There’s a war going on.

I gave a talk at our Education Forum this morning. It’s a different slant than I sometimes take. I talk about cheerios and TV channels. We have more of each than we need, but we continue to pay for them. What does this have to do with school policy? A lot actually. See what you think.

There’s a war going on, and the ammunition is fake news. Take for example, the charge that educators resist change. Recent history tells a different story. After WWII, everyone was expected to go to high school; most did not before. When I was in high school, the space race put pressure on schools to teach more mathematics. My grandchildren are now taking math courses in middle school that I took in high school. Consider also the upheaval in the 70s, when schools were desegregated. Now globalization and the loss of jobs due to technology require schools to educate children to create their own jobs.

In Florida, most people believe that public schools do the best job of preparing students for the diverse and complicated world in which they will live. School reform policy, however, assumes that consumer based competition with charter and private schools will make schools even better. In fact, competition in the private consumer sector does make many choices e.g. there are 13 types of cheerios and 189 TV channels most of which none of us has eaten or watched.

Educational choice has been around for nearly twenty years. There are 4,000 public schools, nearly 2,000 private schools, and 652 charters all drawing on the same pot of money. In Florida, we have more choices and less money than most states. Florida is in the bottom tier, 44th in state funding for education, and the State continues to cut funding. Competition is creating a crisis.
Businesses find ways to cut corners and shift costs. Sometimes a pound of coffee has only 12 ounces. While some charters find innovative ways to help kids, most replicate what already exists; it is less expensive. District schools are asked to do more with less, and they have reached a tipping point.

At least fourteen districts have joined together to sue the State over HB 7069, the education bill passed in last legislative session. The conflict, however, is about more than money. It’s also about local control, equity and quality. These are the issues:

Local Control. Who decides how our local taxes are spent?
Florida’s constitution gives the authority to levy taxes for schools to the elected school boards. A majority in the legislature, however, wants to control all funding even though it only supplies half of what is needed. Local property taxes provide the rest. The legislature now requires districts to share their property tax revenue with privately owned charter school buildings. It makes it impossible for districts to maintain their own facilities, and charters must cut corners as well. No sector, public, charter or private, can provide quality facilities.

HB 7069 also removes the federal authority given to local districts to determine how best to allocate money to help low income students. The State, not the district, now determines how federal money is allocated. This restricts districts’ ability to concentrate support where it is most needed, and it appears to violate federal law.

Equity: Is separate equal?

  1. Charter that screen and dismiss students increase economic and racial segregation even within low income areas. It becomes a have and have not system.
  2. Struggling district schools now can be closed after a year below a ‘C’ grade, but charters that take them over can stay open for five even though the school grade does not improve.
  3. Most of the state funding to help struggling schools goes to charters, not district schools. Yet, charters tend to have less experienced teachers and higher teacher turnover.

Quality: More is not better. For example,

  1. The failure to curb self-dealing corporate charter school business practices allows an excessive amount of money to go to charter real estate firms. Yes, they have their own real estate companies. To pay these leases, money is taken from teacher salaries and benefits and charged to parents for supplies.
  2. More teachers are leaving and fewer are entering the profession. The response by the legislature in HB 7069 is to reduce teacher certification requirements.
  3. There is a loss of instructional time and subject matter in order to support test prep strategies. Civics, for example is now taught one half hour per week.
  4. Choice alone does not raise achievement levels, and one-third of charters close. The money invested in is lost. Private schools do not even have to meet the public curriculum, testing or teaching standards.

    BOTTOM LINE: School choice that offers nothing new just repackages but does not improve our schools. It is not cost efficient or effective. In a system in which all choices become mediocre, everyone loses. It is time to rethink. How much choice of which types do we need? How can we redirect the conversation about school quality?

  5. Demonstrate what education should be to engage students: Passion to Teach.

  6. Support collaborative efforts to help teachers not just improve but want to join the profession.
  7. Make schools and communities mutually supportive. Find ways to better integrate pre school, after school, extra instructional time, and community activities into the schools. This is the goal of community schools like the one we are implementing at Howard Bishop.
  8. Recognize that the quality of schools and communities are intertwined. Ask: How can the community improve the schools and how can the schools improve the community? It matters where new schools are built, where and how students learn, what opportunities students have to interact with the world outside their schools.
  9. Learn about the tradeoffs of choice policies. Choice has a nice ring, and some choices truly are better for some children. But remember, more choice does not always create better choices. Ask how much is enough?

We have an example of a choice we must make right now…a mega CSUSA for-profit charter school has drafted a proposal for an 1124 student school in Gainesville. It would pull another $600,000 out of our facility budget in addition to the approximately $600,00 that will go to our local charters. It will impact every school as students shift around and take funding with them. It brings nothing new or innovative. It can discourage any child who is in any ‘different’ from enrolling and can dismiss any they find expensive or difficult to educate. In their proposal, they state they cannot compete academically with similar schools for at least five years.

Why should this ‘choice’ be imposed on our community? Wouldn’t we be better off to build our own schools and have a voice in how they are run?

Some of us have formed a PACT to help our community understand the choices that lie ahead. You can join the PACT; volunteer in schools, encourage less test prep and more activity based learning. Join the PTA and find ways to bring our schools into the community and our community into the schools.
Be aware; get involved.

Stop Scapegoating Teachers and Public Schools

I attended a talk last night by Mary Dalton, the author of ‘From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television’. I learned some things.

Understanding the subtexts of programs we watch on television, helps to explain how the attack on public education gained credibility. Professor Dalton briefly described the shifts in decades from the 50s to the present in the focus of television sitcoms:

1950s…’Our Miss Brooks’ was the beloved, caring, ethical, and yes, white female teacher.
1960s…almost an utopian view of achieving racial and social equality
1970s…a classless society e.g. The Paper Chase
1980s…meritocracy where anyone can succeed
1990s…Teachers are real people with complicated lives of their own e.g. Hangin with Mr. Cooper who was gay.

Then, at the turn of the century, changes in educational policy were reflected in a serious downward spiral in how teachers and schools were depicted. This, Professor Dalton believes was not accidental. Season 4 of ‘The Wire’ was one example. The teacher was a failed policeman who became a good teacher but was underpaid and worked in an overwhelming environment. His experience in the classroom reflected social and political issues in a drug infested culture. ‘Mike and Molly’ was an even more stark and dark characterization of a teacher who exhibited over the top behavior and was fraught with problems.

These media depictions were inculcated in how the general public viewed public education….not their children’s schools but those other schools out there.

Questions from the audience probed how bad vs good teachers are now defined. Dalton responded with examples from the programs ‘Insecure’ and ‘Speechless’. A good teacher is caring and often depicted as a person of color who is an outsider, not an experienced teacher. Principals are depicted as bureaucratic.

In her response to a question about hope for a change in public perception to one that is more balanced and less stereotypical, Professor Dalton suggested that these trends shifted like a pendulum. As the mass of bad characterizations increase, their validity becomes questionable, and the public begins to push back.

I asked if there was any evidence that the return to normalcy was beginning and cited the film ‘Passion to Teach‘ that was recently released. The only cracks in the armor, however, seem to be in the depiction of non-profit charter schools as ‘good charter’ and those other profit seekers as ‘bad’ charters. At least charters are no longer uniformly good and public schools uniformly bad. The needed critical mass of outrageous assertions and depictions has not accumulated, but perhaps there is hope. We need a relentless drum beat.

Kuddos to the two University of Florida graduate students who organized this symposium. You can read their article in today’s Gainesville Sun here.

Bash Schools or Build Democracy

The October Atlantic reports on the war on public schools. We know this war. The strategy is changing, and this is a good thing. The reform mantra that school achievement has declined, teachers are inadequate, unions protect mediocrity and school choice (read privatization) solves all problems has become hackneyed, if not outright false. The Atlantic article raises a much different and more fundamental concern. The attack on public schools reflects the emphasis on individual rights as opposed to the collective good. This is an age-old theme in America. It waxes and wanes, but the stakes are high.

The author cites the political theorist Benjamin Barber’s warning: “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.” Why?

Our schools integrate diverse groups from widely ranging backgrounds into our civil society. They learn to be ‘American’. The public schools give all of our people a stake in the future of our democracy. School choice, however, is further segregating our society and creates more enclaves. The impact on our communities is being felt. We no longer teach civics, and fewer young people participate in voting.

In some countries, the population disengages in their political system. When this occurs, the whole process of negotiation among citizens to resolve problems disintegrates. A good analysis is offered by Harry Boyte, Co-Director of the Center for Democracy. He says “Politics is how diverse groups of people build a future together”. This is the message that will determine our future. We have a choice. We can build or divide our schools and our communities.

Making a Difference

At today’s legislative delegation hearing, all Alachua County government entities…cities and county commission spoke in favor of supporting our public schools.

At tonight’s school board meeting, the members voted to join the lawsuit against HB 7069 that wrests control from local school districts. Members also voted to put a half penny sales tax initiative on the ballot to help our school facilities. The legislature is putting all responsibility on local communities while they want to take all control away from them.

We will fight to take care of our children and our schools. We will support our school board in their efforts to do the same.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

There was a big extravaganza on TV just before Irma hit Florida. Supported by Lorraine Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Project XQ seeks to reinvent American high schools. This is not a ‘school choice’ solution to education reform. Rather, Project XQ explores ways to give students more control over their learning, and it builds on students’ talents and interests rather than sorting them by test scores into winners and losers. I am always excited when examples of what high quality, impactful teaching can be. It’s why I like the film ‘Passion to Teach’.

John Merrow reviewed XQ Super School Live. He is the former long time PBS education correspondent who views the reliance on high stakes testing as the path to increasing mediocre lessons ‘and worse’ for our children. In his book, Addicted to Reform, he argues that test based accountability stifles the creativity economists assert our schools need to promote.

Merrow concludes that Project XQ missed an opportunity to explain how the current reliance on testing and choice policies fail to address the real problems confronting students, teachers and schools. The show simply claimed schools were ‘out of date’.

There is a kernel of understanding that is emerging in the ‘testing or teaching’ debate. Reliance on test scores to drive instruction is not a new problem; it is just the modern day version of a drill and practice methodology that has a place in learning but should not be the most important one. Drill and test using technology do not replace effective teaching; they can, however, be helpful resources. It is time to examine, but not rely on, their appropriate roles.

Efforts like Project XQ are asking the right questions about effective teaching. It is also helpful to see films like ‘Passion to Teach’ that demonstrate teachers in action who develop students’ ability to control and engage in learning meaningful to them.

We are primed to enable our schools to emphasize what works. At least now we have experimented with the testing and grading reforms long enough to recognize they only make bad problems worse. Not only are we sorting kids in schools; we are sorting schools into winners and losers.

At first, we may have to focus on one school and one maverick teacher at a time, but every time we succeed, we should celebrate and replicate the experience. We do not have to accept what is, and we can make a difference by working toward what could be and should be.

Should We Close Schools?

The latest push to improve test scores is to close low performing schools. This CREDO study from Stanford University was designed to see what happened to the students. They looked at traditional public schools (TPS) and charters whose students scored at or below the 20th percentile on state tests. Some schools in both sectors were closed and others not. Why? What happened to the children?

Some key findings include:

  1. Charters that closed in Florida had significantly lower performing students than students in closed public schools. Why would this be? One possible explanation is that closure corresponded not only to low performance but also to declining enrollment. Parents of charters students tended to leave failing charters before the school actually shut down. As enrollment dropped, charters could not afford to stay open.

  2. Florida closed 24 TPS over 7 years and 34 charters. While the number of closed charters is higher, 85% of the students affected were in TPS. In Florida, 4,337 students in charters were affected vs. 5,410 TPS. Closure disproportionately impacted schools with high rates of minority students over other low performing schools.

  3. Most, 82% of TPS students, stayed in another TPS after closure while only 40% of charter students stayed in charters. In Florida, there were no differences between achievement gains for closed low performing charter students over time and similar students in charters that were not closed. Over time, children from closed charters did much less well than similar children from closed TPS.

  4. Students from closed schools do better if they are transferred to schools with higher performing students. But, there are too many low performing students able to enroll in higher performing schools. Less than half of the students from closed schools landed in a better performing school.

What is the take away from the data? Closing a school hurts kids unless they enroll in a school that has higher performing students. This becomes a socio-economic integration issue. It is a school culture issue. It is an opportunity issue. Suppose there are an insufficient number of schools with higher performing students to place these children? CREDO suggests innovative new schools are needed. If the old charter did not work, what should this new innovative school be? The answer is in the data. Children learn from children who are learning!

Public School Awareness Month

Alachua County Cities and the County Commission to Proclaim:

SEPTEMBER PUBLIC SCHOOLS AWARENESS MONTH

Our schools are hanging in the balance. The Alachua County League of Women Voters, Council of PTAs, Education Foundation, and the University of Florida Education College Council have jointly requested that the month of September be proclaimed: Public School Awareness Month. This Proclamation has been submitted to the Alachua County Commission and to all Alachua County City Commissions.
We ask our community to become engaged. Our public schools are threatened. This is a critical time to understand what these threats are and how our district is responding. You can learn ways to make a difference by attending these events:

• “From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television,” by Dr. Mary Dalton. UF’s “Schools on Screen” Symposium—September 20 at 6pm in the U.F. Pugh Hall.

• Forum: OUR Local Schools Now and Moving Forward, September 23rd, Wiles Elementary at 9:30 am. featuring:

Karen Clarke, Superintendent of Schools: “Building New and Renovating Old Schools” and a panel discussion about making our schools responsive to our children’s needs. Sue Legg will speak about how State policies led us to where we are. Valerie Freemen and Anne Wolf will reveal the Culturally Responsive Teaching programs that Alachua County is launching. Come see how well this fits together as we move forward here.

• Florida Premier of ‘Passion To Teach’ and discussion led by the film producer, Bart Nourse.
September 24, 3:30 pm at Lincoln Middle School
September 26, 6:00 pm at Buchholz High School

See our webpage: http://acpublicschoolsawareness.org/

Florida’s budget went up; education funding went down

This article gives perspective on the legislative priority for education. Everything else matters more. Adjusted for inflation since 2008, the state budget went from $79.9 to $83 billion. Education funding, also adjusted for inflation, went down $871.94 per student or down to $7293 per student. The percentage of the state budget allocated for education has declined from 32% to 29%. There is more money in the budget now, but less goes to education.

The drop in funding costs Marion County $24.9 million. What has it cost your county?

What Do Parents Really Want?

A new PDK poll is out saying people want more than straight academics in their schools. More parents oppose than support vouchers, value diversity in their schools, don’t believe tests measure what is most important, believe support services for children belong in schools, and, if they are parents, like their schools.

It could be there is a media problem with how schools and teachers are described that accounts for less positive ratings for schools by people who aren’t closely associated with them. There is some work being done on this topic by Dr. Mary Dalton. From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television. Dr. Dalton is speaking at the University of Florida Graham Center on September 20th at 6p.m. in Pugh Hall.

We are spreading some more good news here in Gainesville. The film: Passion to Teach will be shown at two schools in Gainesville and the events are open to the public. The film maker will be here from Massachusetts to lead a discussion about how communities are using the power of this film to enlighten the public about what is possible for schools to be even in this test driven culture.

If you want to see what else we are doing, go to our September: Public Schools Awareness Month website. I learned today that another Florida county will have a similar awareness month in November.

HB 7069 Lawsuit Growing

The lawsuit against HB 7069 has a law firm to represent the 11 school districts that have now joined the complaint about the Florida legislature’s attack on local public school board authority. The Florida Constitution states that local elected school boards govern our schools. The legislature believes it does. More districts are considering the suit. Thus far, only Sarasota has decided not to participate.

Bay
Broward
Hamilton
Lee
Martin
Miami-Dade
Orange
Palm Beach
Polk
St Lucie
Volusia

Sarasota voted not to join