Florida lawmakers who want to improve schools should stop punishing teachers and start mitigating poverty
Florida plans to abandon its most vulnerable children. It will anyway if people like Senate President Don Geatz, state board of education member Sally Bradshaw and Education Commissioner Tony Bennett get their way.
The first two can't understand how teachers at supposedly poor-performing schools (read: don't do well on standardized tests) can get effective or higher evaluations. The third says when we have a system that links school grades to teacher's evaluations, then the system will exhibit more common sense.
Let's do something we should never do and forget for a moment that school grades and teacher evaluations are not designed to sync up, and let's forget for a moment that teachers are playing by a system that was developed in Tallahassee to the chagrin of most of them, and instead let's just focus on where the vast majority of these supposedly poor-performing schools are located and who attends these schools.
The vast majority of these so-called underperforming schools are in neighborhoods wracked with poverty and lacking opportunity. Crime is higher in these neighborhoods than in the suburbs or the more affluent areas of town where you'll find high-performing schools (read: do well on standardized tests). Poverty, by the way, is not an excuse. It is the No. 1 quantifiable measurement in determining how students do in school. Those kids who live in poverty tend to not do as well as those who don't live in poverty.
Many of these children live with extended family members or are in one-parent households. Some are homeless, and others live in foster care. Many of these students don't have enough to eat and worry where their next meals are coming from. Some of their parents don't see the value of education, and some of those who do are too tired from working their low-paying jobs to be too involved. Many of the students at these schools have to worry about violence in their neighborhoods and have had the classes they enjoy, like art and music, eliminated, because rich kids get to take them, but poor kids only get tested. Then, every one of them is shoved into a one-size-fits-all curriculum regardless of their desire or ability. Now, because a few Tallahassee politicians don't understand how evaluations work, they want to take away their teachers — for some kids, the only stable adult in their lives — too.
Who is going to want to work at one of these schools, with our most vulnerable children, if they know they can be let go because of how students perform on tests? People forget that five years ago, we were recruiting in Canada, India and the business world because we couldn't find enough teachers. There won't be enough Teach for Awhile — I mean, America — recruits to fill the classrooms, not that we should want them to, because putting them there is the exact opposite of best practices. I am not saying we shouldn't have any accountability; I'm saying we shouldn't blindfold teachers, tie their hands and then ask them to build a bike.
Some people might say charter schools are the answer, as many have set up shops in these poor neighborhoods and siphoned both resources and children away from public schools there. The problem is, charter schools don't do any better than our public schools do, and many do worse. According to State Impact, children who attended Florida charter schools last year were seven times more likely to have attended a failing school. Furthermore, charter schools are often manned by an ever-rotating door of neophytes — once again, what we know to be the opposite of best practices. No, the answer is not more charter schools, many of which are operated by corporations far more interested in the bottom line than educating our children.
I have an idea: Why doesn't the state Legislature pass a law telling districts they have to flip the staffs at the best-performing schools (read: do well on standardized tests) with the worst-performing schools (read: don't do well on standardized tests)? The state already seized local control when it started overriding charter school decisions and telling districts how to evaluate teachers. By the state's logic, the children at low-performing schools will see their grades skyrocket, except everyone knows that will not happen. Well, everyone but those actually pulling the strings. I guess there is a chance that if staffs switched, Geatz and Bradshaw would realize that teaching, even great teaching, can take a child only so far if a child is hungry, is afraid and doesn't have a parent who cares. Though — who knows? — they might want this new set of teachers fired, too, when the inevitable happens and their scores stay stagnant. By the way, I'm not saying these schools can't improve. I am saying that if we want them to improve, then we need to stop tackling the wrong problem.
If Geatz, Bradshaw and Bennett were really interested in improving the schools in our poorer neighborhoods, they would give up their obsession with evaluating and punishing teachers and would instead find ways to mitigate poverty.
We need to put social workers and mental health counselors in our struggling schools because, quite often, why kids act up or do poorly in school has nothing to do with school. We need to make school year around for many of our children by providing legitimate summer school opportunities, and I'm not talking about throwing kids in front of computers for three months. That way kids can make up losses and have less time to lose gains. Then, we need to make school more relevant to children by offering multiple curriculums (skills, trades and arts) that play to their strengths and desires and are less of a chore and more of an exciting challenge. Furthermore, students should have one elective of their choosing on their schedules. Speaking of schedules, we must adjust them to meet our students' needs and abilities. Right now, many of our kids are taking too many classes at a time, and the classes are too long and meet too infrequently.
Sadly, instead of tackling the real problems and creating real solutions, these powers-that-be are more interested in fixing a problem that isn't there. Geatz, Bradshaw and Bennett are truly doing our students, especially our most vulnerable ones, a disservice. Maybe that was their plan all along.
Since I first wrote this piece, there have been some changes. The Florida Legislature, despite fierce opposition from Jeb Bush, changed the graduation requirements: Algebra II is no longer a graduation requirement, and several pathways to graduation have been added. That was a good first step on a long journey to make education more relevant to a lot of children. Next, the Stanford CREDO study, the gold standard of charter school studies, said children who attend Florida's charter schools as a group lag behind their public school peers, despite charter schools benefiting from selection bias, low numbers of ESE and ESOL students, fewer students on free and reduced lunch, the ability to counsel out poor performers and bad apples, and put requirements on parents. Finally, Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made 46 principal changes, most at schools that don't do well on standardized tests. Many of these schools have seen three or four principal changes in the last three or four years; every time there's a principal change, at least initially, it's one step forward, two steps back.
Guerrieri is a teacher who also writes a blog about education issues called Education Matters.