Sunday, August 14, 2011

School year begins under a cloud of official dishonesty

"The system will crunch FCAT data while taking into account factors outside a teacher's control, such as a student's absentee rate." 

This lie, or something like it, has been repeated in newspaper, radio, and TV stories across the state as mainstream media  reports how Florida will use FCAT scores to evaluate teachers. 

It's a lie because there is no way you can take into account the factors outside an educator's control that influence FCAT scores. There are far too many, such as health, early education, home support, naturally varying rates of growth, nutrition, family income, motivation, and on and on.

You might as well try to evaluate dentists by cavities. Whether patients brush their teeth or not, it's the dentist's fault if a cavity occurs. You might as well evaluate doctors using recoveries. Whether patients take their medicine or not, it's the doctor's fault if they don't get well. You might as well evaluate attorneys by wins and losses. Even if the client gets caught lying  on the witness stand, it's the lawyer's fault if the jury says guilty.

Teachers cannot control every aspect of a child's life that contributes to academic performance. It is a ridiculous expectation.

This is why assessment experts condemn the practice of using test scores to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools. It is a completely invalid practice that is done for purely political reasons. 

The mainstream news media in Florida has failed to explain this, so the Legislature's disinformation campaign calling for teachers to be held "accountable" for test scores goes unchallenged.

But wait. Shouldn't we hold teachers accountable?  

Yes, but using a bad evaluation system based on test scores does not get that job done. Based on any one group of students and all the factors that shape them, a good teacher's scores can look bad and a bad teacher's scores can look good.

A child can be three or four grade levels behind in reading proficiency, for instance, and the teacher is expected to bring that child up to speed in less than a year - even though the factors that contribute to the problem are completely out of the teacher's control.

The politicians who passed this idiotic law knew full well it would not work. The reason they keep making tests holy is simple and has nothing to do with learning - every test represents a juicy state contract for their friends in the test business. FCAT alone costs $40 million per year. What a racket.

So, how should we evaluate teachers? This job can be more accurately done without the costly test-score gimmick. All it takes is good faith and the standard tools of personnel management. Most school principals are decent, honest, intelligent people with very sound judgment. Let them do their jobs without political meddling. Unlike politicians, they have spent time in classrooms and know learning when they see it.

If we left the principals alone and trusted them to do their jobs, the evaluations would be more meaningful and the additional cost would be next to nothing.

Good work has been done this summer to deepen observations and improve the formal evaluations done by school principals. Unfortunately those good efforts only count for only half the evaluation - with unreliable, inaccurate test scores counting for the remaining half.

But wait. Shouldn't students be tested to see what they learned?

Yes of course. Testing itself is not the issue. Tests are very valuable if you use them intelligently for the right reasons - to diagnose students and help them learn.

Florida education law and the Race to the Top federal education grant both work against that goal. State and federal government require the use of high-stakes testing to punish students, teachers, principals, and schools by threatening job security and imposing dictatorial rule by the clipboard people, state bureaucrats more interested in checklists than scholarship.

In addition to misjudging teachers, the state-sanctioned testing frenzy creates two more serious problems.

First, cheating scandals erupt as pressure to succeed builds to a do-or-die atmosphere. Scandals center on major school districts like Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, DC where school chiefs are targeted by so-called school reformers to produce better grades to save budgets and careers. The high-stakes atmosphere creates an incentive to win at any cost, and it will soon be felt throughout Florida as new state laws take effect.

Second, instead of allowing an intelligent approach to testing, the high-stakes testing frenzy causes schools to narrow the curriculum, dropping electives students need to succeed in college and careers.

Schools cannot afford rigorous academic and career programs any more because they must add test-prep courses and activities that have now become a matter of survival.

How did all this happen? Because politicians who set education policy refuse to listen to actual educators. 
Everything they do for schools has one purpose and one purpose only - to re-route public education dollars into private hands.

Politicians want people to think they care about education when in fact they are cutting school budgets, causing layoffs, and at the same time giving massive tax breaks to the wealthy backers who fund their campaigns. 

They call these millionaires and billionaires "job creators" but the jobs rarely materialize. Mostly, the cash gifts from Tallahassee and Washington just fatten the wallets of the rich, and stimulate other forms of investment besides new jobs. They sure haven't done much for Florida's working families.  

As a grandparent, I am outraged that the leadership of my state and country would adopt such an unethical agenda. 

As a teacher, I am disgusted with state and federal politicians who pretend to care about public education while doing everything in their power to tear it down and pave the way for privatization. 

As a taxpayer, I am fed up with Florida's phony economic policy. Research and history clearly show that one excellent way to build a stronger economy is to invest in education, rather than cut it to shreds, as Florida does. Well-supported schools lure business. Underfunded schools drive jobs away.

Teaching in Florida is like doing charity work or missionary work in a hostile country, where corrupt leaders attack you and steal the food and medicine so they can profit from it. You're there to make a difference, though, and no matter what's going on you still have to try to get this food and medicine to people who really need it.

Parents, teachers and school principals face similar  challenges. As Florida's legislative leaders and governor attack schools and use their power to re-route public resources to their private cronies, parents and educators must do all we can to deliver the learning that students need to succeed in life. If we don't educate these young people, nobody else will. 

I keep this in mind every day I teach. No matter what the politicians try to pull, no matter how much they denigrate schools and cut the resources, I stay focused on students. Their potential for success motivates me, as it does their parents. I applaud and encourage families that provide a solid learning environment at home. We're in this together.

I am a nationally certified teacher. I typically work 60 hours a week during the school year for far less pay than I earned in the private sector. In their bid to weaken public education, Florida politicians cut teacher pay this year. They are hoping good teachers will get fed up and quit. This puts even more pressure on school district leaders and principals to keep motivation from falling through the floor.

I happily undertake a heavy training schedule - mostly unpaid - every summer. Long hours, low pay, and busy summers are common for many teachers.

Whenever I hear people say teaching is a cush job, I invite them to see if they could handle it. 

I have been a writer, newspaper editor, and news service exec. While these jobs were very demanding, and while I am something of a workaholic, teaching is the most demanding job I have ever done. The washout rate is 50 percent in the first five years, mostly due to low pay and tough working conditions. 

All this doesn't phase me. I have worked hard all my life. The teachers I know work hard, too.

But hard work alone is not enough.

If parents and educators don't also work smart, and unite to dump the lousy leadership in Tallahassee while changing the dysfunctional education policy in Washington, the future of public education looks dim.    

Public schools paved a path out of poverty for many generations of Americans and provided a foundation for successful people in all careers. Public schools teach young citizens how to keep growing for the rest of their lives.

It's true that this school year begins under a cloud of official dishonesty from Tallahassee and Washington. But it doesn't help to focus on the past. Instead, let's team up and engage in the political process to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have their opportunity for a decent education. 

Calling every parent, every grandparent, every educator - if we don't unite now, it will be too late to save our schools.


  1. Thank you for this valuable and articulate explanation of the horrible mess that politicians have made of education down in Florida. Up here in NYC, it is a total nightmare as well. Until the masses resist the test, and parents realize they have the constitutional right to opt their kids out, and choose to do so for the psychological well-being and future of their child, this madness will continue. Teachers cannot fight this alone, but unfortunately it seems we are the only ones with our eyes fully open. Unfortunately, as you stated, the news media does nothing to shed light on the truth, it is one huge disgusting conspiracy to keep lower and middle class America stupid. The dismantling of public ed is no accident...when this generation grows up their role will be to serve the same rich bastards that forced this test and weak, empty education upon them.

    I am blogger too, like your NY version, we share many of the same ideas:
    hope it is ok that I shared :)
    I am going to place your blog on my blogroll. Educators have to stick together and create national awareness. It is the only way we can fight this monster...strength in numbers!
    Thanks again.

  2. You say teachers and parents need to stick together to fight the corruption of public education when the same parents, relatives, and teachers just recently voted a convicted crook with a history of money embezzlement into office as our governor. If people don't realize how corrupt America's government is becoming we are bound for a downward spiral into the failure of not only public education, but the failure of our democracy as a whole.

    My name is Hugh Ronald I am a student of yours in AP language and also a first hand survivor of the FCAT.

  3. Thanks, Chalk. I will link to your excellent blog and share it with my friends and colleagues. all the best.

  4. I see that the school officials are having some troubles, but let’s hope that the students will still be treated right and will get the best level of education. In the meantime, they can always use some help of online quickly and easily.