending students are a statistically uniform sample, as Florida does, defies logic. Worse, it encourages lawmakers to continue avoiding responsibility for the socio-economic conditions they helped create by using laws to constantly punish the poor while lavishing benefits on corporations that pull money out of the state. Perhaps somebody was asleep in economics 101?

STUDENTS ARE HUMAN BEINGS, NOT TEST SCORES

Parents, teachers and principals across the country want more for their students than a test score. They want students to graduate and lead successful, self-sufficient, productive lives. They want students to be smart consumers, informed voters, clear thinkers, and life-long learners. They want to change schools for the better, to create systems of learning that make sense in the world today.

And it's not as if education lacks visionaries who know how to make this change. One of the brightest bulbs, Marion Brady, says "If education policymakers in Tallahassee and Washington knew what they were doing, instead of demanding national standards and tests keyed to a curriculum generated in an era long past and no longer relevant, they’d be calling for an emergency national conference to rethink what’s being taught, and why."

What's being taught, and why. These are the real challenges facing public education, and they can't be measured by filling in bubbles on a scoresheet, or blaming principals and teachers because poor students can't quickly and easily overcome the massive obstacles society places in their path.

The public deserves some context to go along with their education statistics. Some accuracy, and some apples-to-apples comparisons about the way school dollars get raised and spent in Florida. Florida PIRG is uniquely equipped to provide this important service.

I would like to see an ongoing report called SCHOOL WATCH, by Florida PIRG. I would read that regularly and I bet many attentive parents, teachers, and school leaders would read it, too.

Let facts cut through the spin. An ongoing watchdog report on school funds and education statistics would help keep policy-makers straight. Pressure from an informed public would help ensure school money gets spent wisely and well.

Education ranks as one of the critical public issues of the day, just as important as health care, transportation, pollution, and clean politics. Florida PIRG, please consider adding education to your package of issues. Sink your teeth in with characteristic power and precision.

Education needs a watchdog.

Sincerely,
Mike Archer

1 comment:

  1. Passive scapegoats is an appropriate description. How do you speak out when your job is at stake? The minute a principal opens his or her mouth about the lack of fairness of the entire system of accountability, they are shipped off to Timbuktu as an AP or worse...a teacher! The system has a fail-safe button built in!

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