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Why Florida Schools Were Left Behind in the Race to the Top | Ecology of Education

Why Florida Schools Were Left Behind in the Race to the Top

(This post was originally published on Florida Thinks)

Florida was considered a top contender in the first round of the federal Race to the Top grant program. So, it came as quite a surprise for many when Florida was not listed among the winners.

What went wrong?

Essentially, Florida lacked one of the most necessary ingredients for effective, large-scale change: buy-in.

In a statement about the winners, Delaware and Tennessee, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Both of them have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools.”

What exactly does “statewide buy-in” mean?

According to Education Week, in Delaware it means, “Unanimous participation, broad collaboration: 100% of the state’s districts and teachers signed on.” And in Tennessee, it means, “Broad participation and collaboration: 100% of the state’s districts signed on; 93% of the local teachers’ unions signed on.”

Where did Florida fall on this most basic of litmus tests?

Florida had only 8 percent of its unions on board. (Also, only 60 of 67 our state’s school districts signed on to the plan.)

Translation: comparatively, no buy-in.

Why?

The Race to the Top application was crafted without including one of the demographics most affected — the teachers. (Students were not involved either.) Without educators’ input, teachers found their needs and concerns underrepresented.

To make matters worse, the Florida Legislature is railroading through Senate Bill 6 (SB 6) and its companion, House Bill 7189 (HB 7189), both of which serve to compound this lack of collaboration and buy-in.

Delaware and Tennessee succeeded in the first round because they earned the most on the 500-point grading scale.

As Leslie Postal noted in an Orlando Sentinel article, “Florida had about 23 points less than top-scorer Delaware, and it was about 10 points behind in the section that looked at the state’s reform agenda and buy-in from districts and unions. It also did not do as well in the ‘great teachers and leaders’ section where it promoted a controversial merit-pay plan.”

A ‘Common-Sense’ Bill That Isn’t

Didn’t Sen. John Thrasher, sponsor of SB 6, call it a “common-sense bill” in his commentary for FloridaThinks.com?

He did. But that doesn’t mean it is.

To begin with, his bill lacks vision.

Our students need to graduate with skills that cannot be shipped overseas. They need challenges far beyond standardized assessments, and they need teachers who can bring knowledge, experience and understanding to classroom environments.

Yes, classrooms are overcrowded, mandated curricula obstruct innovation, and teacher burnout decimates continuity while limiting the recruitment of the best and the brightest.

SB 6 would exacerbate all of these problems without addressing any of them.

Proponents of the bill suggest it would attract professionals by increasing incentives for teachers to work hard because they want higher pay. However, the punitive incentives in the bill would be sticks, not carrots. (That’s the gist of SB 6’s controversial “merit-pay” provision.)

These proponents fail to note that only 14 percent of teachers who leave the field do so because of money. Moreoften-cited reasons for dissatisfaction: heavy workload, too many students in the classroom, and not enough planning time.

In contrast, Thrasher’s bill calls for:

• More testing at every grade level down to kindergarten, and in every single class, including band and art.

• The stripping away of professional development incentives for teachers.

• Putting teachers in a position of teaching to the test or facing penalties.

In addition, the legislation lacks fiscal responsibility. It would funnel money away from students and into the pockets of businesses in the testing industry.

The current FCAT battery, given in some form or another to students in grades 3 through 11, costs taxpayers around $40 million per year. Under SB 6, this number would rocket beyond $150 million in order to develop, administer, score and report both pre-tests and post-tests for every teacher at every grade from kindergarten through 12th grade.

While the bill mandates merit pay, an extensive expansion of testing, and new evaluation mechanisms for assessing teachers, it would do little or nothing to finance them.

So, who would pay for it all? Cash-strapped districts.

District options? Eliminate services, raise taxes, and/or increase class sizes.

Even the reviewers from the U.S. Department of Education who evaluated Florida’s Race to the Top application struggled with this aspect of our plan.

The final report evaluating Florida’s application states, “The allocated resources for this element do not appear adequate for the timeline of the grant period and insufficient to support a large scale initiative comparable to the resources request.”

Additionally, “A substantial amount of the resources requested are target(ed) to external vendors and contracted services as opposed to a systemic integration of the work into key functional units of the state department of education as well as other state agencies.”

Translation: Florida’s program is fiscally unsustainable and it would funnel too much money away from school systems and into corporations.

A Lack of Understanding About How Students Learn

What’s more, the bill lacks an understanding of how students learn. Under the current iteration of SB 6, kindergarteners would be given approximately 12 standardized assessments over the course of their first year in school – a pattern that would not end until they graduate from 12th grade.

Students now undergo approximately 27 standardized tests during their primary and secondary school years (without considering SAT, ACT, and/or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). Under SB 6, the number of tests would balloon to nearly 180 multiple-choice evaluations by requiring pre- and post-tests for every single teacher of every single year.

Practically speaking, is more testing really the answer for the 25 percent of Florida students who don’t graduate? Did these students drop out because they weren’t getting tested enough? I doubt it, but we may well find out.

It’s time we put our money where our hearts are: the kids. As cattlemen like to say, “You don’t fatten the cattle by weighing them.”

We need legislation that channels money to our schools, promotes the professionalization of teaching, and engages students in real learning. SB 6 and HB 7189 would fall far short of accomplishing those needs.

Considering the legitimate concerns raised by our shortcomings in the Race to the Top, as well as the concerns raised by thousands of bipartisan Floridians across the state, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. We need to nix SB 6 and HB 7189.

Our students deserve legislation that constructively engages all stakeholders in developing a forward-thinking bill that would not only help us secure some of the Race to the Top funds, but would put the money where it belongs: in the classrooms.

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn