Low-income students need more resources to close achievement gaps

Tuthill: The obstacles we face trying to improve public education, especially those related to generational poverty, are daunting. But I’m optimistic about the progress we’re making.

Tuthill: The obstacles we face trying to improve public education, especially those related to generational poverty, are daunting. But I’m optimistic about the progress we’re making.

The latest Florida Department of Education report on the tax credit scholarship program, and my summer discussions with scholarship parents, students and teachers, have led me to some conclusions. These thoughts are not new, but sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves of things we know but occasionally forget.

  • On average, scholarship students are achieving a year’s worth of learning gains in a year’s time, but this is not enough. We are attracting the state’s most disadvantaged students, and many of them are several years behind when they enter the program. These students need to be making 1.5-to-2 years of learning gains annually if they’re to catch up with their more advantaged peers.
  • We will not achieve these accelerated learning gains if we don’t provide scholarship students with more time to learn. Six-to-seven hours per day and 180 days per year are not enough for these students to achieve parity. Programs that are successfully reducing the achievement gap, such as many of the KIPP charter schools, are providing more learning time for disadvantaged students via longer school days and school years.
  • More time in school is still insufficient. Much of the achievement gap is created by large disparities in out-of-school learning opportunities. Many scholarship families can’t afford private music lessons, summer camps, equipment fees for Pop Warner football, or gymnastic lessons. While most of these experiences are not academic, the development they nurture contributes to success in a variety of settings, including school.
  • The new Common Core State Standards, because they are more rigorous, will exacerbate the achievement gap in the short-term. This greater disparity will become permanent if we don’t provide disadvantaged students with more access to in-school and out-of-school learning opportunities, and provide private school teachers with the training, technology and other support they need to successfully teach these new academic standards.
  • The concentration of high-poverty students in Florida private schools is growing as the number of tax credit scholarship students increases and more middle class families transfer from private schools to magnet and charter schools. This fall, more than 30 percent of Florida’s private school students will be paying tuition using McKay scholarships for disabled students or tax credit scholarships for low-income students. These changing student demographics will put greater stress on already meager private school resources. Continue Reading →


School grade padding in Florida helped district schools more than charters

netFlorida charter schools didn’t benefit as much as district schools from the school grades “safety net” that state education officials continued this summer.

According to Florida Department of Education data, 14.2 percent of the charter schools that have been graded so far would have dropped more than one letter grade had it not been for the safety net, which prevented schools from falling more than one letter grade. That compares to 21.7 percent of district schools.

In raw numbers, that’s 54 of 381 charter schools and 495 of 2,278 district schools. The numbers do not include school grades that are pending or incomplete.

Last month, the Florida Board of Education voted 4-3 to continue the safety net, which had been used in 2012, after superintendents complained that lower grades brought on by tougher standards would give the public a distorted view of student achievement. Tony Bennett, then the state education commissioner, initially expressed concerns about the safety net but later relented, saying it would help ease the transition to Common Core standards.

Bennett resigned two weeks later after news stories suggested he abruptly changed the school grades formula in Indiana to benefit a politically connected charter school.

As we reported last month, Florida charter schools again earned both A and F grades at higher rates than district schools.


Florida schools roundup: Common Core, Ben Gamla, teacher raises & more

Summit: State education leaders meet next week with district superintendents, principals, parents, teachers unions and the business community to talk Common Core, school grades and other issues. The Buzz.

florida-roundup-logoDistrict input: Palm Beach County schools Superintendent Wayne Gent wants state leaders to listen to districts about fixing the state’s A-F grading system and transitioning to new standardized tests under the Common Core State Standards. Palm Beach Post.

High-tech: Nearly 2,500 Orange County students get brand-new MacBook Air laptops this week that cost the district $13.8 million. Orlando Sentinel.

Charter schools: A local civic activist asks the Broward County School Board to determine whether the publicly funded Ben Gamla charter schools violate the separation of church and state. Miami Herald.

Common Core: Teachers talk about the new education standards, including whether or not the public schools are ready. StateImpact Florida. The Hernando County School Board plans workshop on Common Core. Tampa Bay Times. “Common Core is a natural progression in raising standards for students,” Hillsborough schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia tells the Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher pay: After six years without a pay raise, St. Lucie County teachers and other school employees will start taking home bigger checks. TC Palm. Pinellas school officials meet with union leaders to discuss raises. Tampa Bay Times.

Arts: Jacksonville boosts art education as the 14th city to be part of “Ensuring the Arts for Any  Given Child,” a program from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  in Washington, D.C. Florida Times-Union. Continue Reading →


What is the real public opinion on school choice?

PDKPerhaps not surprisingly, recent polls by two education organizations – one in support of, and the other skeptical of, school choice – report considerable differences in public opinion on school choice. The PDK/Gallup poll finds 70 percent of the public is opposed to vouchers while EducationNext finds only 37 percent of the public is opposed. While there’s always danger in reading too much into surveys produced by advocacy groups, the EducationNext methodology is cleaner and its finding therefore more likely to be on the mark.

There are two main issues with the PDK/Gallup poll’s voucher question:

1)      The voucher question response options are limited to “oppose” or “support” while many other questions allow responders to be “somewhat” supportive/opposed or “completely” supportive/opposed. Not allowing multiple levels of support, opposition or neutrality may be influencing responses.

2)      The use of the word “expense” in the voucher poll question may negatively color responses. In fact, it’s not used ever again; not even for questions on potential new programs (Table 26 and 45).

Continue Reading →


A little context for a rough patch in Florida ed reform

Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Any fair and objective reading of the actual data in Florida public education has to begin with this acknowledgement: over the past 15 years, the state has made extraordinary progress across numerous key academic indicators.

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Florida high school graduates passing college-caliber Advanced Placement exams jumped from 36,707 to 39,306 – a robust 7.1 percent. The increase wasn’t an anomaly. Florida ranks No. 4 in the country in the rate of grads passing AP exams. Over the past decade, it ranks No. 2 in gains.

These AP results are but one of the encouraging indicators of academic progress in Florida schools. But you wouldn’t know it from some of the media coverage, which often overlooks them and ignores or distorts the context. The same goes for a good number of critics. Many of them continue to be quoted as credible sources, rarely if ever challenged, despite assertions that are at odds with credible evidence.

In the wake of Education Commissioner Tony Bennett’s departure, some particularly harsh spotlights have been put on Florida’s school grading system and on former Gov. Jeb Bush, who led the effort to install it. I can’t defend some of the recent problems with grading (the errors, the padding) and I do wonder whether there should be more value put on progress than proficiency.

But I have no doubt, from years of reporting on Florida schools, that school grades and other Bush-era policies nudged schools and school districts into putting more time, energy and creativity on the low-income and minority kids who struggle the most. I also have no doubt that those efforts, carried out by hard-working, highly skilled teachers, moved the needle for those students and the system as a whole. To cite but one example: Between 2003 and 2011, Florida comes in at No. 9 among states in closing the achievement gap, in fourth-grade reading, between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In closing the gap in eighth-grade math, it comes in at No. 6. But don’t believe me. Take it from Education Week, where those rankings come from.

To those who approach education improvement with an open mind: Isn’t it troubling that such stats are rarely reported? And isn’t it odd that they’re rarely commended by teachers unions, school boards and superintendents who should be claiming credit? Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: District virtual schools, adult ed, charters & more

Virtual school: The Pinellas County School District sees a surge in its in-house virtual school programs, prompting school officials to close the application period a week early. Tampa Bay Times.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools: One of Tallahassee’s oldest and most successful charter schools looks to expand, while another that caters to middle school hopes to add an elementary. Tallahassee Democrat. A struggling Palm Beach County charter school agrees to stay closed the entire school year to right its ship and repay about $56,000 in taxpayer funding. Palm Beach Post. Gulf Coast Academy South opens with a waiting list almost as large as its current enrollment. Naples Daily News.

Ed poll: A new education poll looks at standardized testing with just 22 percent of respondents saying the increased use of such tests has helped schools; 36 percent said the testing hurts schools; 41 percent said it made no difference. StateImpact Florida.

Adult ed: Hernando County’s adult technical education programs suffer from low enrollment. Tampa Bay Times.

Common Core: StateImpact Florida asks teachers what they think about the new education standards. Sarasota state Rep. Ray Pilon breaks ranks from local Republicans and opposes the standards. “My vote is going to be get rid of it,” he wrote on Facebook. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Continue Reading →


Beyond the market argument for school choice

Coons: "The health of the lower-income family is under siege from many an enemy. But none is more insidious than the conscription of its children."

Coons: “The health of the lower-income family is under siege from many an enemy. But none is more insidious than the conscription of its children.”

Arguments for subsidized parental choice date to the 18th century. Kept in check by the dominant political mystique that came to favor government schools, the idea lay largely dormant in the U.S. until the 1950s. The sadder realities of monopoly public schooling – especially for the poor – began at last to emerge after World War II, at the same time America was rediscovering the lure of the free market, temporarily obscured by war and depression. The possibility of profound structural reform brought many of us to give a fair hearing to Milton Friedman’s revival of the choice thesis. His prescription seemed simple; if society would subsidize the customers of schooling instead of monopolistic government providers, America would be smarter, and individuals would be freer and more self-satisfied.

To the mind of many hopefuls this looked a good idea, in part for its very simplicity. And, in an important sense, subsidized choice is, indeed, simple. Who needs school boards and their agents to decide where Susie learns her ABCs? As the consumer chooses soap, so the consumer would choose the formal educator.

But in fact school choice differs from the ordinary free market in important ways. And its champions’ own failure to confront these differences in public forums helped scar the rocky political path that choice would have to trudge until this generation. The irony is these very differences and complexities would largely cut in favor of the idea as a realistic political hope. In recent decades the debate happily has opened up, inviting a richer and more balanced discourse and – paradoxically – allowing us to illuminate at least one complexity whose neglect in choice politics had impaired our capacity to grasp implications of school choice far richer and more positive than the picture of the consumer getting her private druthers in a free market.

The central term in market discourse is freedom of the individual, which, properly understood, is a very important idea. And it is true that, for lower-income families, the present regime in schooling represents the antithesis of freedom. Bureaucratic strangers either decide the specific school for the child or closely limit parental choice to public charter schools. To this point the pure market argument was and remains correct. What its champions had failed to explore (and exploit) was their own peculiar twist on the term “freedom,” a concept which in market scripture denotes an act of pure self-determination by the individual who chooses. Choice of schools is hardly such an act, at least in respect of the person most affected – the quite un-free child. Some adult will decide for every boy and girl; the great and only question is: Will the adult be a parent or some complete stranger representing the state? The promotion of parental choice as policy obviously invites more than ordinary market justification.

To say this is in no way to denigrate the role of choice in the achievement of the parent’s own freedom. Indeed, at last it invites the parents’ deep immersion in the individual and social consequences of schooling. In contrast to blind assignment by government, choice of a particular school by fathers and mothers is an act of adult free expression. More, the parental delivery of this message to child and to society is a primary experience for that very adult who has done the choosing. In a vivid way, parents see themselves – perhaps for the first time – as civic actors and, equally important, as responsible players who – unlike the bureaucrats­ – must live with the consequences. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Virtual school, ACT scores, Tony Bennett & more

District app: The Broward County school district redesigns its website to make it more parent-friendly, adding a mobile app and translating into more than 40 languages. Sun Sentinel.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual school: The Palm Beach County School Board plans to urge state lawmakers to repeal a new funding approach that slashed dollars for the state-run Florida Virtual School. Palm Beach Post.

District vs. charter: Palm Beach County’s L.C. Swain Middle School opens a medical sciences academy and plans a pre-law academy to help the district compete with charter school offerings. Extra Credit.

Charter schools: Sarasota County School Board members say the district has been too generous with charter school funding and needs stricter rules over the process. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Tony Bennett: The latest Whiteboard Advisors’ survey looks at the departure of the former Florida education commissioner and the impact on Common Core, PARCC and other issues. StateImpact Florida.

College ready: A new report finds only 19 percent of Florida’s class of 2013 scored “college-ready” on all four ACT exams — English, math, reading and science. Orlando Sentinel.

Illegal passing: A one day survey shows Orange County drivers illegally passed school buses loading or unloading children 1,851 times. Statewide, 11,684 violations were noted. Orlando Sentinel.

Back pay: The Broward County school district owes its teachers $20 million for teaching an extra period last school year, but wants 20 years to repay the debt. Miami Herald. Continue Reading →