Friday, March 4, President Obama appeared on stage at Miami Central High School in Miami , Florida , with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and ex-governor Jeb Bush to kick off "Education Month."
by Jennie Smith
This is a statement that any educator or parent would agree with. However, it is not a statement that the new governor of the state of Florida , Rick Scott, agrees with, as his proposed budget would slash education funding by 10%--after repeated budget cuts over the past 2.5 years.
The President expressed his respect for the teaching profession and reiterated that teachers need to be honored for the challenging work that they do every day:
All of these things were basic truisms that hardly anyone (besides the governors and legislators of the state of Florida , Wisconsin , Indiana , Ohio and Fox News) could disagree with. Yet as a teacher and a union member and activist in the audience at this speech, none of these generic truths stirred me much. What did create an impression upon me--and not a positive one--was the fact that the President was sharing the stage with ex-governor Jeb Bush. Not only was he voluntarily sharing the stage, but he congratulated Jeb Bush for his work in education reform:
As a teacher in the state of Florida fighting so hard not only with my union but with an overwhelming majority of non-union teachers the legislation that Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future has been trying to ram through the state legislature for the past year--also known as Senate Bill 6 of last year, and Senate Bill 736 this year--not to mention the narrowed curriculum that the focus on FCAT and school grades has caused (these were inventions of Governor Jeb Bush) to the exclusion of all subjects besides reading and math, while simultaneously pushing expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers and thus funneling money out of public education and into private, for-profit hands, my hackles went up immediately upon hearing this praise of the former governor.
In fact, I so resented hearing Jeb Bush lauded by the President that I not only voted for, but actively campaigned for, as did so many educators I know, that during the Education Roundtable following his speech (at which I was the ONLY teacher of about 13 people, though the Chamber of Commerce was represented by 3 different individuals, and to which my union's leadership had not been invited at all), I expressed to the President how I (and so many like me) felt about this apparent collaboration with the Bush privatization agenda. I told him directly that I and so many other teachers were very disappointed to see him on stage with Jeb Bush, considering the assault on public education he has led in this state and how his foundation has continuously tried to eliminate our contracts and our collective bargaining.
He said that he was aware of the decertification issues for our unions and that he did not support that, but that we had to be willing to compromise in the interest of improving education for our children, and that teachers had to be willing to be held accountable. He said that instead of fighting reform, we should get in front of it and lead it. He also said there was a difference between Rick Scott and Jeb Bush, and that it was important to distinguish.
Mr. President, teachers already are accountable. We are required to have degrees and go through certification processes. We are evaluated each year. That evaluation systems should be improved is no secret, and most teachers are already on board with that, too. I have created my own model for what I believe would be a fair, supportive, constructive evaluation system. I am certainly not alone in this; seventeen top teachers collaborated and, with funding and support from Florida Education Association (the state teachers' union), developed a model for a better evaluation system, which would ensure teachers support, empowerment and the possibility of promotion, and a fair, equitable way to implement performance pay. (Their model is a bit more complex and in-depth than mine but shares many of the same ideas and components. This is to be expected, as when you speak to teachers, they are generally in agreement about what would and would not work, and what would and would not be fair.)
We are not only open to reform, we are offering our input into it. We collaborated with other stakeholders in the Race to the Top Work Group appointed by former governor Charlie Crist and, by coming to some basic agreements, created a Memorandum of Understanding that was good enough to win us the grant money in the second round. We are not resisting any and every change. We are offering our input for positive change--though it far too often falls on deaf ears in Tallahassee .
We are not opposed to education reform and improvement. What we are opposed to are models that call themselves "reform" but which are really nothing more than an agenda of privatization--a push to take money away from the public schools that serve all children, rich or poor; black, white, Hispanic or Asian; gifted, average, or with special needs; with involved parents or absent parents or no parents at all; and to place it in the hands of very rich, very powerful corporate interests.
This is why we are disappointed by your standing on stage with Jeb Bush, and most especially by your praise of his "reforms" and "commitment to public service."
Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida 's Future has been one of the biggest advocates of charter schools in this state, including for-profit charter schools. They have ensured that it is very easy to open a charter school in Florida and very difficult to close a failing one. They have done this despite the lack of evidence that charter schools are a superior option to public schools, and indeed in face of the evidence that, on the whole, traditional public schools outperform charter schools. The Stanford University CREDO Study showed that only 17% of charter schools provide superior academic results than traditional public schools, while 46% were equal and 37% were significantly worse. This, despite the incontrovertible fact that charter schools are allowed to (and do) "counsel out" or expel their lowest performing students, their students with behavioral issues, their students with attendance issues. The students that charter schools expel (AFTER taking in the state funding for those children for the year) are sent back to traditional public schools--without the state funding. We not only accept them, we embrace them, and do the best we can for them, even when they have only been in our classroom for a month or two--or perhaps a few days--at testing time. To top it all off, Florida is listed in the report as one of the states with the worst performing charter schools. Further, the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Education has opened more than 40 criminal investigations against charter school operators, resulting so far in convictions of 15 charter school officials with 24 cases still pending. The government has recovered more than $4 million stolen by charter school operators. There is absolutely no compelling evidence that charter schools are a viable alternative to public schools or that they should be opened or expanded at the expense of public schools--yet that is exactly what Jeb Bush's foundation pushes for. Why?
Many charter schools, including Imagine Schools, are for-profit and are run by millionaires who bankroll Republicans like Jeb Bush in return for legislation favoring their enterprise.
While governor, Jeb Bush created the high-stakes element of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and devised a scale to give schools letter grades based on the results of the test. This led to the labeling of schools, which has proven an incredibly demoralizing experience for the teachers, students, parents and administrators of those schools. (Who feels good about sending their child to an F school every day? About going to work in an F school every day? About going in to study in an F school every day?) It is also harmful for the neighborhoods those schools are located in, as no business would want to open up in a neighborhood whose schools bore the letter F like a scarlet letter. Those neighborhoods have been, as could be expected from the beginning, communities that were already struggling with poverty, unemployment and crime. To further label them in such a way as to prevent any kind of business from wanting to open up there is only to undermine any and every effort to improve those neighborhoods.
That is not good for schools and it is not good for children. The FCAT itself, due to its high-stakes nature (third graders who do not pass are retained, regardless of their class grades, and high school students who do not pass are denied a high school diploma, again regardless of their grades), has caused an unconscionable narrowing of the curriculum, particularly in high-poverty, high-minority, struggling schools. Faced with the predicament of being labeled as failing; of children being retained; of schools being penalized financially for their failure, teachers have routinely been put under pressure to "teach to the test": to focus on reading and math to the exclusion of subjects like social studies and science, which are not only critical to a balanced education but actually improve scores on those reading tests as they expand children's background knowledge. Children are taught how to take a test. They are taught certain question formulas; how to write an "FCAT essay" (read: very formulaic and low-quality, devoid of creativity or critical thought); they are taught how to eliminate multiple choice answers. They are not taught the history of their country or the world. They are not taught geography. They are not taught about the earth, nature, the universe, how things work. They spend hours a day reading discrete texts on far-ranging topics that are usually of little to no interest to them.
This is counterintuitive. You cannot learn "main idea" or "vocabulary" in isolation. In order to determine the main idea of a text, you have to have some basic understanding of what the text is about. Most texts on the FCAT deal with social studies or science themes. Yet when you cut social studies and science to focus on discrete reading skills, the students lack the background knowledge they need to clearly understand the texts they are reading. And in impoverished neighborhoods, children far too often lack a well-educated parent at home who can fill in the gaps being left by the schools' narrow focus.
This happens far less in the more affluent schools, where the children come into the classroom more prepared and have better-educated parents at home who can and do help them when they can, and can afford to hire tutors when they can't. Where scores are high to begin with, teachers are generally given more liberty to teach social studies and science, even art and music--classes that were once deemed as indispensable, and yet which are now an endangered species in the inner city.
I pause to remind you that this, too, was Jeb Bush's creation.
Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida 's Future essentially wrote Senate Bill 6 last year, and Senate Bill 736 this year. These bills, for those who are not familiar with them, are called respectively the "teacher tenure bill" and the "teacher quality bill." They in sum require teachers to be "paid for performance" rather than for experience or advanced degrees. Performance is, of course, to be measured by the FCAT and unfunded, unwritten end-of-course exams. (Doubtless they will have an approved testing company waiting in the wings to write and score those exams, which districts are expected to fund without any additional money from the state, even as they are facing enormous budget cuts.) Even more disturbing to teachers, particularly those teachers working in struggling schools and with special populations (such as special education and English language learners), the legislation requires all teachers to be on an annual contract, which can be renewed or non-renewed with or without cause at the end of every school year. So the Teacher of the Year could be let go without cause--just because a principal decided he or she didn't much care for his politics or his skin tone or the way he dressed--and any teacher whose students' test scores didn't meet the as-yet undefined standards according to an as-yet undefined value-added formula two years in a row or two out of three years would be required to be non-renewed, even if the principal understood some extenuating circumstances accounting for those results and wished to keep him.
Jeb Bush also led an assault on the Class Size Amendment that set caps on the number of students in classrooms, varying from early elementary to middle school to high school. He claimed at a conference in Utah that "class size doesn't matter," although charter schools and private schools constantly use their small class sizes as a key marketing tool. When the Class Size Amendment passed in 2002, he vowed that he had "devious plans for public education in Florida ," which has essentially consisted in making sure that districts do not get the funding they need--and which the constitution mandates they provide--to effectively implement the Class Size Amendment. So what is good for the goose (read: private and privately-run schools) is NOT good for the gander (read: public schools)...the idea behind his "choice" movement is to make public schools the worst possible choice for parents, in hopes of closing them down altogether and moving towards a completely privatized system.
It is time for us to call a spade a spade. Jeb Bush and those who are collaborating with him in the Florida state legislature (without even mentioning Rick Scott) do not want public schools to succeed. They have no interest in seeing poor and minority students get ahead. They care about filling the coffers of those who fill their campaign coffers. Nothing in Jeb Bush's education "reform" is actually aimed at improving schools. If they wanted to improve schools, they would invest more money into renovating those schools, into allowing for smaller classes (even smaller than what the Class Size Amendment mandates), into recruiting and retaining the most qualified teachers (those with advanced degrees, National Board certification and experience) into those classrooms, and expanding the programs outside basic reading and math that provide a well-rounded education: social studies, science, arts, music, physical education, world languages, technology, vocational programs. Instead, they have consistently advocated the opposite: less funding, larger class sizes, less money for teacher salaries; they have worked to take away financial incentives for teachers to get advanced degrees or seek National Board certification; they are working tirelessly to take away the contracts that provide teachers the sense of stability they need to motivate them to work in challenging schools and with challenging student populations.
Everything about their pet legislation discourages qualified career teachers from working in the state of Florida , let alone in a struggling school. Even the most effective teacher recognizes the variability of test scores from year to year and class to class, and the unreliability of those measures. Statistic variations are such that a teacher who is rated "highly effective" one year could be rated "ineffective" the next simply from having a different group of students sitting in front of her. Research also shows that, even though the value-added model claims to account for external factors like poverty, in fact the same teachers show better student performance with more affluent students than with poor students according to the model.
This does not encourage anyone in his or her right mind to want to work with disadvantaged students. Even with some extra bonus thrown in as an "incentive," knowing that one has a high probability of losing his job based on test scores would discourage anyone with the aspiration of a career in teaching from working in a high-poverty school.
But let's be clear. That's exactly what Jeb Bush and his cronies want.
They don't want career teachers. They want teachers in the Teach for America model, who will come in for a couple of years (until they are burned out by the pressure and lack of respect and compensation, or get fired for test scores) and leave quietly out the back door. Why? Obviously it's not better for students--all research emphasizes that experience does matter (duh) and that it is only after 3, and really more like 5, years that a teacher truly masters the art/science of teaching. But remember--they don't care what is best for children, at least for children in public schools. They want this because it is cheap. Beginning teachers who never become experienced teachers cost less in salary, benefits and pension. On an annual contract, they will be too fearful for their jobs to speak up against what is being done to them and their students and schools. They will be too fearful to speak up and demand decent salary and benefits. There will be no more teachers' union helping Democrats get elected and fighting for funding for schools. There will be no one fighting them as they funnel more and more money from public schools into the private sector: the standardized testing industry, for-profit charter schools, private and religious schools benefiting from state vouchers, not to mention the corporate tax cuts that can be paid for with the cut in education spending.
It is no coincidence that the Florida legislature (with full backing and funding from Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future) is simultaneously pushing through separate bills that eliminate teachers' contracts and mandate an enormous expansion of standardized testing (SB 736), that undermine teachers' unions by eliminating payroll due deduction and prohibiting unions from donating to political causes (SB 830) and that decertify unions with less than 50% membership as collective bargaining agents (HB 1023).
The point is for us to shut up and go away--leave the state, leave the profession, or deal with the "new reality" in silence--so that they can get on with their work of putting taxpayers' money into corporate profits.
THAT, Mr. President, with all due respect, is why Florida 's teachers are disappointed in you for standing next to Jeb Bush and lauding his work in "education reform."
Public education is the foundation of democracy. Why are you, of all people, the President that we endorsed and campaigned for and voted for, betraying the foundation of democracy in favor of the foundation of a plutocracy?
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)