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Mrs. Strangethought: Or: How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Reform

How far can you read without being overcome by nausea? Suggestion: Before drinking the Kool-aid, you're better off reading the documents, onstead of "sifting through the pages."

What does one say to someone who declares:

Now we find ourselves in a position where the train of reform has pulled into the station and we can either get on board or continue bemoaning the construction of the tracks.

To continue the metaphor, this FCTE person thinks she will be one of the conductors. Does she know about the cheap Chinese labor that built the Transcontinental Railroad? "Conductors," indeed. After their labor the Chines were excluded from becoming citizens and every effort was made to exclude and ostracize them. For the parallels, think of the Rhode Island firings.

from Florida Council of Teachers of English

President's Piece of Mind:
FCTE (Florida Council of Teachers of English) President Megan Pankiewicz provides an overview and opinion on the Race to the Top's most controversial component, "Great Teachers and Leaders." Now that Florida has been named a finalist for the federal money, knowing the details of the program has become more important than ever.
Please read the attached article for information and Pankiewicz's argument that we should embrace the change.

By Megan Pankiewicz, President FCTE

As it stands right now, Florida's conversation on education goes something like this:

Government: We need change. Stop defending the status quo.
Unions: We want change. We don’t like your ideas.
Government: We need change. Here’s an idea we came up with.
Unions: We want change. We don’t like your top-down idea.

And so on. Raise your hand if you’re absolutely sick of this so-called conversation. Please consider this commentary my symbolic hand. It's easy to go numb after so many years of unproductive bickering, but the federal government’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program signifies a monumental shift in America's, and possibly Florida's, education system. Now that Florida was officially announced as a finalist to participate in the program, all of Florida’s teachers should know of this RTTT's existence and how its potential impact will affect our jobs on an immediate and day-to-day basis.

I sifted through hundreds of pages of information and chose to focus this article on the most contentious element of the program: Great Teachers and Leaders. My goal is two-fold: to provide information on RTTT and to argue why we should embrace the change and get involved.

Fellow members, we cannot afford to ignore this issue or exclude ourselves from the decision-making process. I hope this article will act as a first step toward your advocacy and involvement.

Change gonna come
As the great Sam Cooke once sang, “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but a change gonna come.” It seems that change might finally happen for education in Florida under the federal Race to the Top program. Using money from the stimulus package, President Obama and his administration, headed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, created the RTTT program in order to give money to states who promise to reform their public education systems in several key areas which align with the administration's national goals for reform.

States submitted their applications by January 15, and on March 4, the federal government announced the 16 finalist states which will enter the second round of consideration for the stimulus money. The next announcement will be made in June, according to the U.S. Department of Education's website.

To be a competitive applicant, it wasn't enough for state leaders alone to show interest in the program; Florida needed to indicate that a majority of support came from local leaders as well, including parents, community organizations, and most importantly, local education agencies (LEAs), the majority of which are school districts. To prove their willingness to comply with the RTTT goals, each LEA had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which in layman’s terms means a commitment to play by the rules established by the federal government and the state's application. In the end, 89% of the LEAs "executed compliant MOUs, signed by superintendents and school boards," and those LEAs represent roughly 81% of the state’s students. That means that almost every member reading this article teaches in a county which has signed an MOU and will be participating in the RTTT program. If you're not sure whether your district is part of this group, please check the list of participating LEAs in Florida's application, located on page 32.

Technically, the state should also have elicited the support of its teachers unions, but the Florida Education Association and the majority of local unions did not give their consent to the application.

Please keep in mind that Florida's acceptance into the program isn't at all guaranteed; in June the U.S. DOE will determine which of the 16 finalist states progress to the second round of consideration for the money.

Merit Pay Debate: Round 28
There are several key sections to the RTTT program, but one of the most contentious deals with "Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance." Surprise, surprise: it's the old tenure vs. performance debate. I'm oversimplifying of course, but we could spend an entire day amassing the different names of this animal: performance-pay, merit-pay, MAP, STAR, etc.

In the RTTT executive summary, which lays out the details of the program, one particular section requires the state to explain how they will "design and implement rigorous, transparent, and fair evaluation systems for teachers and principals." The state must agree to design these plans in coordination with the LEAs, teachers, and principals, and the plans must "differentiate effectiveness using multiple rating categories that take into account data on student growth as a significant factor."

In the most recent American Educator (Vol. 33, no. 4), Secretary of Education Duncan claims that "teacher effectiveness should be evaluated based on multiple measures, provided that student academic growth over the course of the year is a significant factor." Note the language used here: "a significant factor." Not "the" significant factor.

What a difference an article can make. The FDOE apparently took "a" for "the," so in their application Florida stated that LEAs will implement an evaluation system which uses the state-approved assessments as "the primary factor of the teacher and principal evaluation system. 'Primary' is defined as 'greater than 50% of the evaluation.'" The other portion of teachers' and principals' evaluations would be derived from observations and "at least one additional metric," which may include professional development, continued learning, or something else determined by the LEA when constructing the new pay schedule.

So there's the rub. And that language has certainly rubbed some very important people the wrong way.

Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association, called the state's plan "a one size fits all micro-managing approach to education reform, controlled by the Florida Department of Education," and stated on the FEA website, "The current DOE plan is wrong for students. It's wrong for our schools. It's wrong for our teachers."

Other union representatives have spoken out as well. The president of my union, the Seminole Educators Association, presented at one of our school board meetings and cited several concerns including a lack of long-term funding, since the grant money will only be available for four years, the lack of perfection in current state assessment programs, on which teachers' evaluations will heavily rely, and the lack of local control, claiming that "the state DOE is running roughshod over teachers and anyone else who wants to weigh in on school improvement." Teachers are clearly worried about these changes for many of the same reasons.

Why we should quit worryingâ€Â¦
Let's be completely honest: change makes me nervous. It makes most of us nervous. Our current system may be flawed, but we know each pock-mark and how to apply the right cover-up. The RTTT represents a face-lift, and not the quick trip to the plastic surgeons -- we're talking about a face lift like the one that happens in the movie Face Off when Nicholas Cage and John Travolta literally trade faces. That's a big change, and it's enough to make anyone pause.

Here's the problem, as I see it: our country has been moving toward data-driven education and teacher accountability for a long time. Rather than acting proactively, teachers and unions have waited for an idea to come down from the proverbial top and then raised a great commotion about the idea's flaws. Please don't misunderstand: I have been part of that commotion before, because many of the ideas were flawed and should not have been enacted. But, to be fair: how many "bottom-up" ideas have we produced? How many reforms to the pay schedule have Florida's unions or teachers put forth? Yes, they may have supplied vague recommendations, but I have yet to read a specific, detailed action plan from those groups regarding the major aspects of this reform.

Union leaders claim they are not opposed to change or reform. But aren't we condoning the status quo by the very absence of our own initiatives?

So, now we find ourselves in a position where the train of reform has pulled into the station and we can either get on board or continue bemoaning the construction of the tracks.

I say we get on board -- not as passengers, but as conductors. The federal executive summary and the state application create a framework for change and repeatedly require "enlist[ing] LEA representatives and representatives of state associations," as well as teachers and principals to fill in the gaps. Based on this repeated language, I see little basis for FEA's claims that "the state's proposed plan will remove local control from county school districts" or that the state's approach is "prescriptive." That said, if teachers do not demand, loudly and repeatedly, to be involved in the all of the decisions and conversations that occur over the next several years, we will most certainly hear other voices making decisions on our behalf.

I realize people will say "but we've made noise before, and it didn't get us anywhere." To which I offer two rebuttals:

1) We can't make noise after the fact. We must get involved, starting today. We need to contact our school boards and demand to know when they will be discussing RTTT-related matters, so we can attend the meetings or read the minutes or be involved in committees. We need to speak out as individuals, not just as members of a union, if we are so. We need to be aware of the rules before getting into the discussion, which means we need to read the federal executive summary and Florida's application. If Florida requires test scores to count as more than 50% of a teacher's evaluation then I'll be at my school board meetings demanding that number be 50.01%.

2) We need to use the federal oversight to our advantage. Even Ford and other union leaders recognize that the federal summary explicitly calls for local involvement in the decision making process, including that of the pay schedule. If the state or school boards try to railroad local teachers and principals by leaving us out of meetings or not implementing our ideas, we have the right to call foul by communicating with the U.S. DOE directly, by speaking out at school board meetings, by alerting the local media, and by writing editorials. We can wield our voice as a sword, and strike down, by name, those who are not working in the true spirit of RTTT.

Many people also worry over what will happen in four years once federal funding runs out.

Again, this is a valid concern, and one that I would hope FDOE is honestly concerned with as well. In a statement given before my county's school board, the president of our union said, "Further, if the MOU is implemented in Seminole county, and there is no money to sustain the changes, again let me say the liability may very well end up in the laps of the taxpayers, and this decision will fall on you." To that end, she may or may not be correct. Part of the federal requirements for receiving RTTT money require the state to "address issues of sustainability,” according to Florida's Education Commissioner Eric Smith in an online FAQ. Smith added, "To the extent possible, we are encouraging LEAs to use their funds for transitional and supplemental activities so that the initiatives supported by RTTT funds can be continued after four years. LEA plans should reflect the thought that has been given to how the initiatives can be sustained." To translate from political jargon: the state must show the feds that it intends to continue funding the reforms after the four years pass, but it’s going to put a purposefully undefined amount of the burden on local districts to plan ahead for sustainability too.

So what's new? Haven't we been involved in a back-and-forth blame game over money with the state for years now? According to a press release by the U.S. Census Bureau in July of 2009, Florida ranked 25th in per pupil spending in 2006-2007. However, according to a report in Education Week Quality Counts, also released in 2009, Florida ranked 41st in 2006-2007 and received an "F" in spending. I'm not sure why Florida earned different rankings, but both reports confirm that our state lags behind in funding, and has done so for years. We never have enough money, and you can blame it on the state, the taxpayers, or the economy, but if we receive this money and don't have enough four years from now, the worst that can happen is we end up in the same place we're in now. Except that maybe, just maybe, we won't. Or maybe the economy will rebound, or taxpayers will be encouraged by the reform and vote for another penny tax. If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that we live in an incredibly volatile, fickle, and changeable world, for all of our preparation. So maybe it sounds crazy to sign up for a four-year guarantee of money without the promise of what's to come afterward, but we're already in the bottom half of country on spending, so maybe we need to get a little crazy.

And love the reform.
I'm a good teacher. I know it, my students know it, parents know it, my co-workers know it, and my administrators know it. On my campus, I know who does their job and who doesn't. These are not secrets -- on campuses across the state we could compile a list of those teachers who do more harm than good, and our list would probably match a student-created list too.

Ineffective teachers tend to fall into two categories: those who really want to teach and fail for various reasons and those whose hearts are not in the profession. The reform leaves room to help those teachers who are failing, but after a certain period of time it will cut them loose. Is this wrong? No. There are many wonderful, caring people in the world who are not good teachers. I love music, but if I were to try out for American Idol Simon would surely kick me to the curb, because the cold hard truth remains that I can't sing, no matter how nice I am.

Should we categorize "good" or "bad" teachers primarily by test scores? No, which is why I am strongly opposed to test scores counting any more than 50% of a teacher's evaluation, and why I advocate we rein the state's demands on that account through our local efforts. But test scores count and data can be an effective tool in our goal to provide the best education for Florida's students. I agree that the FCAT has serious flaws, so I am encouraged that the state's application calls for directing more than $100 million of the money toward standards and assessments, including the development of assessment tools, as well as student and teacher support tools. It also calls for $58 million to be used toward data systems, the bulk of which would be for developing a web-based site for educators to more easily use data to improve instruction.

Oftentimes, the use of data conjures images of factory-based learning. In January, NCTE's English Journal published a satirical piece I wrote which mocked the fact that the state seems to view students as "products" and that students prove their usefulness via test scores. Lest I seem to contradict myself, let me clarify. I firmly believe we can use data to help students learn more by identifying and addressing their weaknesses, without forsaking their individual spirits. Teachers must continue to push back against the idea that students can be judged solely on a single test score, while acknowledging that those test scores hold some merit in reflecting students' academic growth. Of course I am nervous about the idea that part of my pay will rely on my students' test results, but I acknowledge that their scores should reflect learning gains if I have done my job correctly. Their scores should be part of my evaluation as a teacher, though they should share an equal place with my years of experiences and other factors such as professional involvement, continued learning, and administrator evaluations. Just as we consider whether a student can read and write as part of their requirement to graduate, we should consider our abilities to teach students to read and write as part of our effectiveness as teachers.

Additionally, this reform may finally confront the problem with those people whose hearts are not really in the profession. The unions claim we don't have a "tenure" based system, but isn't an apathy-based system the same thing? We all know that after a teacher receives their continuing contract, it's virtually impossible to fire that person. And we all know that evaluations, as they are currently conducted, are quite simply, a joke. Why should someone who shows movies every Friday receive a good evaluation and get paid more than me because they've been in the classroom for a longer period of time? It's ludicrous. Those who have opposed merit pay systems in the past did so because previous proposals relied on a one-dimensional requirement, namely test scores. But the current pay schedule is equally one-dimensional, as it does not differentiate between good teachers and bad teachers, only young teachers and old teachers.

Where we go from here
Here's the bottom line: RTTT may become a reality for over one hundred thousand of Florida’s teachers in the very near future. Whether you agree with my points or not, I encourage all of you to please inform yourselves of this program and how it will affect you and your district. Arming ourselves with knowledge is our first line of defense AND offense, getting involved is the second. Please visit the sites, download the applications, go to the meetings, and make your voice heard. We can be a part of something great for our students and ourselves, but we need to start today.

U.S. Department of Education resources:

Florida Department of Education:

Florida Education Association:

— Megan Pankiewicz
Florida Council of Teachers of English


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