BY RACHEL SHARPE
The teacher strike in Chicago, that shut down their schools for seven days at the beginning of this school year, shocked people throughout the nation and brought attention to a host of educational reform issues that are mirrored in many other school districts in this country, including Broward County. The issues that have become sticking points in teacher negotiations everywhere range from compensation, including the much debated merit pay system, to smaller class sizes, to the increasing reliance upon standardized testing. Reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and understaffing of positions such as social workers and clinicians are additional issues that are hotly debated. At the same time, the charter school movement has exploded in this country, especially in Florida and certainly in Broward County. The Miami Herald reported it has grown into a $400-million-a-year infrastructure, backed by real estate developers and promoted by politicians, but with little oversight. Although there are many different pieces to the education system that warrant a closer look, the big question is whether or not some educational reforms are in fact doing what they were supposed to do, that is improve the quality of education.
Florida’s merit-pay plan rewards teachers whose student’s perform well on standardized tests. Introduced by Florida’s republican-controlled legislature, the merit-pay plan evolved from the No Child Left Behind law, which President George W. Bush designed to improve overall student performance and hold states accountable for student progress and achievement. No Child Left Behind included annual education progress tests, school and state report cards on an A-F grading scale, higher teacher qualifications and funding changes to provide poorer school districts with adequate funding for supplies. Florida also used $4.7 million of its federal Race to the Top money in order to fund the new evaluation system, which has since been adopted by 31 Florida school districts.
As No Child Left Behind allowed states to set their own rules for assessing student performance, the Florida legislature introduced the merit-pay plan as a means to accomplish that goal. Teachers and union groups have been critical of the plan for several reasons including the fact that merit-pay often leads to spending the majority of instructional time teaching students to take a test, which many feel is detrimental to students in the long run. Additionally, teachers say they shouldn’t be responsible for the fact that some students don’t put in the required effort no matter how well they are taught in the classroom.
“I don’t have control over whether my students go home and actually do their homework or study for tests,” said foreign language teacher Cynthia Turni. “There are so many variables that go into merit-pay. The system that the state is using to calculate merit-pay is at best questionable.”
Numbers calculated by the U.S. Department of Education however, show that students in Florida are making significant gains. From 1992-2011, Florida ranks second in the nation in student achievement improvement, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress report.
When asked about Florida’s merit pay system, Marcus Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said he believes looking at merit pay is the way to go although admittedly there are a lot of different parts of the education pie to examine.
“The focus on teacher quality is certainly a promising avenue, in part because we know that teachers are the most important part of public schools,” Winters said.
Standardized testing and teacher evaluations:
Another key disagreement that arose in the Chicago teacher strike was that of evaluating teachers and instructors on student achievement and improvement. Less than half of the states tie teacher evaluations to student progress, with Florida being one of those states.
Supporters believe that linking public school teacher job evaluations to student achievement will help to improve teacher quality and assess how well the teachers are teaching.
Critics believe that evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores is unfair because it doesn’t take all variables into account, including poverty, violence and homelessness. In addition, such teacher evaluations could put teachers at a greater risk for losing their jobs if their evaluations aren’t up to par with education standards.
In 2010, protests and teacher walkouts led former governor Charlie Christ to veto a bill that would tie fifty percent of teacher evaluations to student improvement on standardized tests. However, governor Rick Scott signed a similar bill into law when he took office the following year.
Under the “Student Success Act”, a formula is used to calculate student performance. The formula is so complex that many math teachers can’t even understand it. Teacher performance is categorized as “highly effective”, “effective”, “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory”.
Teachers and teachers unions across the state are less than satisfied with the evaluation system, which they believe is “wholly invalid.” President of the Florida Education Association teachers union Andy Ford recently stated “It’s time for the state’s education bureaucracy to stop trying to impose its will on teachers and administrators and start having a meaningful dialogue with us to put together a fair evaluation system that is understandable, valid and accepted.”
Although teachers are recognized as a very important ingredient in ensuring student’s success, the fact remains that it is more difficult for teachers to do their job when they are overwhelmed by large student to teacher ratios.
In 2002, an amendment to the Florida constitution approved setting a limit on the number of students per classroom in core subjects (English, social studies, math and science). In 2011, the Florida Legislature revised the list of “core” classes, by not counting Advanced Placement and college level classes under the class size calculation, due to drastic state budget cuts.
However, core classes in Broward County are still over the capped amount and creative tactics are being used to disguise the situation, including renaming courses in order to comply with class size reduction mandates.
“This year, I have 192 students,” Turni said. ‘It’s a challenge and it is taxing me physically and mentally.”
Parents who recognize the mounting problems in public schools are increasingly turning to charter schools as a better solution. When charter schools were initially created, they served as a solution to many of the problems in public schools, offering more choices, innovative techniques and smaller class sizes. Over the past few years, the Florida charter school system has grown into a $400 million a year industry, with more taxpayer dollars than ever being allocated to independently run charter schools.
However, recent reports indicate that charter schools are not always better. In fact, one-third of all charter schools fail and some fail because the money that the state has given them has been misused. Furthermore, there is very little accountability in the charter school system, even though they receive $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled.
A Miami Herald examination of South Florida’s charter school industry found that charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for profit management companies and private landlords – one in the same, in many cases rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.
Almost 12 percent of charter schools opened in the last 20 years have closed across the country and that number is doubled in Florida. In September, three Broward County charter schools were closed due to financial problems. Many teachers were left out of work and parents were left scrambling to find a school to send their children to.
President Obama however, is a supporter of charter schools. In a proclamation released by the White House, Obama stated, “ charter schools have brought new ideas to the work of educating our sons and daughters. Whether created by parents and teachers or community and civic leaders, charter schools serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country.”
With such drastic changes in our education system over the past several years, teachers, parents and students are left wondering whether most, if not all, of these changes branded “educational reforms” are what is best for education.