Archives for category: Florida

Kristina Rizga in “Mother Jones” explains why the Opt Out movement is becoming a national phenomenon.

She focuses on the story of Kiana Hernandez, a student in Florida. She made the decision on her own, but she was inspired by seeing TV coverage of students opting out.

“By her own estimate, Kiana had spent about three months during each of her four years at University High in Orlando preparing for and taking standardized tests that determined everything from her GPA to her school’s fate. “These tests were cutting out class time,” she says. “We would stop whatever we were learning to prepare.” The spring of her senior year, she says, there were three whole months when she couldn’t get access to computers at school (she didn’t have one at home) to do homework or fill out college applications. They were always being used for testing.

“Kiana had a 2.99 GPA and is heading to Otterbein University in Ohio this fall. She says she did well in regular classroom assignments and quizzes, but struggled with the standardized tests the district and state demanded. “Once you throw out the word ‘test,’ I freeze,” she tells me. “I get anxiety knowing that the tests count more than classwork or schoolwork. It’s a make or break kind of thing….

“Students in American public schools today take more standardized tests than their peers in any other industrialized country. A 2014 survey of 14 large districts by the Center for American Progress found that third- to eighth-graders take 10 standardized tests each year on average, and some take up to 20. By contrast, students in Europe rarely encounter multiple-choice questions in their national assessments and instead write essays that are graded by trained educators. Students in England, New Zealand, and Singapore are also evaluated through projects like presentations, science investigations, and collaborative assignments, designed to both mimic what professionals do in the real world and provide data on what students are learning.”

Rizga’s book “Mission High” was just published. I intend to review it soon. It is the story of a so-called “failing school” in San Francisco where students and teachers work hard to beat the odds against them.

Michael LaForgia, Lisa Gartner, and Cara Fitzpatrick of the Tampa Bay Tribune investigated five of the lowest-performing schools in Florida and got to the bottom of their failure. Their story, “Failure Factories,” described five schools in one of the state’s most affluent district that had been “average” (when judged by test scores) in the recent past and are now among the “worst” in the state.

They write:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black.

Then they broke promises of more money and resources.

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

All of the schools operate within six square miles in one of Florida’s most affluent counties.

NPR interviewed Michael LaForgia and Cara Fitzpatrick about their investigation.

MICHAEL LAFORGIA: We spent a year examining what was going on with five elementary schools in our predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Pinellas County. What we found was that 95 percent of black children who were tested at these schools failed reading or math. Teacher turnover in the schools is a chronic problem. Last year, more than half of the teaching staff at these five schools requested transfers out. We found that all of this is a recent phenomenon. By December of 2007, when our school board voted on a plan that effectively re-segregated the district, none of the schools in question was ranked lower than a C. Today, all of them are Fs in the state ranking system.

VIGELAND: Wow. Well, Cara, how would you describe the county where these five schools are located – Pinellas County – because I think that is one of the surprises here.

CARA FITZPATRICK: Well, Pinellas County is one of the most affluent counties in Florida, so that’s part of the surprise, I think, here. And one of the things that’s interesting about this, too, is that these five elementary schools are all in a relatively small area of South St. Petersburg.

VIGELAND: Michael, as you noted, these schools were doing a lot better about a decade ago, and they had a very different demographic at the time because of integration and busing. So what changed?

LAFORGIA: So a decade ago, there still was in effect federal oversight that was mandated by a civil rights lawsuit that dated to the 1960s. The district got out from under that lawsuit in 2007. Rather than stick with the integration efforts that had been working up till that time, the school board opted to go to a neighborhood schools model which effectively re-segregated the school district.

VIGELAND: What did it mean in terms of the student population?

LAFORGIA: Well, it meant that schools that previously had been 60, 50, 40 percent black were now suddenly 80 and 90 percent black. And they were drawing from a high-poverty area. The children who previously had been spread among other more-affluent schools who had had access to 15 or 20 schools’ worth of guidance counselors or behavior specialists suddenly only had access to five schools’ worth.

Jeff Bryant has written an excellent in-depth investigative report on Jeb Bush’s boasts about the “Florida miracle.”

The alleged miracle is pure hogwash. The biggest beneficiaries are the profiteers and entrepreneurs who have opened 600 charter schools across the state.

As Jeff writes, Jeb got into the charter business to polish up his image after losing the 1994 race for governor. A defining moment occurred when asked in a debate what he would do for blacks, if he were elected. He answered, “Probably nothing.” When he learned about charter schools, he found the perfect vehicle to burnish his credentials in education and civil rights.

He worked hard to pass charter legislation, then opened the state’s first charter school in impoverished Liberty City in 1996. He still boasts about the school but forgets to add that it closed in 2008.

Bryant interviewed Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard, who represents the section of Miami that includes Liberty City.

Bullard denounced Bush’s A-F grading law “that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an “F” label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding….

“According to Bullard, charter school expansion did more harm than good in Liberty City. As charter schools chipped away student population from the neighborhood schools, the local elementary school struggled to keep its enrollment up, and the middle school eventually closed as lower student populations drained the schools’ resources.

“In Bullard’s view, charter schools also help create an unhealthy revolving door, where kids cycle from public schools to charters, and then back into the public schools when charters close down. As schools open and close, the better-prepared students tend to find spots in other new charters, while the lowest performing kids get kicked back into struggling, underfunded public schools.”

Today, major charter chains dominate the Florida landscape, and most operate for profit.

“One person who has paid close attention to the spread of charter schools in Florida is Sue Legg. As a public school teacher, college professor and an administrator of state school assessment contracts at the University of Florida for over 30 years, Legg has had a ringside seat to the Florida charter school circus. In a series of reports produced for the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, Legg revealed the many ways charter schools in Florida spread political corruption and financial opportunism while doing little to improve the academic performance of their students.

“Her year-long 2014 study, conducted in 28 Florida counties, found a 20 percent closure rate for charters due to financial problems or poor academic performance — a closure rate that has now increased to over 40 percent. The charter schools studied generally did not perform better than public schools, and tended to be more racially segregated. A significant number of these charters operated for-profit and operated in church related facilities.

“In a phone conversation with Legg, she described how charter school expansions are being driven by a state legislature with numerous connections to the charter school industry. “States get around local control by using a statewide contract for charters,” she explained. And whenever a local board rejects a new charter school or threatens a charter school with closure, the school can appeal to the state. “The appeals process overturns about half of district denials of charter operation,” Legg contends.

“The conflicts of interest among charter schools and Florida state legislators was raised to national prominence by an article in Esquire written by Charlie Pierce. Pierce quoted from a 2013 Florida newspaper article:

“A growing number of lawmakers have personal ties to charter schools. Sen. John Legg [no relation to Sue Legg], who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is co-founder and business administrator of Dayspring Academy in Port Richey. Anne Corcoran, wife of future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plans to open a classics-themed charter school in Pasco County. House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel is on the board of the McKeel Academy Schools in Polk County. In addition, the brother-in-law of House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen runs the state’s largest charter management firm, Academica Corp. And Sen. Anitere Flores, also of Miami, is the president of an Academica-managed charter college in Doral.”

Florida mainstream media have paid attention to the financial scandals and corruption in the charter sector. The Miami Herald’s Kathleen McGrory wrote an excellent series called “Cashing in on Kids.”

The Sun Sentinel has exposed scandal after scandal.

“In a more recent series of investigative articles, from 2014, the Sun Sentinel found, “Unchecked charter-school operators are exploiting South Florida’s public school system, collecting taxpayer dollars for schools that quickly shut down … virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity.”

“Examples cited in the series include a man who received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first one collapsed. The schools closed in seven weeks. Another example: A man with “a history of foreclosures, court-ordered payments, and bankruptcy received $100,000 to start a charter school.” It closed in two months.”

The charter industry in Florida is a textbook example of the squandering of taxpayer dollars to undermine public schools and satisfy private greed. It’s not about kids.

It is about privatization and profit. Don’t be hoaxed.

The Tampa Bay Tribune reported that school officials in Hillsborough County were surprised to discover a big hole in the budget after Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was fired and became New York State Commissioner of Education.

“TAMPA — In the last four years of superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s administration, the Hillsborough County School District went on a spending jag, tearing through more than half of its $361 million reserve fund, officials revealed this week.

“Left unchecked, the pattern would have resulted in another operating deficit this year — a $75 million hit that would bring the fund down near its legal minimum threshhold.

“The situation has surprised Elia’s successor, unsettled School Board members and put bonding agencies on alert, which could lead to the district facing higher interest rates when it has to borrow money.

“Jeff Eakins, who took over as superintendent after serving as Elia’s deputy, says he was caught off guard when he realized the district used $68.5 million in non-recurring funds to meet this year’s payroll.

“We’re not in any kind of financial crisis,” Eakins told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Tuesday. But, he said, “we need to put some measures in place right now.”

A new pay structure started with funding from the Gates Foundation may cost as much as $50 million.

“It is clear, Eakins said, that the district, which serves more than 200,000 children, is spending money to extend programs that were launched with temporary funding from foundations.

“The Gates grant is one example, as it is in its final year of funding. Expenses anticipated for 2015-16 include $11.3 million for teacher peer evaluators and $6.1 million to pay mentors. Eakins said he will take a close look at these expenditures to see if they are worth sustaining, or if they should be reduced.”

Celeste Richter, a highly rated Florida teacher, does not want a bonus for a test she took nearly 25 years ago.

The legislature passed a plan to award $10,000 to teachers who had high SAT scores in high school. The bonus is also available to currents teachers who are rated “highly effective” but only if they had high SAT scores. Veteran teachers may not be able to obtain their SAT scores, or learn whether they were in top 20%, as the law requires.

“I refuse,” said Richter, a highly-effective rated AP government teacher at Wesley Chapel High School. “A test I took in 1991 is not valid to say what a quality educator I am.”

“Richter, who’s entering her 19th year of teaching, isn’t looking up her SAT scores, though she recalls doing well. She doesn’t want the state’s award of up to $10,000, though she really could use it.

“As a moral principle, I don’t believe this is an effective way to reward teachers for a good job,” she said, further noting that the final amount will likely be far less than the maximum. “I’m not going to run after crumbs.”

For standing on principle, for courage and candor, Celeste Richter joins the blog’s honor roll.

Many people think the law is a giveaway to Teach for America, who will earn more than 10-year veterans and leave in two or three years. Its author, Erik Fresen, is a member of a family that owns a large charter chain, Academica.

While cleaning up my files, I discovered this excellent article by Alan Ehrenhalt, contributing editor to Governing magazine (and formerly executive editor for 19 years). It was written in 2013, but remains pertinent today.

Ehrenhalt sees through the fraud in the high-stakes testing obsession of our day, in which scores on standardized tests are used to label children, rate teachers, and close schools.

He begins by writing about the Tony Bennett grade-rigging scandal in Indiana, then moves on to Florida, where Jeb Bush launched measurement mania.

He writes:

The Tampa Bay Times newspaper lamented that “after grading schools for 15 years, Florida’s education leaders still cannot get it right.”

One might easily go further and argue that changing the results to make the picture look brighter, whether it involves outright cheating or not, is cause for embarrassment all by itself. If new test questions can have that much effect on a school’s overall performance grade, then why should anybody believe in the integrity of the system?

What’s especially humiliating is that Florida is the birthplace of the school testing movement, the state where former Gov. Jeb Bush decided in 1999 to begin awarding overall letter grades to individual schools to provide information for parents and help assess statewide educational performance. More than a dozen states have begun using a similar system since then, several of them just in the current year. Now they are being told that the Florida model they dutifully copied is too full of flaws to be trusted.

That matters a great deal because a lot more is riding on FCAT test scores than just local bragging rights. If a school receives repeated grades of D or F, it can be required by the state to take a variety of drastic measures, such as making the entire faculty reapply for their jobs, converting the school to a charter or closing it down altogether. So public confidence in the grading process is essential if the state is to have any credibility as a dispenser of draconian educational remedies.

States applying or adapting the Florida model have learned that changing the questions on the test, or switching to a new type of test altogether, can result in wildly fluctuating school grades. School officials in New Mexico this year were delighted to find out that the number of schools receiving A grades had more than doubled in comparison with the results from the year before. Was this the product of innovative new pedagogical techniques? Well, no. It was because the state had abandoned the federally designed No Child Left Behind test and switched to a new one designed by state education experts. Mississippi had a similar experience. Its school test scores went up dramatically because state officials took the expedient step of removing high school graduation rates from the list of test criteria for some schools.

The dramatically higher scores that resulted were a cause for initial state elation. But on further review, they raised another serious question. If the testing process is based on solid educational research, then the results from different tests ought to be reasonably congruent. If the results are dramatically disparate, there is a disturbing suggestion that the people writing the tests aren’t sure what it is they are supposed to be measuring.

Then he shifts his focus to Maine:

Maine is another state that has endured a season of controversy based on the introduction of its new school grading procedures. Gov. Paul LePage, a tireless advocate of school measurement, pushed through a new system this year based largely on the Florida model. Schools were evaluated on student test scores in reading and math; the percentage of students who had shown improvement in their scores during the past year, especially among the bottom 25 percent; graduation rates among upper-level students; and percentage of students who take the national SAT exam.

When the statewide results were tallied, Maine’s schools averaged a C grade—a reasonable enough sounding score. But when researchers in the state began looking at the results in greater detail, they found something that disturbed them. What the tests were really tracking was demographics. Schools in poorer communities around the state nearly all finished lower than their counterparts in affluent suburbs, regardless of academic methods. High schools that were graded A had an average of 9 percent of their students on free or reduced price lunch. Schools that got an F had 61 percent of their students receiving subsidized lunches. To a great extent, the test was simply a measure of poverty, not school quality.

He recognizes that testing has become a problem in itself:

It is hard not to conclude in the end that the school testing movement represents a popular fad in educational policy that is desperately lacking in either substantive methodology or common sense. Its fundamental assumption, underneath all the jargon, is that schools fail because they just aren’t trying hard enough, not because they are being asked to educate pupils who are culturally and socially unprepared to learn. Cooking the books on the tests won’t do anything to solve this problem. All it will do, when the extent of the mischief is revealed, is undermine public confidence in the entire enterprise of school testing.

We have gotten into the business of measuring school performance with precise testing numbers because it’s something we know how to measure. In doing so, we leave aside the subtler and more personal things that teachers and principals do all the time to make their schools function in an orderly way and disseminate as much learning as they possibly can. In the words of Roger Jones, a professor at Lynchburg College in Virginia, one of the states that enacted an A-F grading system this year: “We have gotten so caught up in testing that we have lost sight of a true education.”

Jeb Bush went before the convention of the National Urban League and touted his credentials as a reformer. He started a charter school in 1996 in high-poverty Liberty City.

Politico reports:

“Jeb Bush spoke about his time founding Florida’s first charter school and boasted about his track record on education as Florida governor in a speech to the National Urban League. The experience of starting a school “still shapes the way I see the deep-seated challenges facing people in urban communities today,” Bush said. “So many people could do so much better in life if we could come together and get even a few big things right in government. I acted on that belief as governor of Florida. It’s a record I’ll gladly compare with anyone else in the field.”

But Jeb didn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t say that the school developed financial problems, and he lost interest in it. He didn’t say that the school closed its doors in 2008.

He didn’t tell the whole truth. He didn’t talk about the kids who were stranded when the school closed. He didn’t mention that Florida has become a rich playground for for-profit charter entrepreneurs. He didn’t share his knowledge about the perils of charters that open and close with frequency.

Blogger Kafkateach thinks that the new Florida plan to give $10,000 to new teachers based on their SAT scores in high school is the worst “reform” idea yet.

She writes:

“I thought the Florida VAM was the biggest insult ever created for veteran teachers until June when the Florida Best and Brightest Scholarship was snuck into the budget which gives teachers a $10,000 bonus if they scored in the top 20th percentile on their SATs. New hires will automatically qualify but for veteran teachers you must also win the VAM lotto to qualify for the $10,000. You will now have teachers with no teaching experience making $10,000 more than 12 year veterans based on their college entrance exams. It just keeps getting worse and worser. https://kafkateach.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/floridas-best-and-brightest-scholarship-brought-to-you-by-dumb-and-dumber/”

In this post, she writes:

I try not to slander individuals in my blog or use specific names, but every once in a while, an individual does something so incredibly stupid and offensive that they merit public ridicule. Erik Fresen has long been a Florida public school teacher’s worst nightmare. He spear headed campaigns for merit pay, the end of tenure, and has close ties to the charter industry. Unlike other bone headed anti-teacher legislation to come out of Tallahassee, there are only two specific people to blame for the fact that $44 million tax payer dollars will be wasted rewarding teachers for their high school college entrance exam scores- Erik Fresen who came up with the idea, and Governor Rick Scott, who helped sign it into law during a special budget session without any public debate or legislative approval because even members of Erik Fresen’s own party thought it was a stupid idea.

“State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called the legislation the “worst bill of the year” and an example of how the legislative process has broken down, the Herald-Tribune’s Zac Anderson reported.”

“The bill went through absolutely no process,” Detert said. “Never got a hearing in the Senate. We refused to hear it because it’s stupid.”

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, agreed. Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, blamed Gov. Rick Scott. “If the governor felt so good about vetoing not-for-profit health-care clinics and Manatee Glens,” he said, “why the hell didn’t he veto that line item?”

Fresen, who told other legislators that “multiple studies indicate students learn more from teachers who achieved high SAT or ACT scores” and that such teachers should be rewarded, has no regrets.”

Fresen says he got this dumb idea when he read Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World.” He wanted to lure more smart people to teach in Florida.

But Kafkateach portrays another scenario that plays out on Fresen’s brother-in-law’s yacht en route to a charter school convention. The question that Fresen and his sister and brother-in-law discuss is how to get the public to pay a bonus to get more Teach for America kids to staff the family charter chain schools. And Fresen got it done, bilking taxpayers of $44 million to pay new teachers for their high-school test scores.

Kathleen Oropeza of “Fund Education Now,” a grassroots parent group in Florida, says the bill demonstrates “the unbearable ridiculousness of school reform.” She says it was tailor-made for TFA. Veteran teachers can’t qualify for the bonus unless they have both a “highly effective” rating on VAM and scored above the 80th percentile on their SAT-ACT; new teachers need only the high school college admission test scores.

Imagine that you have been teaching 15-20 years in Florida, and you have been rated highly-effective by Florida’s arcane and incoherent rating system. If you want that bonus, you better find the scores on the test you took 20-25 years ago.

This may be the stupidest reform idea of all time. Of course, there’s always tomorrow.

The new superintendent in Palm Beach County was hired from the Fulton County School District in Georgia; Georgia has a law permitting “charter districts.” Superintendent Robert Avossa now wants to try it in Palm Beach County, where parents have been fighting for years to keep the hands of the charter industry out of their county. In his application for the job of Superintendent in PBC (which he assumed in June), he spoke of his passion for public education; there was no indication that he would immediately bring in the privateers, entrepreneurs, and fly-by-night operators whose charters overpopulate the lowest-performing schools in the state.

The Palm Beach Post reported:


Palm Beach County’s schools chief wants permission from state lawmakers to convert the county’s public school system into a “charter school district,” a designation that could let him end-run state rules and drastically reorganize schools’ schedules, class sizes and instruction time.

Superintendent Robert Avossa’s proposal would require approval from state lawmakers and the support of the county’s school board. If granted, he said the extra freedom would allow the county’s traditional public schools to better compete with charter schools, which have more flexibility under state law and are attracting thousands of new students each year.

In light of the fact that the charter industry has already bought control of the state legislature, he is not likely to have much opposition there. The question is whether the local school board is as happy to privatize public schools as Superintendent Avossa is.

From a reader:

“Florida VAM formula … from the DOE website. This is a terrible joke.

y_i=μ+∑_(g=1)^M▒〖δ_g x_g 〗+∑_(j=1)^K▒〖β_j x_j+θ_(k)i+ω_(mk)i+ε_i; 〗

“VAM is a SCAM and my children will be no part of it.”

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