The Achievement Gap Discussion We Seldom Have

How we see ourselves has so much to do with our willingness to dream. All the hoopla about various forms of equity fall short if children feel hope does not apply to them. What may make a real difference to children is the sense that they belong to a successful group. School grades, however, create winners and losers. Take away school grades and it becomes possible to have real integration, not only by race and economic class but also by academic achievement. Unfortunately, with school grades, ‘A’ school parents are worried their children might suffer if lower achieving students enroll. The ‘A’ grade will fall even if their children have the same courses and teachers.

Richard Rothstein studies this issue. In an article published by the Economic Policy Institute entitled Revived Debate Over School Busing Highlights Deepening Racial Segregation, Rothstein begins with Kamala Harris’ statement in the presidential debate: “That child was me”. She is now running for president, and she was bused to school as a child. Is there a causal link? Read Rothstein’s article. How we see ourselves has so much to do with our own notion of what we can and cannot do.

My school district has passed a large facilities building program. It has instituted a strong equity program. Will it also consider alternative routes to achieve a better racial and economic balance in our schools? Housing patterns make this difficult but not impossible. Real change in achievement takes a commitment to a sense of belonging for all children. It is a difficult road, but maybe the best goal over the long run.

Florida Pension Plan Shortfall

There are rumblings that the 2020 Florida Legislature may revise funding for the Florida Pension Plan.   There is no question that the retirement system revenue has declined; it has not been 100% funded since the 2008 recession. The current rate is about 84% of the cost if all people retired at one time. Of course that is an unlikely scenario, but there are now more people vested in the system than are contributing to it. One million public employees participate in the system, about half are teachers and the others are local and state government employees. As retirees increase and new participants decrease, covering costs becomes more problematic.

While there is no immediate crisis, the problems cannot be ignored in the longer run. There are four basic reasons why the funding has declined:

  1. Expectations that the stock market will do well are not always met. Average earnings across years are about 1% below expectations.
  2. The state is not making sufficient employer contributions to the retirement system.
  3. How the state calculates the value of promised retirement benefits increases risk and makes real debt larger.
  4. The switch to 401(k) accounts in 2017 did not require sufficient contributions from employees and employers to cover costs. It may benefit new teachers who leave the profession but not the profession as a whole.

Pensions are not the problem..The real question as always is whether funding pensions is mostly a political, not a financial issue.  The National Association of State Retirement Administrators cited a report stating that an 80% funding level is the federal benchmark for financial stability of state pension systems.  Florida’s level exceeds that benchmark. Nevertheless, there is a political divide over providing pensions, and it is closely tied to those supporting school privatization.  Florida charters and private schools typically do not contribute to retirement systems, and the resulting high teacher turnover keeps salaries lower.   Thus, there is more money available for management companies in the private sector.   This is not a recipe for a high quality educational system.

This issue may have a strong impact on the growing teacher shortage. Pensions help retain teachers.  Kentucky’s teachers’ complaints about pension revision strategies were partially responsible for the recent defeat of their governor.  Yet, there are those who advocate replacing teachers with technology.  The motivations of those who attack the teaching profession whether they are political or financial in origin, need to be considered.

Florida 2020 Education Legislation Priorities

The 2019 legislative session focused on moving money and managing guns. The laws that emerged funded Schools of Hope vouchers for private schools and shifted funds from public schools to charter school privately owned facilities.   A lawsuit against the Schools of Hope vouchers is expected.  Funding increases for teachers and students were minimal, but teachers were allowed to carry guns.

The Florida Educational Association (FEA) reached an agreement to end a lawsuit against the ‘Best and Brightest’ bonus system that discriminated against minority and older teachers.  A signature from a federal judge will provide compensation to some teachers.

Teacher Recruitment. The focus of the 2020 legislative session may shift to teacher recruitment  and what is taught. FEA reported 4,000 teacher vacancies in the fall of 2019, and months later 2,000 positions remain unfilled.  In response to significant teacher shortages, Governor DeSantis is calling for a higher starting salary for beginning teachers. The impact may be mixed. Teacher recruitment may improve, but teacher retention may decline. New teachers may earn more than many experienced teachers.  At least half of these teachers did not graduate from college level education programs and will need mentoring and professional development that typically is not a legislative priority.

Curriculum Standards.  The Governor also called for a revision to the Florida curriculum standards that determine what is taught at each grade level. Draft standards have been released, and a summary of the results of public comment has been released. There was relatively little support indicated for eliminating the Common Core elements that have been in effect for the past ten years. More concerns were reported about the age appropriate level of standards particularly for children in K-3 but also in grade nine mathematics. As content taught in higher grades is pushed down to lower grades, the expectations for reading and math readiness for six to nine year old students become inappropriate for many children.

Where these concerns will lead the legislature is uncertain. Politically, the Governor has promised to end the Common Core skills that confuse parents. Practically, yet another change in standards not only changes what skills teachers must focus on, it also mandates that the state tests, school grades, and teacher evaluations  adapt. Teachers’ frustration are due to more than inadequate salary levels.  What are the expectations they must meet?

Adding fuel to the fire is the release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and the SAT and ACT test results for college admission. Scores are down yet again. Achievement gaps between white and minority students are higher. Choice based on competition and test scores is not working within public schools or among public, charter, or private school voucher-type programs.

Parents from all walks of life are questioning the system that pressures students to enroll in advanced courses e.g. AP English, math and science in order to improve school grades or admission to college. For a few students, these courses are a good option. For most, it results in an unrelenting pressure to chase test scores. Once they enroll in college many retake the same course in part because the passing standard of ‘3’ is too low for success in subsequent courses. Some colleges, like the University of Florida, require a ‘4’ on AP exams to earn credit.

It is a conundrum. Students need challenging courses that stimulate their interests, and Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of students who take and pass an AP exam. Yet, less than half of Florida students who take AP pass the exam with a score of ‘3’ or higher. This score represents a ‘C’ grade at the college level. The University of Florida requires at least a ‘4’ in many subjects in order to earn college credit.  Many students would prefer advanced courses geared toward alternative career options rather than the basic college track.

How will the Florida Legislature respond to the stalemate in student achievement? More of the same test-driven competition for scores does not work. Dividing funding among public, charter, and private schools is neither less expensive nor more effective.  Teacher recruitment and retention and quality facilities are an even bigger problem for charters and most private schools.

2020 legislative priorities for professional education associations are listed below.

Florida School Board Association.

Florida Association of School Administrators.

Florida Education Association.

What We Know and are Afraid to Hear

“Fixing” education solutions run the gamut…except for the basic issue which is segregation. Most students are segregated by race, economic status and test scores in cities even though all students must have access to high quality programs in schools with diverse enrollments in order to succeed.

New York City has tackled the issue based a new study released by the School Diversity Advisory Group. The angst in the city is palpable, but the determination to reduce segregation is real. Gifted and talented programs will no longer be targeted to the top 4% of elementary students. These children were identified by test scores when they were four years old. Admissions to kindergarten, middle and high schools based on scores also will be reexamined.

The October 2019 issue of the Atlantic includes an article titled: The Culture Wars Devours the Children written by George Packer. Packer is a parent and well known author who shares progressive values but questions the zeal with which they are being implemented in NYC. He recognizes the value of project based education, but he is concerned about political ideologies from the right or left that are imposed upon all students.  Carol Burris, CEO of the Network for Public Education and Leonie Haimson from Class Size Matters discuss the NYC integration plan in NPE’s new weekly radio broadcast called Talk Out of School.

Alachua County Schools in Florida have recognized this equity problem. They have taken some steps to broaden participation in magnet schools and offer advanced learning programs for a broader range of students. It is a step in the right direction to remove labels from students and improve school culture. There is always concern that too much integration will compel more parents to resort to charter and private schools which are prone to increase segregation.

Parents recognize that the stakes are too high when a child’s future is dependent upon test scores in preschool. Parents worry that education opportunity has become so competitive that minor differences in talent and achievement loom large. The problem is real for all families. It is time to listen to the whispers and make our voices heard.

Closing the Achievement Gap

If we want children to learn to read, teach them stuff! Natalie Wexler writes in the Atlantic about the progress children make when they have knowledge about topics and they want to learn more about them. In other words, teach social studies and science, not skill sets to identify the main idea or to make inferences based on sterile paragraphs written for tests.

Children have to know something in order to think about what they know and what it means. It is the classic educational debate i.e. learning to read vs. reading to learn.

Children from low-income families tend to have less exposure to the world around them.  Their vocabulary and knowledge base is lower than for other children.  Wexler cites studies that demonstrate how the achievement gap narrows when both groups are given unfamiliar content to decipher.  She cites the dramatic progress poor readers make when they are excited about what they are reading.

The test-driven curriculum has made a bad problem worse.  The solution is to give children time and incentives to actually read, not just to take tests.

Are Teachers’ Salaries Going Up?

There is a blog called Teachers Voice that originates in Hillsborough County. It has a nice analysis of teacher salaries over the last ten years. The rate is adjusted for inflation. Salaries are down, not up.  Florida’s salary ranking is near the bottom.  See the evidence here. 

Media reports show more money this year than last year for the per pupil school allocation. What is not obvious is that last year’s bonus funds from the lottery were rolled into the per pupil FEFP account this year. It looked like an increase, but it was money moved around.  Moreover, how the bonus funds were allocated to teachers was changed, so some teachers earned less money, not more.

It was never about busing.

Today’s New York Times published two full pages on the impact of desegregation in America’s schools. During the 70’s and 80’s, schools were integrated, especially in the south. Achievement scores rose and achievement gaps between black and white students fell. With the introduction of school choice in the 90’s, segregation increased. An attack on public schools began. Why?

As the U.S. reverted to the doctrine of separate but equal, it became obvious that low-income area schools were not equal. Equality in funding was a myth. Wealthy districts had better funding even if states required a minimum level of funds for each district.  Better funding provides better opportunities.

Children with greater physical and mental needs cost more, and a higher proportion of them reside in low-income areas. Higher-income areas often resist paying for educating ‘those other children’. As a result, lower-cost private and charter schools are sold as the symbol for better schools even though they are not better; they just choose which students to accept.

The point of the article, ‘It was never about busing‘ is that we are substituting code words for racist policies. The word ‘Busing’ has become a bugaboo (an imaginary object of fear). Many white children were always bused but not to black schools. Advocates for neighborhood schools used these code words for segregated schools.

Vouchers are supposed to reduce costs by housing more schools in churches, but they aren’t required to meet state standards for teaching and learning, and they do increase segregation.  Charters are designed to give lower-income parents an escape valve from the local schools struggling to meet the needs of all students.  Nevertheless, charters that reflect double segregation of race and income cannot overcome their lack of access to the wider world.

Improved access to high-quality preschool programs is the current panacea. Yes, they initially help minority children succeed, but their academic gains fade as they enter segregated schools.

The author of the article, Nicole Hannah-Jones, concludes that busing did not fail, we did.

Charter Industry Fights Reform

California’s charter reform commission, which included many charter operators, was convened by the governor as the result of a huge scandal in online charters that collected state funds for nonexistent students. The commission recommended improvements in charter school authorization and oversight. The charter industry is fighting back.

According to Jeff Bryant’s latest article, the charter industry is arguing that frequent closures of charters shows its accountability. Frequent opening and closures are good! The Network for Public Education’s report that a billion dollars in federal funds has been lost to charter operators. The question is good for whom? Is it good for the students and families who must scramble to find a new school or just for those who pocket the money?

Read Jeff Bryants’ article here and decide who benefits.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Have you ever wondered what ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ really means? Thomas Jefferson was an avid student of Aristotle which is where the idea of a pursuit of happiness originated. I am reading a new book called ‘Aristotle’s Way’ by Edith Hall. I came across a paragraph about Aristotle’s view of public education that I would like to share with you:

“The eighth book of his Politics opens with this famous dictum: “None will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution.” He means that education at all levels, from small children through to young adults, is of such fundamental importance to the flourishing of the community under any form of constitution that it must be publicly determined and can’t possibly be left to the decided ad hoc by each parent. Since the goal of any city-state is to ensure that its citizens live the good life, “it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private.” Page 54-55

These are matters of common interest on which the pursuit of happiness is based.