July 26, 2014

Perestroika, Florida Style

Barbara Miracle | 9/1/1995
Florida's education establishment is under siege.

Businesses complain it doesn't produce workers with basic reading and writing skills. Communities blame the system's high drop-out rate (48th among the 50 states, by one estimate) for their inability to attract businesses. Parents worry that their kids won't have the skills to compete. And a burgeoning proletariat of skill-less youth fill prisons and homeless shelters.

With just about everyone demanding reform, Florida's besieged public education establishment is striving to retain its old bureaucratic ways while giving nodding acknowledgement to the new. It's beginning to look like ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who used "perestroika" in a vain effort to save Soviet communism.

Can Florida "reinvent" its education system with its current timid reform efforts? If Gorbachev's experience with perestroika is any indication, half-way measures won't save the old guard.

Responding to public outcries, the Legislature in 1991 passed Blueprint 2000, a reform system focused on school improvement and education accountability. Its goal is to establish educational standards that prepare students to become creative problem-solvers rather than rote learners. The law envisions students' skills and achievements measured by new statewide assessment tests, and "school accountability."

But therein lies the flaw that could spell failure for Blueprint 2000 ambitions for reform. While holding inanimate "schools" somehow accountable for the failings of humans, it tellingly avoids placing the responsibility where it belongs - with principals and with teachers, who enjoy job protection through union contracts.

Another serious flaw in Blueprint 2000 is that it relies on the premise that a single set of standards will be acceptable in this multicultural state. Indeed, Florida's attempt to design new curricula comes at a time when what kids are taught has become a political issue. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, all are battling over what students should learn. This political wrangling by adults will likely squelch (or at least slow) reforms in Florida.

Few educators have been as bold in reform as Dr. John A. Murphy, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system. Murphy moved to Charlotte in 1991, after seven years as superintendent in Prince George's County, Maryland, a crime-ridden suburb of Washington, D.C. Back in the early 1970s, his attempts at reform led to his ouster as school superintendent of Florida's Collier County when he fired 85% of the county's principals.

In Charlotte, Murphy has imposed reforms that include rigorous educational standards, student testing, comprehensive evaluation of principals and benchmark goals for every school. "We demand accountability from our principals," says Murphy.

Principals are evaluated based on performance, on surveys from teachers, parents and students, and on handling of administrative details. From the evaluations, principals are ranked in one of four categories - stellar, above standard, standard or below standard. Principals ranked standard or below immediately must take courses to improve performance. If they don't improve to above standard within two years, they're out as principals. During his first three years in Charlotte, Murphy replaced no fewer than 75% of the district's principals.

Murphy's law includes rewards as well as penalties. When a school makes goal, primarily measured by students' performance on standardized tests, teachers get a $1,000 bonus and clerical workers, bus drivers and other support staff get $450.

Murphy, author of "Transforming America's Schools: An Administrator's Call to Action," believes reforms should be made quickly. "My goal," he says, "is you take a large system like this and change it in a relatively short period."

By contrast, during the four years while Murphy has been cracking the whip in Charlotte, what has been going on in Florida under Blueprint 2000? As in Charlotte under Murphy, there has been progress toward decentralization of control. But, unlike Charlotte, Florida's education bureaucrats have managed to block all efforts at holding principals and teachers accountable.

Last year, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business interests became so dissatisfied with the pace of implementation of Blueprint 2000 that it began WorldClass, a program aimed at training business people to lead an "education revolution." So far, the Chamber has held WorldClass training academies in Collier, Polk, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

And what do teachers think of Blueprint 2000?

A 1994 survey of Pinellas County classroom teachers conducted by Leagues of Women Voters in St. Petersburg and North Pinellas and the University of South Florida Department of Educational Measurement and Research found that 86% of survey respondents said they support its goals. They are skeptical, however, about implementation.

Teachers overwhelmingly (96%) said more money is needed for school improvement plans, and reduced teacher-pupil ratios are critical to the success of Blueprint 2000. The survey, which guaranteed anonymity, also asked for opinions and suggestions. Typical comments: "Blueprint 2000 goals are on target. It's the implementation process that is failing."

"Blueprint 2000 started out as a good idea, but it is turning into a nightmare." "After 32 years in the classroom, I feel strongly that Blueprint 2000 is just another 'innovation,' 'catch all' term or whatever in the realm of educational jargon."

In the classroom, the results have been mixed. Under the plan, teachers become more coaches than lecturers. A guiding principle of learning under Blueprint 2000 is "continual quality improvement," a philosophy better known in business circles as total quality management (TQM). It emphasizes customer needs, self improvement, teamwork, communications, goal setting and achievement.

At Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School in Pinellas Park, where most teachers have had "quality training," classes use mission statements rather than rules to guide the day-to-day operations. "It's not like the old way when you were the only one who had any say," says Janice Wright, a teacher at Rawlings.

TQM aside, sometimes a teacher's biggest classroom challenge is simply keeping peace. On an afternoon in June, 20 teachers at a Rawlings summer school training seminar struggle with the topic of discipline. Is it really practical to have students help decide how much punishment they deserve? A teacher describes giving a student power to determine how long he should stand in the corner after misbehaving. Another teacher says that if one youngster hits another she might negotiate a punishment, letting both the offender and the victim have a say in the decision.

After much discussion, the consensus among teachers at the seminar is that it's often necessary to have a more rigid, teacher-mandated system of rules and consequences.

Indeed, former Rawlings teacher Shannon Downing says her concern in using quality techniques for discipline is what it will do to a student's attitude once he or she joins the work force. "If we are negotiating, they learn there are no absolutes," says Downing, adding, "Quality is used as the method when it should be used as a method."

Accountable for what?
Education Commissioner Frank Brogan says he will try to remedy some of Blueprint 2000's inadequacies by rewarding productive schools and penalizing those that aren't. Still, Brogan's planned reforms fail to deal with the crux of the problem - inept principals and untalented teachers.

Ironically, when Brogan ran for office last fall he promised to get rid of the education bureaucracy by giving power to the schools. Now, under his reforms, oversight of school and student performance would rest more than ever with the state. "Blueprint 2000 is a fabulous idea," says Downing, praising the concept of local control. "But now we've got government sticking its finger in it."

For example, the state will mandate and oversee curricula and testing of student performance. Decisions on poorly performing schools will be shared by the Education Department and county school board. And who pays for mandated improvements? "We'll give them all we're in a position to provide - technical advice and dollars if they're available," says Brogan. In other words, the state will tell school boards what to do but not how to pay for it.

After the introduction this fall of the new curriculum, the state will establish benchmarks for skills in reading, writing, arithmetic and scientific thinking. "The trick becomes how do you know how hard to set those things," says Dr. Thomas Fisher, Department of Education director of state testing programs. "They should be hard enough to be worthwhile, but not too high that no one can meet them."

It's likely the tougher standards and rigorous assessment tests will be a shock to Florida's teachers, students and parents alike. Three years ago, the state instituted the "Florida Writes" assessment test for fourth and eighth grade students, and the results were dismal. This past spring, in the most recent assessment, which now includes 10th grade, Pinellas County fourth graders averaged 2.8 on a scale of 0 to 6, the highest average statewide. The figure for Florida 10th graders overall was 3.3.

Under the Blueprint 2000 reforms (which rank schools but not principals and teachers), if students in a school fail to measure up, parents may be allowed to send them to another school, thereby removing the sanctioned school's constituency. Alternatively, the school could be closed and then reopened with a new principal, teachers and teaching style.

What happens to the failed principal and teachers? On that point Blueprint 2000 is mum, but presumably they would go to work at another school.

Whether real educational reforms have been ignited by Blueprint 2000 is still an open question. On paper, there's an impressive list of goals and an avowed dedication to higher standards. What's troubling is that superintendents, principals and teachers don't have a personal and financial stake in the performance of their students, as they do in Charlotte under Superintendent Murphy.

If Florida ever decides to make every player in the system accountable, truly effective education reform could result. Or, as was the case with perestroika, the bureaucrats may lose control and the current timid reforms could trigger a revolution. Florida's students should be so lucky.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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