Sunday, March 6, 2011

Say no to the Florida education bills

The Florida Legislature is trying to make schools better because, compared to schools around the world, our schools lag behind.
You heard about this. 
We need more testing, says the Florida legislature. And we need to use test scores to evaluate teachers and principals.
Sounds reasonable. Don't you think?
Let’s see.
When politicians and school critics say our schools lag behind, they’re talking about our PISA score. PISA is The Programme for International Student Assessment. Test scores from 5-10 thousand students in participating countries are compared.
When PISA scores were released, education "reformers” raised an alarm  because it appeared that the US lagged behind other countries.
Of course it appeared that way. They were misreading the data, comparing our poorest students to their middle. When you look at the same data and compare apples to apples, guess who is No. 1 on the PISA?
The United States.  We are ahead of Finland, Netherlands, Japan – all of them.
So if our schools are not lagging behind, but actually leading the world, let’s revisit the motive for the Florida Legislature’s effort to “reform” schools.
The “reform” bills under way in the House and Senate require more high-stakes tests to cover all those subjects not covered by FCAT.
Who develops these tests? How will they be validated? How will they be administered? How will they be graded? 
If you are concerned about taxes, you might want to turn the radar on.
Wait. How much could one little test cost?
In the case of FCAT, about $40 million per year since 2002.
And now they want to add more testing at a time when the Gov. is talking about slashing school funds by $3 billion?
The Florida Legislature is rushing these “reform” bills through because backers don’t want anyone to know the impact.
These bills are basically welfare for test companies. Who pays? Florida’s regressive tax structure means the tax burden for these extra costs will fall heaviest on the poor and middle class. 
Let me give you just one example of how that $40 million gets wasted every year.
How much could it cost to oversee children taking a test? How complicated could that be? Don’t you just tell the kids to pick up a pencil and get started? Then make sure nobody cheats?
That’s what teachers used to do. Not any more.
Recently for FCAT Writes we followed a 114-page instruction manual with a color cover, graphic illustrations of how to prepare the test for mailing (including a diagram that explains how to pack the box), CYA language that covers every possible problem imaginable on test day, and a step-by-step script that tells the students how to write their names and record special codes in just the right places. A long list of instructions merely repeat the obvious, such as when to start, when to stop, and when 10 minutes are left.
The manual even has tear-out pages that announce what everybody already knows - we are taking FCAT today. This manual is so poorly designed and hard to understand that we had to meet twice just to untangle it.
These test instructions could have been better handled in a 1-page email, free. Teachers could have put up their own signs. Teachers could have simply handed out the test, told the kids when to start, and when to stop. It’s just not that difficult to give a test. We do it all the time and don’t spend a dime.
Instead taxpayers paid for this 114-page boondoggle to be sent to every teacher in the state who gave the FCAT. I’d love to know how much that cost and where our tax money ended up. Maybe you can tell me. The only publication ID on the booklet was FL00002520 and 12345ABCDE.
Taxpayers, are you beginning to get the picture? $40 million a year? Really?
Now, for people who care about the impact of these bills on students, please turn your radar on.
Backers of these bills don’t want parents to know how learning time will become testing time, adding days when children are forced to take even more tests.
The “reformers” don’t seem to care that these tests are abusive to students.
Go see for yourself. Check out the plastic buckets in elementary school on  test day. Listen to third-graders sobbing in fear the night before the test. Talk to the mom of a successful third grader who barely missed passing and now can’t be with her classmates anymore. Talk to a high school senior with passing grades and a solid work ethic who now can’t get a high school diploma.
But don’t these tests put healthy pressure on students to study harder and learn more?
Hardly. Take FCAT Writes, for instance. It is academically unsound, based on a false premise. It tells students to write persuasive or expository essays on the fly. In the world after school, these types of essays are normally written after careful research, so they can be founded on solid reasoning. With FCAT Writes there is no research. The kids have to pull the evidence out of …. the air. They do. The writing shows it. 
It’s fair to ask if the main impact of this test hasn’t been to train students to invent or exaggerate their evidence. I wrote and edited persuasive essays for most of my working life. When I came to understand the pernicious nature of FCAT Writes, my heart sank. What a disservice to students – testing them on how well they shoot bunk. Once students pass FCAT Writes, they must learn how to write for college, which means unlearning the FCAT method for handling evidence.
This is where we’re going in Florida. We’re not only harming children and schools, we’re wasting millions of tax dollars to do it.
Despite all this, the Florida Legislature plans to forcefeed students with even more high-stress testing. Every dollar wasted on this unsound practice is a dollar that should be going for books, science labs, writing labs, field trips, fine arts, decent technology, and courses students need to succeed in life, such as Internet Research and Information Literacy – courses we are still not offering because schools have been forced to become test-prep centers.
Here’s another malicious component of this bill. It is based on a known falsehood – that these high-stress tests are a good way to evaluate teachers and principals.
Education scientists are howling in protest about this. Why? Because when you use tests to judge teachers and principals, the random error rates render the conclusions useless. Research tells us there are many outside factors and conditions that influence test scores – poverty chief among them. But the backers of these bills don’t seem to care what the research says. Their goal is to generate revenue for test companies.
Politicians have no intention of airing the truth about what they call “teacher tenure,” either. They constantly complain about teachers having tenure similar to that of college professors, but teachers have nothing like it. They merely have an ongoing contract that gives them a chance to fix a performance problem before they get fired - not that different than the job protection system used by ethical companies. 
But even a little job protection is too much, says this bill. In the future, even the most skilled and experienced teachers will work from year to year, in a kind of perpetual probation. Excellent teachers can be fired on a whim. Excellent teachers can be fired using test scores that they had little or nothing to do with.  
Which leads us to the next manipulative lie from Tallahassee. It goes like this: We can’t get rid of a bad teacher and the proof is that so few teachers get fired.
Nonsense. Any teacher can be fired. All you have to do is first give that teacher a fair chance to do better.
Why then don’t teachers get fired more often? Same reason hospital doctors, company lawyers, military officers, scientific researchers, and other professional workers don’t get fired that often. If they see that things are not working out, they leave on their own.
But does anybody actually do that?  You bet they do, and that’s something else politicians don’t want you to know.
If you do it right, teaching is a rough job. The pressure can crush your spirit. The hours exhaust your health. Weekends get lost grading papers. Nights can be sleepless with worry. Even summer – the big perk everybody raves about – often gets filled up with jobs and training. Not everyone is cut out for this kind of stress.
That’s right, half. 
Who’s left? Those who can handle it. Those who can endure the working conditions.
What happens to those who don't understand the job, or those who were just looking for a safe ride and found themselves on a roller coaster?
Most of them are among the 50 percent who leave. Do a few boneheads slip by? Sure, the same way they do in any profession. That’s why existing rules provide ways for them to be removed.
But under this new plan, even the best teachers can be fired on a whim, or fired by the state-ordered misuse of data. This means taxpayers will fund another welfare program - new business for lawyers who handle wrongful termination cases.
Do we really want to throw the local school board attorney into a pit with Morgan and Morgan and expect the taxpayer to foot the bill? Don’t think so.
Most business execs are smart enough not to fire people on a whim. They understand that wrongful termination lawsuits not only waste time and money, but can cripple a company’s reputation with the very people they want most to hire. It’s hard enough to get the best teachers from other states to come to Florida now. Just wait. They will post warning signs on the state line.
Given the hostile workplace these new bills create, not only will legal hassles result, but teachers, already overstressed, will grow more cynical. They will see themselves as free agents with little loyalty to their school, their community, or the families they serve. If teachers know they could get fired for any cooked-up excuse, fewer of them will settle into a community. Fewer will buy houses. And more of them will keep looking for a more secure job somewhere else.
More teachers will teach to the test because that will be the only thing that matters in Florida anymore, and that will be the only way to get paid. More teachers will become competitive rather than collaborative, keeping their best ideas to themselves because they don’t want the teacher down the hall getting higher scores.
And if teachers feel mistreated, they won’t vent their frustrations in a heart-to-heart chat with the union rep who quietly gets them back on track. Instead, they will hire a sharp attorney who knows how to push up the settlement.
The smarter these teachers are, the better they are, the faster they will get out of here to someplace that offers normal job protection.
Under these education bills, taxpayers will pay for more and more testing. Those wasted dollars will end up feeding state contracts and CEO bonus checks.
Where will students end up? They will learn that success in school means learning how to take bubble tests. They will learn that critical thinking and solving real problems don’t matter anymore. Schooled under the Florida Legislature, every step of their academic lives micromanaged by the state, they will be lost when they hit the world.
Legislators need to hear from you right away. Please tell them to save tax dollars, guard students, and respect the teaching profession. 
Say no to the education bills. 


  1. I am a high school student and I strongly agree with this. High school specifically should involve more real world prep and less testing. Take the millions of dollars spent on standardized tests and use them to improve the classroom, such as buying equipment for a physics or tech class. Get the problem of education at its source and help the teachers give a more effective learning experience rather than scrutinizing them. After all, there's only so much they can do if a student doesn't want to do his or her part.

  2. If what you say is true about the way the PSIA were evaluated Mike, why haven't I read this anywhere but here? I would think this would be manna from heaven for all the liberal newspapers, not to mention the liberal national TV networks. On the other hand I have read many times that out of the top 57 industrial nations the U.S. comes in 37th in international testing. I've even heard that at school board meetings. Could you provide your source for this issue. Thank you.

  3. Have you looked into Florida Writes and the testing company's 'quality control'? Hmmm..Why so many confidentiality agreements signed by low level employees at the testing company? As taxpayers and parents, what issues would be at stake if the citizens of our state had more transparency? Do we really know what a 3 or a 4 on Fcat Writes actually means? Does the score give any planning information to the classroom teacher? Are the scores always accurate?
    With so much dependent on these scores, shouldn't we be assured transparency and accuracy? More importantly, do we even need to spend this money to figure out which students can write? There are other less expensive and more accurate ways to produce learning data.

  4. I will always support those cause that champions the greater America.

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