Article Published in The Tampa (FL) Tribune
Imagine you are a public school principal, teacher or administrator. Like other workers who want to do a good job, you want to do right by the kids entrusted to you. But you’ve fallen into a comfortable rut. It’s easy to stick to the same soft programs, the same approaches year after year, even though nothing much is improving.
Then an outside evaluator suddenly flunks your school and decrees that your students will have a right to transfer if your school pulls another F. Your attention is captured. You are forced to re-examine your ways or face losing your customers and maybe your job.
That’s been happening in Florida’s ground-breaking education reform over the past year.
“It was like a glass of cold water in the face,” said Maureen Backenstoss, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Lake County School District.
Florida’s A-Plus education reform plan, initiated by Gov. Jeb Bush, clearly sets out consequences for public schools in which pupils fail to achieve an acceptable level on the state’s achievement tests.
When a school’s failure persists, its children become eligible for state-funded $3,400 “opportunity scholarships” (vouchers) that they may use to pay tuition at participating private schools. Or they may transfer to higher-performing public schools within their district or in an adjacent district.
Lake had one school, Rimes Elementary, receiving an initial F. To keep from getting that dreaded second F, Rimes has switched its reading program to one strong on teacher-directed drill and practice. Similarly, the school now uses Saxon math, the bane of progressives who think children should construct their own math. Saxon, explains Backenstoss, “focuses on those basic foundation repetitive issues in math. Kids today don’t learn those multiplication tables. In my day it [failure to learn them] would have been cause for retention.”
In “Competing to Win,” a new report based on public records the Institute for Justice assembled in defending A-Plus from legal attack, retired Washington Times education writer Carol Innerst reports how not just Rimes, but many Florida F- or D-graded schools have reacted with “a sense of urgency and zeal for reform” in their determination not to lose students and money.
- All districts with “F” or “D” schools have launched massive efforts to retrain teachers in methods that have a record of proven success, such as direct instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. Failed programs such as Whole Language are being scrapped. (It may say something that when schools must show results or else, they go back to basics.)
- Miami-Dade County has turned to “Total Love,” an approach targeting fourth- and fifth-graders and their families. In addition to switching the children to a proven phonics program, Total Love encourages parents – many of whom are dropouts – to re-enter school in search of a high school equivalency diploma. In addition, it supplies materials for the parents to set up home learning centers for the children.
- In Escambia County – the district with the first two failing schools that automatically triggered the A-Plus vouchers – the public school system adopted what amounted to an emergency plan. It provided for small-group tutoring in the afternoons and on Saturdays; expanded family literacy programs with home visitations; expanded teaching staffs; reduced the number of nonteaching days for teachers; required parent-teacher conferences each grading period; and extended the school year by 30 days.
- Gadsden County has gone to an array of teacher-directed, sequential programs, such as Accelerated Reader, Marva Collins, Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction and Saxon. Palm Beach has set up classroom libraries and after-school and Saturday tutorials and has reverted to homogenous grouping for reading and spelling.
Finally, Hillsborough’s superintendent achieved more notoriety than principals who eat worms to get pupils to study when he promised to give himself a 5 percent pay cut if any of his 37 D-graded schools got an “F” on the next report card. “A total attack of the situation is being developed as we speak,” Sam Rosales, Hillsborough’s supervisor of accountability, said in a phone interview.
In short, writes Carol Innerst, “Forced to improve their failing schools or lose their customers, most districts have risen to the challenge.”
The defendants lost the first round March 14 before Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr., but on April 25 the judge allowed the program to continue until the court of appeals rules this summer. In this appellate process, the message could start getting through: Far from destroying public education, vouchers prod public schools into making changes that help children.
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