Setting us up to fail.

You may have heard the controversy surrounding proposed changes to the school accountability formula used to assign Florida schools letter grades; you have received e-mails about it and it has been featured on more than one occasion, including this past Sunday, in the Miami Herald.

Besides raising cut scores needed to score “proficient,” the new system also assigns an automatic F to any school where fewer than 25% of students score a level 3 on the FCAT reading and count special education and English language learners in the equation just like all other students. Based on this past year’s results, the number of schools in Miami-Dade earning an F would jump from 5 to an estimated 50. The new formula would also consider students going into adult education and/or earning a special diploma “dropouts” for the purpose of graduation rate.

Schools like Hialeah High serving large ELL and SPED populations would be hit hard, while those schools with the fewest students with special needs and/or language barriers–namely charter schools and many magnet schools–would likely feel little impact from the changes.

The changes also include an automatic trigger, whereby if 75% of schools score an A, the cut scores will automatically be raised so that, in effect, most schools drop a letter grade.

The justification for the proposed changes, slated for a vote tomorrow (Tuesday)?

As always, supporters talk about “raising the bar,” making sure that a passing letter grade means the students are prepared for college and/or the workforce, ensuring that schools and teachers  are held accountable for all students, including ELL and SPED children.

But what is it really all about?

Most people would agree that if your focus is improvement, you would want to periodically raise the bar. However, there are several worrisome factors at play that contradict proponents’ claims that this is all about making sure children get the best possible education.

1. The new test (the “FCAT 2.0”) was just released this past year. It is supposed to be a harder test. It does not make sense to simultaneously raise the level of difficulty of a test AND the score needed to pass it, especially when the new test requires the material be covered in a different way and at a different pace from previous years. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

2. The “automatic F” for schools with under 25% level 3 on FCAT reading does not take into account improvement. Therefore, if a majority of students make gains, even if they advance several grade levels or go from a level 1 to a level 2–which can be quite difficult to achieve with some of these children who have become very demoralized and weary of nonstop testing and failing–the school will still be labeled a failure…implying that the gains are meaningless. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

3. SPED can mean many different things. It can be as little as a child with ADD who produces beautiful work (and test scores), and whom the teacher may be unaware is even considered “SPED” until she gets a note from the SPED office, or it can be a severely autistic child, or it can be a seriously developmentally delayed child who will never be able to perform “on grade level.” Many of our ELL students have been in the country for less than two years and barely know any English at all. By including these latter categories (as well as all of the other many categories of special needs) in the school letter grade, the school is offering incentives for schools to avoid serving these fragile populations. It is also telling these children (and their parents and teachers) that no matter how much progress they make, if they are not able to pass these grade-level exams like their non-handicapped peers, they are failures. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

4. The “automatic trigger” raising cut scores whenever a certain number of schools attain an A is nothing short of pernicious. Any teacher or student can tell you the unfairness of this. If I gave my class a test, and over 75% of them made an A on it, so I decided that those who scored between a 90 and 95 would be dropped to a B, and only those scoring above a 95 would keep their A, how many protests would I hear? How many phone calls from upset parents would I receive? Of course, as a fair teacher, I would never do such a thing. If ONLY 75% of my students got an A on a test! I would be rejoicing. If the state believes that its accountability system is a good one and its goals are worthy and attainable ones, they should rejoice when 75% of their schools meet their goals. Instead, they choose to beat the schools back down. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

5. Including students who finish high school in adult education and special education students receiving special diplomas as “dropouts” in the tabulation of graduation rates does two things. First, it pushes schools to encourage exiting students to transfer to charter schools rather than adult education, as that is often the only way to prevent these children from figuring as dropouts and damaging the scool’s grade. Second, it implies that special education students who have worked hard throughout their time in school and performed to the very best of their ability are “dropouts,” or failures, nonetheless, because they were never able to achieve the same level as their non-handicapped peers. It also implies that teachers and/or schools serving these populations are somehow failing in their mission. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

And what happens when these schools that have been set up to fail end up “failing,” as they almost certainly will if the changes are adopted tomorrow?

Children and teachers statewide are told that their progress does not count, and that they will never be good enough. For a state where morale among both teachers and educators is at an all-time low, this is not good news. Discouragement is not a good motivator. Being told by the state that no matter how hard you work and how much ground you cover, you will never be good enough, is not what instills a love of learning in students, or a love of teaching in teachers. Already demoralized children will be eager to find something, anything, to do besides go to school. Already demoralized teachers will be eager to find somewhere, anywhere, to work besides in a school.

Wearing the scarlet letter “F” does more to a school than just deny its teachers the School Recognition Fund money. It labels that school, its teachers, its administrators, its staff, AND its children failing. And further, and perhaps most damagingly at all, it labels the neighborhood it is in failing. Florida is still in the brunt of the Great Recession. Economic recovery has been very slow in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Good schools are key in attracting businesses to cities and neighborhoods. No business wants to set up down the street from an F school, because no employees will want to send their children to that school. This will kick certain neighborhoods while they’re already down, and will benefit no one…except the charter schools.

And that’s what it all boils down to in the end…once again, as always, MONEY.

Why, oh why, do they want to set public schools up to fail? What could be their possible motivation?

MONEY.

More F and D schools means more of the best students with the most concerned parents at those scho0ls fleeing to the “safety” of charter schools, many of them boosted relative to their public scho0l counterparts by their failure to serve ELL and SPED students.

Perhaps even more significantly, it paves the way for public schools in struggling neighborhoods to be taken over by for-profit charter management companies.

How so?

If you can make sure that their grade stays at failing, you are only a year or so away from the state taking over that school, shutting it down, and handing it over to a charter management company. This is very enticing to many of those management companies, who see a gold mine in schools like Edison and Central, where a small fortune has been poured into updating and renovating the schools in recent years. When charter management companies get to take over existing schools and all their assets, it’s less overhead for them and a far greater profit margin.

Will the students be better served? Based on the evidence so far, not at all. If the scores improve, it is very likely due to a refusal–typical of charter schools–to serve the neediest students, whether by not providing ELL or SPED services at all, or by expelling students likely to bring down test scores.

When you see changes like these coming, follow the money. When you see bills like the “Parent Trigger” bill and the bill that would force districts to share their maintenance and capital outlay money with charter schools, follow the money. Many of these companies–such as Academica, the owner of Mater among others and owned by state Rep. Erik Fresen’s brother-in-law–have gotten very rich off your tax money, and are reinvesting some of those profits in lobbying their cronies in Tallahassee to make sure the money keeps flowing.

All of the proposed changes work to their advantage.

None work to the advantage of children.

They are setting us up to fail. We know why. It is time to raise our voices loud and clear, and tell them that THEY are the failures. They are failing the hardworking teachers who have poured their souls into helping their students. They are failing the hardworking parents who pay their taxes and want their children to get the best education possible.

And most of all, they are failing the children of the state of Florida, who deserve a world-class education, and instead are being bought and sold as commodities in the interest of corporate profits.

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About Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

I am a writer with a passion for politics and organized labor. View all posts by Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

3 responses to “Setting us up to fail.

  • Shawnda Kay ELizando

    I am ready to get my resume out and try another job field, but that is what they want me to do in Tallahassee. They waste all their time on destroying the one ace in the hole that could get this state up and running. All ready the business community has told the state on more then one occasion that companies don’t come here because of the lack of good education. I had breakfast with a friend of mine from a charter school in Aventura and she has to pay for all her medical insurance, no pension, professtional development, all endorsement classes that she needs. This called a crappy job that they want us all to take soon by having public schools fail. Once they have milked the schools dry what will be next?

  • Carlos J. Diaz

    Jennifer, we are very lucky for having you. I completely agree with you. The only way to stop this would be voting against these people in Tallahassee. Thanks for what you are doing for us.

    Carlos

  • Jennifer I. Smith

    Thank you both…I will keep you posted on what happens with this. I haven’t heard the outcome of the vote yet.

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