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Jeb Bush and the Cask of Amontillado

Comment from Gloria Pipkin, FCAT resistance leader: Here's a nightmarish story of Jeb Bush's diabolical scheme for Florida middle schoolers. If this plan passes -- and our old pal Rep. Raphael Arza, who chastised me last spring for daring to question the word of a DOE official, says that Jeb's "got the muscle to do it" -- we'll not only deny thousands of students a high school diploma, we'll see that many more never make it out of middle school.

Dennis Baxley, chair of the House education committee, is quoted as saying, "This is the bricks and mortar of a bright Florida future." The bricks and mortar that came to my mind in this context were the ones used to wall up a living man in Poe's chilling story "The Cask of

By introducing statewide graduation requirements and remedial reading classes for low-performing students, Gov. Jeb Bush said he hopes to bring his education reform plans into middle schools.

Middle schools across Florida could look and feel more like high schools, adding graduation requirements and a standardized grading system, under Gov. Jeb Bush's proposal announced Monday.

Students in grades six through eight would be required for the first time to pass an English, math, science and social studies class each year, accumulating 12 credits before advancing to high school. Those with low scores on the state's standardized reading test would also be required to take an intensive-care reading class in addition to a standard English course.

''The world doesn't have any tolerance anymore for excusing away the inability to read,'' Bush said, announcing his plan at South Miami Middle School.

The state Legislature passed a middle-school reform law last year, but much of it was a vague call for adding focus and rigor to the curriculum. It also created a statewide task force to develop specific recommendations, which formed the basis of Bush's plan.

If approved by state lawmakers this spring, the changes would likely be phased in; they would apply to sixth-graders for the 2006-07 school year, sixth- and seventh-graders in 2007-08, and all middle-schoolers in 2008-09.

In addition to the new graduation requirements and remedial reading classes, Bush wants to force all middle schools to use the same grade scale -- scores of 90 to 100 would be an A, 80-89 a B, and so on. He said he would ask the state Board of Education to find ways to prevent grade inflation.

Together, the package would be the most dramatic change to public-school accountability since a pair of controversial rules went into effect in early 2003. Beginning that year, third-graders were required to pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test before advancing to fourth grade, and high-schoolers were required to pass both the reading and math exams to earn a diploma.

''If you can't read, you can't learn,'' Bush said. ``It really is that simple.''

Education for middle-school students -- 11- to 14-year-olds who are being rocked by dramatic physical and emotional changes -- has long vexed educators and researchers. Outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has called it a puzzle that America has yet to solve, and new Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew has made changing it a cornerstone of his agenda.


Test scores in Florida's elementary schools have improved in recent years, often far faster than the national average, but middle schools have stagnated or even declined.

In 2004, nearly half the state's sixth-graders scored at the lowest two levels on the reading FCAT.

Only three of Miami-Dade's 63 middle schools improved their state-issued school grades, and two of them are privately operated charter schools. Grades dropped by at least one letter at 25 middle schools in the county, including four that became the first in district history to receive F's. One of Broward's middle schools received an F for the first time since 1999.

Even at South Miami Middle, which boasts a popular arts magnet program and has received A grades since 2002, students said the transition from elementary school was difficult.

''For me it was very hard; I'm a very disorganized person,'' said Rachel Fernandez, 14.

The eighth-grader said her grades suffered when she started sixth grade. Only a few friends from her elementary school had enrolled at South Miami, and she often felt isolated on the 1,200-student campus. Instead of having one teacher, as she had in fifth grade, she suddenly had six.

''I knew I had to go to them [for help], but I was still kind of scared,'' said Rachel, whose grades rebounded once her teachers helped her get organized.


Adianelys Sierra, 14, was convinced her teachers all hated her -- and she felt likewise toward them -- and 12-year-old Omar Carias said his fifth-grade teacher convinced him that middle-school teachers would happily hand out F's to underachievers.

''It was overwhelming,'' said Shweta Upadhyay, a 14-year-old eighth-grader. ``Everything was thrown at you at once.''

It was those attitudes that, decades ago, prompted districts across the country to transform junior high schools into middle schools, which were supposed to be smaller campuses that provided softer transitions from elementary school. Now, however, some critics say academics have been pushed into the background.

''For too long, the focus on the adolescent development of middle school students has overshadowed the need for academic rigor and student achievement,'' said Education Commissioner John Winn, himself a former middle-school teacher.

Supporters of the softer model, however, fear that introducing regulated grading systems and graduation requirements could push middle schools back into the old format.

''The junior high schools weren't cutting it,'' said David Hough, dean of Southwest Missouri State University's College of Education, an expert on middle-grade education.

``Kids were falling through the cracks.''

Bush's proposal could have political opponents, as well. The diploma requirements and third-grade retention policies were explosively controversial when they were being debated, and Bush said he expected fresh battles.

Earlier Monday, Bush visited Maxey Elementary in Winter Garden, where he announced a plan to add $43.3 million to the state budget for reading initiatives, as well as a proposal to make it harder for lawmakers to tinker with that spending.

By incorporating that spending into the state's complex education funding formula, he said lawmakers would have less power to ''jerk around'' with it. Often, he said, they threaten to trim that item in the state budget unless Bush agrees to sign off on their pet projects.


State Rep. Ralph Arza, the Hialeah Republican who chairs the House's Pre-K-12 Education Committee, said Bush's proposals would be approved, and a statement from House Democrats said they would support increasing the reading funds and moving them into the funding formula.

''He's got the muscle to get this done,'' said House Education Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. ``This is the bricks and mortar of a bright Florida future.''

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Miami Herald
Bust Tackles Middle Schools





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