Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jeb Bush's legacy tarnished as High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.

From Scathing Purple Musings, by Bob Sykes

The Bradenton Times has a comprehensive story this morning titled, “High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.” Highlighting Manatee county’s decision, the Times has this:

In Florida, more than a dozen countywide school committees serving three-quarters of a million students endorsed the National Resolution, according to FairTest. Early supporters included Broward County, the nation’s sixth biggest district, and Palm Beach County, the 11th largest. Then, the state association of school boards annual convention voted to endorse a state-specific version. Dozens of newspaper editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor have called for a reduction in testing and an overhaul of the state’s assessment system.

Members of the Manatee School District feel an unjustified overemphasis is placed on high stakes testing. They voted to adopt the resolution at Monday night’s meeting.

“We are in favor of accountability – not against it,” Chairman Harry Kinnan said at Monday’s meeting. “Accountability is a fact of life. We are advocating change to the current demands of the legislation because we have seen no evidence that the legislative pipeline will bring relief to this issue.”

My emphasis on Chairman Kinnan’s statement illustrates how far apart the realities are. In Tallahassee legislators have been affecting education policy in Jeb Bush’s echo chamber where voices like Kinnan’s aren’t heard. Nor are they wanted.

The wave of resolutions against high-stakes testing is an emerging threat to Bush’s legacy as a transformative figure in education. He’s can’t demonize teacher unions or trot out favorable data this time as a legitimate counter. The resolutions are driven by real grassroot efforts that unlike faux charter school movements like Parent Revolution, aren’t funded by corporate and hedge fund dollars. Real opposition to his test-based regime is coming from parents – or consumers if you like – for whom Bush purports to be championing “choice.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis

From the Washinton Post's Answer Sheet, By Peter Smagorinsky

According to Wikipedia, cost–benefit analysis “is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project, decision or government policy (hereafter, ‘project’). CBA has two purposes:

1.To determine if it is a sound investment/decision (justification/feasibility),

2.To provide a basis for comparing projects. It involves comparing the total expected cost of each option against the total expected benefits, to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and by how much.”

I believe that it would be prudent to apply this process to the current accountability movement now being administered in public education, primarily in the form of testing mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Although I am not an economist — I’m an old high school English teacher now engaged in teacher education at the university level — I believe that I understand the issues at stake as well as anyone currently employed in the U.S. Department of Education.

First, let’s consider the costs. In Texas, taxpayers will pay about $93 million this year to administer standardized tests to Texas students . . . or nearly ten times the cost of just nine years earlier. The Georgia state Department of Education pays McGraw-Hill about $11 million a year to produce the CRCT, and more than $5.4 million to NCS Pearson for the EOCT; and as listed here, these are just two of the many tests administered in my home state. The annual cost of standardized testing in the United States has been estimated at somewhere between $20 billion and $50 billion.

Some defenders of standardized testing maintain that critics exaggerate the costs in order to overstate the case against the accountability movement. Upon further consideration, I must wonder exactly what is computed to determine the costs of test administration and scoring: Teacher salaries during test preparation? The cost of #2 pencils? Operating a school building on Saturdays to accommodate testing? And so on. With that caution, I’ll accept only the lowest estimate, a mere $20 billion price tag, and proceed from that assumption. Now, what are we getting for our $20 billion?

* Some of the lowest teacher morale survey responses ever recorded.

* Massive, pervasive cheating on tests by administrators, and by the teachers bullied into enforcing their pressure for high scores.

* Six-figure bonuses for school superintendents whose scores meet a minimum standard, no matter what it takes to achieve them.

* Federal penalties for schools caught cheating, denying them essential operating budgets.

* Students who see their role models on the faculty and in the administration behave in unethical ways in order to artificially raise test scores by cheating.

* Curriculum and instruction that focus on fragmented knowledge bits and avoid time-consuming, process-oriented, insight-driven teaching and learning.

* Immense profits for textbook publishers who have entered the competition for designing and administering the tests and writing the curriculum materials that are aligned with the tested content.

* An institutionalized assumption that poverty is not a factor in student achievement, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary.

Based on this cost-benefit analysis, I conclude that the accountability is making education very profitable for a limited number of publishing companies who, it turns out, have invested heavily in political connections (e.g., McGraw-Hill and the Bush family). It also is quite lucrative for school superintendents who don’t get caught cheating, although it can cost them their jobs if they do get caught. Apparently, their own cost-benefit analysis of cheating typically leads to high-risk behaviors with high-stakes consequences.

Other groups pay for the accountability, and not just through the taxes they pay to raise that $20 billion annually to support the testing apparatus. Teachers increasingly dislike their jobs and consider their work environments to be hostile and depressing. According to Richard Ingersoll, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide bolt the profession within five years because of the terrible working conditions; and a new report by the Education Trust identifies the “culture” of school—the work conditions — to be the top priority in a satisfying teaching career, particularly in high-poverty schools. The primary motive for entering a teaching career and staying in it, then, has been sacrificed to the accountability movement.

Students as well do not benefit from this approach. Rather, their education is reduced to an endless series of assessments of their ability to fill in bubble sheets, at the expense of more extended thinking such as writing or composing other sorts of texts that they find useful and meaningful.

I can only conclude that the $20 billion annually spent on testing as a means of educational accountability is a poor expenditure of our tax dollars. I would now like to propose a different means of assessment that I believe has greater validity as an educational measurement, and will produce a more satisfying teaching environment that is more likely to keep the best teachers in the profession. Unfortunately, it has the downside of failing to enrich superintendents and publishing companies, but I am willing to live with that unfortunate consequence.

But first, let’s keep that $20 billion budget available. Here’s how I would reinvest it, beginning with some suggestions for addressing the needs of children more than the needs of publishing companies and other wealthy entities cashing in on the new accountability mandates:

* Provide a good nursing staff, particularly in impoverished areas, so that kids who live in poverty can undertake their studies with a reasonable degree of health and balance. Sick, dizzy, aching, itching, wounded, and distracted children with limited access to health care or guidance in navigating the health system would benefit from the immediate care of a qualified health professional.

* Expand free and reduced-price meals for children from homes where fresh food is not available, and work to improve the healthiness of the food offerings under these services. Kids who haven’t eaten are very difficult to teach effectively.

* Staff school libraries with knowledgeable, helpful media specialists who can direct students to books that benefit their reading and educational development.

In general, invest in school infrastructures so that they are in good operating order, rather than falling apart at the seams.

Note that I am not calling for increased teacher salaries, although that would sure be nice. I am proceeding according to the assumption that for many teachers, good work conditions matter more than a high salary. So I am starting there, assuming that my $20 billion can only go so far.

My last suggestion concerns assessment. To be blunt: Standardized tests are a really stupid way to measure learning. Hardly anyone involved with education finds them to be valid; they are mostly believed to be worthwhile expenditures of time and money by people who have never taught. People like Arne Duncan and Bill & Melinda Gates.

I recommend instead that assessment proceed more authentically. Linda Darling-Hammond, Jacqueline Ancess, and Beverly Falk described this approach in the mid-1990s, and their ideas still resonate today — perhaps now more than ever. In their view, schools could institute such assessments as comprehensive, interdisciplinary projects through which students embody what they have learned during their studies. A boy might build a set of cabinets, for example, incorporating mathematics, physics, chemistry, kinesthetics, drawing, writing, speaking, and other knowledge and skills in order to design, build, polish, and then explain the project and what it involves. This proposal for project-based learning and assessment is taken up in some schools, such as Simon Hauger’s “Sustainability Workshop” in Philadelphia, where kids build solar charging stations, full-sized electric vehicles, and other machines to demonstrate their knowledge. Hauger, I should note, accomplishes these remarkable feats with kids from West Philly, not from The Main Line.

Now, some might wonder, how can this plan work, when it relies on such complicated projects and means of assessment? What about the elegant simplicity of a nice, firm test score? Doesn’t a quantitative test score tell more about a kid’s mathematical knowledge than his ability to measure a cabinet door so that it fits the frame? And what about the broader community? How will they know how this kid stacks up against another cabinet builder from Milwaukee? What if their cabinets both work equally well, albeit for different purposes—perhaps one to store DVDs, the other to display china? How will we know who won the Race To The Top under this approach?

Here’s where some of my $20 billion budget comes in handy. As part of a broader effort to increase internet capacity, some amount — let’s ballpark it at $2 billion annually, 10% of my budget, although I could be off by a few billion dollars — could be dedicated to expanding each school’s server space, or perhaps link each to a national database, so that each student’s work could be displayed. What would you rather be able to do: (1) learn that Freddi got a 79 on the CRT (and see if you can figure out what these scores even mean) or (2) go online and see a web demonstration of the new wardrobe that Freddi has designed, cut, sewn, and tailored along with a verbal account of the process she went through and the academic knowledge that she incorporated into the project?

So, there you have it, one person’s view of a cost-effective way to invest $20 billion in the necessity of educational assessment. It’s a bit more complicated that what we’ve presently got, just like learning and life in general. It puts money into classrooms and school infrastructures, instead of in the bank accounts of book publishers and the politicians they influence with contributions. It requires more work of the taxpayer in seeing and understanding educational outcomes, but the products are multidimensional and real, rather than paper-thin and abstract. And that new technological infrastructure could probably serve a few additional beneficial purposes for school districts beyond the immediate and designated purpose of publishing assessment results. I’m thinking here of one of my neighboring counties, where the computers available to teachers still use Windows 3.0 for their operating system.

I offer this proposal entirely for free, unlike the situation in states like Colorado where 35% of their federal education money is paid to consultants. You are free to take it or leave it. But whatever you do, you can’t say that it cost you too much.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Diane Ravitch: Does experience matter?

From the Diane Ravitch blog,

One of the axioms of corporate reform in education is that experience doesn’t matter. Also, they say, degrees don’t matter. Certification doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except “performance” or “results,” and these are defined as the “measurables,” the test scores. If a teacher can get students to produce higher test scores, he or she is a good teacher. If they can do it year after year, they are “great” teachers.

Reformers say that you can’t know in advance who the great teachers are. You have to collect the test scores for three or four years, and then you know who they are, and you give them a bonus. You also know who the “bad” teachers are, and you fire them.

But is it true that experience doesn’t matter? The reformers’ claim that teachers reach their peak performance by their third or fourth year, and they never get any better.

This could be taken in different ways. It might mean that teachers hit their stride in the third or fourth year, and districts should hold on to those who have reached that level. It also might mean that districts should avoid TFA, because most of them will leave after two years, and never hit their stride.

But reformers think it means experience doesn’t count, because teachers don’t continue to improve after that magical third or fourth year.

Of course, this is based on economists’ analysis of test scores, not interaction with teachers or deep study and observation of teacher performance.

This teacher disagrees:

After 26 years, I am still tryng to perfect my craft and get better every day. Building my own classroom library of close to 1,700 YAL books takes years. Reading most of them, or at least the first in a series, and keeping up with the interests of 12 and 13 year olds is constant, time-consuming and ever changing. There is so much that can’t be measured by a Gates selected “researcher” who has no clue how to relate to, motivate and respect children.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rick Scott wants to double down on high stakes testing

From Scathing Purple Musings, by Bob Sykes

The Tampa Bay Times Jeff Solochek reports on Rick Scott’s speech to Pasco County republicans. Knowing he was in the room with like-minded supporters, Scott let loose with predictable drivel on education:

Scott opened his remarks by praising Pasco Republicans for helping to elect conservatives like Will Weatherford, the incoming speaker of the Florida House. He urged them to continue their grassroots efforts to put more conservatives in office to help enact laws that families care about.

“What do you think families care about?” he said. “They want their children to get a great education. … They want to make sure they can get a job. And they don’t want government to raise the cost of living.”

He segued into the issue of teacher tenure.

“We love our teachers,” Scott said. “But no one should be guaranteed a job. Our principals should be able to … pick the best teachers.”

Republicans like Scott and some of those in the room probably bristled when Democrats would condemn the war in Iraq all the while maintaining that they supported the troops. A similar disconnect exists in Scott’s rhetoric. You can’t love teachers while mocking them.

But most telling about his appearance before this friendly audience is what Scott ignored: the growing number of school boards and parent groups who are passing resolutions on high-stakes testing. Writes Solochek:

Scott also mocked universities that are seeking to increase tuition by 15 percent each year, and spoke enthusiastically about continuing the state’s testing and accountability system. There has to be a way to measure results in the schools, he said. He related that he called a teacher who complained about the over-reliance on FCAT, a big issue these days. But when he asked the teacher for an alternative, the teacher had nothing to offer, Scott said with a smirk, as the audience tittered.

Scott – and Jeb Bush’s PR machine - are trying to spin that opposition to their test-dominated regime is coming from teachers. Not only are their efforts disingenuous, they are no longer intellectually defensible. Republican politicians are among the school boards who signed onto the resolutions which opposed their high-stake tests. Local school boards don’t really care what their teachers think anymore in large part due to demonization from Bush over the last decade.

Scott still feels that republicans are drinking the “choice” kool-aid:

Choice in the form of charters, vouchers and other options also help to improve education, the governor continued.

“Parents want choice,” he said. “All parents should have a choice. … Choice makes everyone better.”

With the Florida PTA joining other parent groups in the resolution on high-stakes tests, Scott and Bush can no longer claim to speak for parents. For them, choice means charter schools and vouchers. Not tests, you see. They build their choice arguments around the idea that parents know best, but outrageously deny their choice on testing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More high stakes tests coming for Florida's students

From the Tampa Bay Times, by Cara Fitzpatrick

A third of Americans can't name any of the three branches of government. Fewer than half understand what separation of powers is, and twice as many can name a judge on American Idol than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Survey after survey has shown that Americans lack basic knowledge about how their government works. That's something Florida lawmakers hope to change.

The state is introducing a new end-of-course exam in civics for middle school students, the first high-stakes test required for middle school promotion. Students now have to take a civics class in middle school. By the 2014-15 school year, they'll have to pass the end-of-course exam to attend high school.

High-stakes tests aren't new to Florida. Third-graders must pass the reading Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to move to the fourth grade, while high school students must pass the FCAT to graduate. The civics exam affects this year's incoming sixth-graders.

Leslie Christenson, a Hillsborough County mother of a rising sixth-grader, said she thinks the state should teach civics. But she thinks a high-stakes exam is overkill.

"I think it's good for them to know it, but not to be held back because of it," she said.

State education officials plan to field test the new civics exam this year. In the 2013-14 school year, 30 percent of a student's civics grade will depend on the test score.

The state also has developed other end-of-course exams, which affect high school graduation. This year's incoming ninth-graders will have to pass tests in algebra, biology and geometry to graduate. Students also will take an end-of-course exam in U.S. history, but it won't affect graduation.

The new civics exam represents a big change for Florida, which only recently began to require students to take a separate civics class. For years, the subject often was included in a government class, usually taken at the end of high school.

Of Florida school districts surveyed between 2003 and 2005, fewer than 10 percent offered a stand-alone civics course, according to the Florida Law Related Education Association.

Lawmakers changed that in 2010, requiring students to take the end-of-course exam and one semester of civics in middle school. It passed without any opposition in either the state House or Senate.

Christenson said she fears that students won't be interested in civics and it might make it tough for them to pass the end-of-course exam.

"They're not going to want to study it," she said.

Some teachers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties already are using a virtual program, iCivics, to try to engage students.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor created the iCivics program after leaving the bench to address the lack of government knowledge among Americans. It offers virtual civics lessons and interactive gaming modules, alongside lectures and homework assignments.

Eric Leopold, a civics teacher at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, said that the favorite games of his students are "Counties Work," "Do I Have a Right," and "Immigration Nation." He credits the games with improving students' knowledge of political issues.

Angela Zollo, social studies department chair at Palm Harbor Middle School, said that the iCivics programs "reinforce the civics standards that we are required to teach."

"It is a great visual and hands-on activity for students," she said.

Nicholas Fox, 13, used iCivics when he was a student in Leopold's class. He said he enjoyed the games and "learning about the law."

"Coming into it from sixth grade, I did know about the very basics — like that there are three branches of government — but I didn't know a lot," he said. "After I took the class, I learned."

Correspondent Alexander Heffner contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at, (727)-893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Teachers join parents and school boards in saying no to the FCAT

From the Tampa Times, by Jeff Solochek

The push for an end to state's heavy reliance on standardized test results got another boost late Monday when the National Education Association annual representative assembly adopted a resolution opposing the "misuse" of testing.

Hundreds of delegates from Florida participated in the event and supported the resolution.

"In Florida, we know the negative impact that the testing mania is having on our students, our teachers and on public confidence in our schools," Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said in a news release. "It's past time that we undertake a comprehensive examination of the testing culture in our schools and align standardized tests so they help students and that the tests are not improperly used."

The NEA's move comes as little surprise. The teachers union was among the original backers of the National Resolution On High-Stakes Testing. But its voice does add to the chorus in the state and country that is pushing back against what they say is a pendulum swing too far in the direction of high stakes placed on testing for accountability.

Florida political leaders have said there's no turning back on testing on their watch. But they have signaled a willingness to at least talk about how the results are used.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pinellas 50 Applicants for Super, Duval 2

I knew we were in trouble but I didn't know this much. -cpg

From the Times Union, by Topher Sanders

Duval County Public Schools' Chief Academic Officer has applied for the superintendent position in Pinellas County.

Kathryn “Kathy” LeRoy is among 50 applicants for the Pinellas job. LeRoy came to Duval County from Miami Dade in 2007 in the role of Chief Officer of Math and Science. She was promoted in 2008 to Chief Academic Officer.

Inquires for comment from LeRoy were not immediately returned.

LeRoy received letters of recommendation from board member Paula Wright and from former School Board candidate and education consultant Kenneth Manuel.

John Heymann’s charity pays him six figures in salary

$118,464 to be exact. Maybe six figures isn’t what it used to be but I have real issues with administrators making six figures at the same time we are cutting art teachers and Para professionals and at the same time when so many teachers have to pay for basics out of their own pockets. People have the right to make as much as they can in the private sector and I am all for teachers getting paid more too, but at the same time our schools have needs going unmet while more and more people seem to doing pretty well on education’s dime.

I wonder is he will turn down a school board salary if elected. He hasn’t said so one way or another.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

School Board member Becki Couch says, there is a boogeyman!

Well she actually said the district was required to have word wall Nazis but that’s practically the same thing as a boogeyman.

When giving an impassioned monologue about how being on the school board is different than being a teacher (really?!?) she said the district is often forced by Tallahassee to do things they think are bad for our teachers, kids and schools and above was one of the examples she gave.

I wonder if Tallahassee also forced the district to get rid of our attendance and tardy policies, gut discipline, destroy rigor and treat teachers like second-class citizens because those are some of the things the district has done too?

Public Education's obituary

From EducationAlchemey

If you are a person of a morbid and twisted ilk like myself, then you perhaps, like me, have tended from time to time to mentally write your own obituary, or to imagine what it might sound like. I like to do this, especially when I am taking off in an airplane. The mental exercise demands that I take honest and immediate stock of my life: Do I have any regrets? Do I need to mend any relational fences? Have I been the person I have wanted to be? Have I lived fully? What is left undone that is of importance to me?

You get the idea. When the plane lands, which (obviously) it has done every time so far, I am left more compelled than ever to remind myself of what’s important, and take actions I might not have otherwise. It’s easy in daily life to get bogged down in the not so important bullshit and to lose sight of what matters.

In the last two days I have taken to imagining the obituary for public education, should that ever come to pass. How would it read? Here lies public education … death by homicide (at the violent hands of corporate reform)? Or, will it read “…death by suicide (at the hands of our own fear, and or apathy)?

I don’t write this with the assumption that public education WILL die! First, if I really thought its demise was inevitable I would not dedicate the emotional and physical efforts I do—taking time away from my children, from any remote resemblance of a personal life, risking my job security, or sacrificing sleep—if I thought the fight was in vain. Secondly, if indeed we are to lose this battle, I can sleep with myself at night knowing that anything that the reformers took from me, my profession, my children’s education, or our democratic rights as a society, they took from me with deeply embedded claw marks in it.

I choose death by homicide. In other words: “Game on mother fuckers- come and get me.”

If you’ve been following recent discussions and events around the NEA, and its convention going on right now in Washington DC, you know there’s been a great deal of discord and debate over several matters including a statement made by United Opt Out National’s call for the NEA leaders and members to step up and take direct and decisive action against the trifecta of education reform: The imposition of a national common core, Value Added Measures in teacher evaluations (VAM), and high stakes testing.

As someone who had a hand in writing the statement, I think my feelings about the matter are self-evident. But if you’re someone who read the statement made by United Opt Out and hated it, believe it or not, I love you for it. Really. I am not being smarmy. Why? Because the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. The passionate disagreement shows that you still care. Whatever I say, and even if you disagree with me (or I risk being misunderstood) shows at least I am in this for the fight, I am willing to take risks, I am willing to piss you off, because remaining silent out of fear is worse than not being liked.

I’d rather step on a giant land mine trying to escape my own death than stand still with my eyes shut and wait for the bullets to rip holes through the cavity of my body. I’m a believer in ripping open the dialogue right down to the bone. Why? Because even if you disagree with me, even if you don’t like me I can still like, and respect you. I don’t treat personal relationships like baseball trading cards. Because only from discord, can new possibilities emerge. Because discord only happens over something that matters. Because my god, we’ve been playing the polite quiet game out of fear waaayyy too long. And the reformers gain rapid ground everyday that we play “nice.” We’ve been avoiding the necessary conversations and perhaps uncomfortable actions too long.

Disagreements and discord do not trouble me so much as silence. Everyone knows that the end of a marriage isn’t when the fighting starts. Its when the fighting stops.

Every day that teachers are afraid to take actions, or are resigned to “their fate” because of potential backlash from “higher ups,” the reformers put a nail in our coffin. In higher education where I work I hear my own colleagues tell each other “Shhh, shhhh….don’t say that, you’ll get in trouble!” as if we were little kids using the word poop at the dinner table. “You can’t say this! Don’t do that! Be careful not to…” Everywhere educators are now told what they can and cannot speak to, what they can and cannot teach, and pretty much where and when they are allowed to take a shit. Enough. I’d rather step in shit than be afraid to move. Our discords may be ugly sometimes, but I’ll take them (as we fight against our collective homicide) over suicide any day.

Suicide is the result of fear and/or apathy- it’s either death by paralysis, or death by not caring enough to think that your actions can matter. It’s like not even having the desire to move off the tracks when you see the train coming.

Is that how we wish for the obituary for one of the most significant cornerstones of our democratic society to be written? That we were too afraid or too resigned to do everything, absolutely everything, we could do in our power to try and save it from the hands of corporate greed and self interest?

Death by suicide will happen if too many of us—teachers and teacher leaders—remain silent out of fear (of not being liked? Of making people we respect angry? At losing something we have or not getting something we want?). Don’t worry, the corporate reformers will take all of that from us anyway if we remain silent long enough.

Everywhere: In unions Local, state and national), in non-union states, in k-12 classrooms, in universities, in PTA meetings, on the playground with other parents—everywhere, parents, teachers and teacher leaders MUST not allow the story of the future of public education be consigned to writing a suicide note. If it must be death by homicide so be it. But I am at my very core hopeful this will not happen because I am a believer in miracles. I am a believer in the underdogs. I am a believer in the 11th hour. I am a believer in “fat lady” who sings.

And I am hopeful because what I have seen lately has been anything but indifference. Agree or disagree. We debate. We misunderstand. We understand but don’t agree anyway. We differ. We hold fast to our own ideas while being willing to listen to others. We discuss. We consider alternative views. We wrangle with provocative ideas. So I have hope.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tuition rising, job prospects dwindling, what is a recent grad to do?

From the Tampa Bay Times, By Kim Wilmath and Alli Langley

Tuition increases taste like ramen noodles.

They sound like an alarm clock going off hours before class, leaving enough time for an extra shift at a minimum-wage job. They feel like delayed grad school. Like yet another loan.

"Our costs are going up, but everything that could help us is either going away or dwindling," said University of South Florida senior Aaron Campbell.

Far away from the board room where higher education leaders decided last week that — for the fifth year in a row — state budget cuts make tuition hikes a necessary evil, students are having a hard time with their end of the bargain.

From ground-level, it's tough to see the university layoffs avoided and courses saved when the sticker price keeps going up. It doesn't seem fair when news headlines show a sagging job market waiting on the other side.

Even while Congress voted Friday to freeze the interest rate of federally subsidized student loans for a year, students aren't celebrating. Consistent tuition increases mean those loans cover less each year.

This is the reality of higher education in Florida and elsewhere: Students are paying more and more, and they can't tell what they're getting for it.

Take Campbell, for instance.

With graduation on the horizon, the 22-year-old music education major is suddenly paying close attention to the value of his degree. What he sees makes him nervous.

Jobs are harder to find than ever. And he'll definitely need one — not only to pay for rent and food and the rest of it, but to pay off his student loans.

"They kind of have us by the short hairs," Campbell said.

Florida's higher education leaders are left with little choice.

The governor wants the state to lead the nation in affordability, yet he signed a budget that includes a cut to universities with eight zeros in it.

With Gov. Rick Scott's feelings in mind, the board charged with overseeing the state university system last week did not approve 15 percent tuition increases for every school, as allowed by law and as it has for the past few years. Instead, the Florida Board of Governors divvied up hikes to the state's 11 universities that ranged from 9 percent at the University of Florida to the maximum 15 percent at just a handful — a move Scott still deemed "disappointing."

But the hikes still don't come close to making up the decline in state support over the last five years, a drop of almost half with tuition making up only about 20 percent of the difference.

"I think it's easier to make a decision on tuition when you're adding value to a university, in a flat budget year," board chairman Dean Colson said after the vote last week. "When tuition increases instead are affecting how much money you're not losing, it's a different dynamic."

So, really, nobody's satisfied.

The frustration was evident Friday, when board members heard one university argue for a higher tuition increase than it was granted last week.

Quality costs money, said Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees chairwoman Robbie Roepstorff, who appealed for a 14 percent increase instead of the 12 percent the school was allowed. Without extra money, course sections could shrink and class sizes could grow.

"Our students," she said, "absolutely deserve no less."

The appeal was denied.

On the federal front, students were bracing for another serious blow — as Congress went down to the wire Friday before deciding to stop some student loan interest rates from doubling.

If lawmakers hadn't agreed at the last minute to pay for a $6 billion rate freeze, loan payments would have increased for 7 million students across the country, 450,000 in Florida, by an average of $1,000.

Not exactly pocket change.

"It's easy for people to say it's just another $1,000," said 21-year-old Jessica Winder. But for the USF psychology senior planning on earning her doctorate, the costs of student loan debt is already "astronomical."

"You have to keep tightening up the change purse," she said. "But how much tighter can you tighten it? The college student lifestyle is eating ramen noodles every night."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at or (813) 226-3337. Alli Langley can be reached at

Debt burden gets heavier

Congress passed a measure Friday that will freeze the interest rate of some student loans for the next year.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act gradually reduced the interest rate of federally subsidized Stafford loans from 6.8 percent in 2007 to 3.4 percent in 2011. The bill will expire Sunday, and the rate would have automatically returned to where it was before —if Congress hadn't passed the rate freeze.

People can't file for bankruptcy on their student loan debt – unlike almost every other type of debt – except in rare cases in which borrowers can show that repaying would cause undue hardship.

More measures go into effect Sunday that shift education costs to students:

• Students pursuing graduate and professional degrees will become responsible for the interest on their student loans while they're in school and immediately after they graduate.

• The federal government will no longer pick up the tab for the interest on loans during the six-month grace period after undergraduates finish school.

• Fewer students will now qualify for the $5,550 full Pell Grant. During the past academic year, families that made $32,000 or less automatically qualified, but for the coming year families must make no more than $23,000.

Monday, May 30, 2011

College is far from a priority with today's politicians

From the Tampa Bay Times editorial staff

The nation's great system of public universities got its start 150 years ago this week when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, creating land-grant colleges. The Congress of 1862, convened while the United States was engulfed in the Civil War, took an enlightened long view and saw the value of strong government support for higher education. Unlike today's leaders, members of that Congress were able to look beyond a depressing present to a better future — and were willing to provide the means and money to educate tomorrow's citizens.

These congressmen didn't demur. They didn't say that military expenditures had to come first or that there was no time, amid a war, to worry about anything else. Instead, they made an audacious bet on the future of a country in crisis. They gave away hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for states to sell to create endowments to start colleges. From such farsighted leadership came the great public research universities we have today. The University of Florida was the state's first land-grant institution, and Florida A&M University benefited from a later iteration of the act. Across the country, more than 70 universities benefited, including the renowned University of California.

Contrast that achievement with today, where state and federal support for higher education has declined and students are increasingly left to shoulder more of the burden. Today's leaders face no bloody Civil War, merely an economic downturn, but still they retreat at a full run from the promise to higher education made by their forebears, a vow that made higher education a democratic meritocracy and fostered the American Century.

Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, after whom the land-grant act was named, never attended college. He was the son of a blacksmith who couldn't afford the tuition. But Morrill made his own way in the world and when he had the chance, he pushed the legislation that opened up to the deserving masses the very education that he had been denied. Now there's a history lesson.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Was America ever number 1 in education?

From the Washington Post's Answer sheet, By David E. Drew

Policy makers and politicians like to talk about “restoring America’s leadership” in education. Our high school students rank low when tested in math and science compared with their counterparts in other countries, but, they say, we can move our students back into the top ranks with effective reforms.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan frequently gives speech about restoring America’s leadership in education. Not to be outdone, the subtitle of the Romney education policy statement is “Mitt Romney’s plan for restoring the promise of American education.”

The slogan of the ExxonMobil National Math and Science Initiative is “Let’s get back to the head of the class.”

To be sure, effective educational reforms can significantly improve the academic performance of American students. But the idea that the United States once was a world leader in elementary and secondary education, while a compelling part of our belief system, is false. We never ranked #1. We can’t get back to the head of the class because we never were the head of the class.

In fact, we always have scored at, or near, the bottom of the rankings.

There are, in fact, other misconceptions about math and science education, but this false belief is the most pervasive and deserves close examination.

America has always been, and remains, a world leader in higher education. That means comments about “restoring” America’s leadership must refer to K-12 schools.

Fragmented evidence suggests that American schools demanded much more of their students in the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century. Examine, for example, these historicvNew York State Regents exams in mathematics. But we have no systematic comparative data about what other countries were requiring in those earlier eras.

The only rigorous data comparing national educational achievement were collected and reported after World War II, i.e., after digital computers became available to process and analyze the data.

America is an extraordinary country. I am optimistic about the potential of American students and American schools. But we should begin by facing reality squarely, not by living in a dream world about a mythical past.

I recently tracked down every international assessment of math and science achievement since these massive comparative projects began decades ago. Some of the early data were found in the stacks of our university library, since they have not, to my knowledge, been digitalized.

Twentieth Century Assessments of Math and Science Achievement

Let’s examine math and science testing of high school students. American elementary and middle school students have sometimes placed better on these assessments. But high school performance is much more closely related to college and career achievement.

In 1965, the Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted a study of mathematical achievement in 12 countries. Students were asked to solve 70 problems. Among math students, the top scoring countries were Israel (a mean score of 36.4 correct items), England (35.2), Belgium (34.6), and France (33.4). US students placed last, with a mean score of 13.8.

The IEA conducted an international assessment of mathematics during the 1981-82 school year. Twelfth-grade students were assessed on six topics: number systems, sets and relations, algebra, geometry, elementary functions and calculus, and probability and statistics. Hong Kong students scored best, Japan was second, and the United States ranked last among advanced industrial countries.

However, U.S. calculus students scored about average; note, though, fewer students were studying calculus in the US in the early 80s than in other nations. The authors commented that, “at the 12th grade level, the U.S. curriculum is much more like that of early years of secondary school elsewhere, while the curriculum of most other countries is more like that of beginning college level.” In other words, our expectations for U.S. students were too low.

In 1989, a dozen countries and Canadian provinces participated in a mathematics assessment conducted by the Educational Testing Service. Korea, French Quebec, and British Columbia were the top three. The United States.

An international study in the 1990s tested 13 year olds in mathematics in 15 countries. The United States placed next to last, above Jordan.

Here are the results of science assessments of high school students: In 1973, the U.S. rank was 14 out of 14 countries. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. rank in biology was 13 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in chemistry was 11 out of 13 countries; the U.S. rank in physics was 9 out of 13 countries. In 1991, the U.S. rank in science was 13 out of 15.

At no time was the performance of U.S. students excellent or outstanding on these exams.

In contrast with the conventional wisdom that the U.S performance has declined in recent decades, our performance has actually improved slightly. The hard work of teachers, students, and parents has started to pay off.

Criticisms and Limitations of These Assessments

Three main criticisms have been leveled at these tests.

1. The United States has a higher poverty rate than most industrialized countries, and students in poverty tend to achieve less than their more affluent counterparts.

2. The tests tend to favor countries with a uniform, centralized curriculum, and the United States has a decentralized system.

3. Some question whether our nation could have become a world leader in technology and innovation if our schools really were weak.

It is unlikely that, if the United States were suddenly to adopt a uniform curriculum, we would then vault to the top ranks. The major explanation for our national technological leadership focuses on the aforementioned world-class colleges and universities. These institutions provide a superb undergraduate and graduate education and conduct innovative research.

Poverty does significantly affect student achievement and the impact of poverty deserves a closer look.

Schools with High Poverty Rates

Some argue that if you remove the test scores of students in poverty from America’s performance, our test scores are among the best in the world. Then, they say, you are comparing apples with apples, since we have a much higher poverty rate than most other countries.

Poverty rates in this country are disturbingly high, among the highest in the developed world. Children cannot learn when they are afraid to walk to school, when they are hungry all day, when they are in ugly, deteriorating school buildings, when they never encounter a gifted teacher. While there are extraordinary exceptions, the weakest teachers tend to be assigned to the highest poverty schools. Poverty is a major factor impeding school achievement in this country.

But discarding U.S. scores from high-poverty schools before making international comparisons is a flawed analysis design.

Some analysts have dropped the bottom 20% of American scores and then compared our students with all students in other nations. This is an unfair comparison that stacks the deck in favor of American students. In fact, this is comparing apples with bananas.

Last fall, the San Francisco 49ers had a record of 13 wins and 3 losses. If we drop the bottom 20% of their games (approximately 3 games), we could argue that they were the best team in the NFL. They would be unbeaten!

The appropriate educational comparison — apples with apples — would be to drop the bottom 20% from each nation. If this were done, I suspect the American ranking would improve somewhat, but we would not be at or near the top. This was the result when scores for the top 5% in each country were compared in an early international study.

America is an exceptional, vibrant, creative nation, the greatest democracy ever to grace this planet. We don’t need to create fantasies about our educational history.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Diane Ravitch: Turnaround schools experience teacher bloodbath, teachers let go at record pace

From the Diane Ravitch blog

This era may be remembered as the time when our nation’s leaders decided to break the spirits of our teachers and to close enough schools to instill fear in the hearts of all educators

I don’t know which “thought leader” came up with the idea that the best way to “fix” a school with low test scores is to fire the principal and at least half the staff. I don’t know the evidence to support this policy of wiping the slate clean without individual evaluations.

But now with the federal imprimatur of Race to the Top, it’s happening in many school districts. And of course, the U.S. Department of Education will stretch to prove that lowering the boom works, because it’s their idea. But how do you persuade the public and especially communities of color where the axe will fall most often that this punitive strategy is a good idea?

Imaginary scene: Some bright PR guy or gal figured out how important language is in selling a really destructive idea. “How can we explain to people that we are firing most of the teachers and renaming the neighborhood school? The one that everyone knew and loved for fifty years? How do we make this unpleasant reality palatable?” Ponder, ponder.

“Ah, I’ve got it! When we shut down their school and fire everyone, let’s call it a “turnaround!” That sounds like a dance around the Maypole. It sounds so festive. It’s positive and happy.

“Crazy idea. No one will believe that. No one is that stupid.”

“Think so? Let’s try it and see how it goes.”

With that context, here is how it went for this teacher in New York City. This comment and the events it describes occurred before the arbitrator postponed the school turnarounds last Friday. Some teachers had already found other jobs. Those who choose to remain have a one-year lease on life, unless a court throws out the arbitrator’s decision. The bottom line: chaos, uncertainty, disruption. This is no way to run a school or a school system.

It was a bloodbath today (or yesterday now, I guess) in my turnaround school in Queens where a majority of the teachers received rejection letters from the hiring committee. It was a surreal day… Highlights include: the apologetic school aide giving out paychecks/stubs asking you to turn in your keys if you weren’t hired back; the receiving line of people who felt too guilty for getting hired back and stood giving out hugs and saying teary goodbyes to people they won’t ever work with again; the line of people leaving the building with cardboard boxes that encompassed their careers; and the keepsake pen left in our mailboxes with the former name of the school–the cheap goodbye prize that will forever remain a reminder of the humiliation and degradation suffered on this day.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Misinformation about the FCAT spread by Jeb Bush supporters

From the Palm Beach Post letter's page

Allowing a charter school lobbyist to crow about the wonders of FCAT is like the NRA convincing us that AK47 ownership is a good thing. (“Too many standardized tests? Local school districts share the blame,”June 18).

The author of that propaganda piece is Patricia Levesque, a lobbyist and leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school companies pushing new education laws that will bring them all much financial gain — to the detriment of our public schools. Levesque has no education degree nor has she ever been an educator, yet she is attempting to alter public education as we know it. Her frightening, underhanded tactics to privatize education are detailed in a recent article in The Nation (“How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools”) available online—just Google it.

Her Post op-ed was typical of the misinformation she spreads. Like Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson who recently quipped that educators “just don’t like tests,” she blames educators, school districts, and school boards for the damage actually caused by FCAT. She cites misleading statistics and fails to note the overwhelmingly negative aspects of standardized testing.

Yes it’s disheartening that a lobbyist has so much sway with our state’s public education system, and that our education commissioner is a charter school cheerleader, and that our state school board includes no actual educators. But at least the motives of these folks are being exposed, and educators and the public are taking action. The latest desperate PR efforts from both Levesque and Commissioner Robinson are proof positive that they are concerned with the growing anti-standardized test movement. Let’s keep them in the hot seat.

JEFF FESSLER, West Palm Beach, Jeff Fessler was 2010-2011 Palm Beach County teacher of the year.

Kudos to The Post for hitting the nail on the head with the recent editorial: “It’s the FCAT that’s failing.”

The education of Florida’s populace has been turned into a political football by Florida’s unscrupulous politicians. Since when do Tallahassee’s bureaucrats qualify as the ones responsible for educating our youth? I’m not a teacher, but I know from personal experience, having graduated from a Florida high school and university, that FCAT should be scrapped, as constant teaching to a test is not teaching, period!

The editorial was right on the money when it stated that “…politicians twisted the FCAT into a tool to bring about a future in which traditional public schools wither.” Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson should be asked to step down, as anyone who believes that charter and voucher schools are the future of education is obviously unfit to represent Florida’s public education system.


As the parent of a 4th grade student in Palm Beach County, I want respond to the propaganda piece by Jeb Bush’s corporate-funded mouthpiece, Patricia Lavesque (“Too many standardized tests? Local school districts share the blame,” June 18).

The Florida Department of Education is in total damage control after the most recent failure of FCAT. Ms. Levesque, a highly paid lobbyist, is breaking out the big gun to convince parents that Tallahassee legislators, not our elected school boards, know what is best for the children of Florida. A decade of “tweaking” FCAT results are far more than simple “growing pains” Ms. Levesque would have us believe. Evidence suggests to me (and to so many educators much smarter than me) that the FCAT is fatally flawed. Why should any parent allow the state to give their young child a flawed test that can produce devastating, damaging, long-lasting results? How can that possibly be in the best interests of my daughter?