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NCLB Outrages

New FCAT Push Accelerates Teaching Pace: Intense New Focus Veers Sharply from Previous Philosophy and Touches Off Fierce Debate

Ohanian Comment Here's a picture of what NCLB does--totally degrade the teaching-learning process in schools, turning it into one massive test-prep factory. We must all figure out a way to support the educators willing to resist. For starters, everyone in Florida should join FCAR: the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform.


Educators in other states must join up with other resisters. If a group doesn't exist, start one. We must take back our schools.

If you want info about your area, go to Fair Test's list of state coordinators:


This list is a bit outdated, but it's a place to start. If you don't find any help there, write me, and I'll do what I can.

We MUST resist the states' response to NCLB bullying. Public education is at stake.

In a major shift this year in Pinellas schools, teachers have been told to move much faster through lessons and to narrow their instruction to material most likely to be on the state's standardized test.

Elementary students already have taken two practice tests that mirror the content of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and its fill-in-the-bubble format. Three more tests are scheduled over the next 20 weeks, designed to build students' stamina and to root out gaps in knowledge before the real FCAT in February and March.

The intense new focus on testing is Pinellas' reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that pressures school districts to push their students toward ever higher scores.

It veers sharply from the district's previously stated philosophy, which was to provide good teaching and let test scores fall where they may.

The change has touched off a robust debate that is carving the nation's 22nd-largest school system into two camps. One side accepts standardized testing as the new way in education; the other views the FCAT's snowballing importance as a scourge that impedes genuine learning.

Some teachers say the changes give them much-needed tools to help their students succeed on the test.

"If you're a teacher who has been in the public school system for a long

time and you're used to doing things a certain way, you may struggle with it," said Nicole May, a rookie teacher at Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg. "As somebody who's walking into the public school system new, I'm open to anything that will help my kids."

Others, accustomed to more freedom in the classroom, object to the new program as hand-holding and an affront to their professionalism.

"There's very little opportunity for the kids to be creative in the classroom; we're just racing through everything," said Denise Edgar, a 10-year teacher at Woodlawn Elementary with National Board certification.

"We were just talking at lunch today about how elementary school was a time when you find out what you're good at and what you like. It was a time when you liked school. Not any more. ... I feel like we've gone in a very seriously disturbing direction."

School Board members also are complaining, upset that administrators did

not brief them on such a large initiative until they rolled it out across the district.

Pinellas parents, meanwhile, are only beginning to learn about the shift

from school newsletters, PTA meetings or talks with teachers. Some have sensed the quickened classroom pace from their children's reactions. Few are aware of the anxiety welling up behind the cheerful public face of their schools.

"I've had so many people say, "If I could quit today, I'd do it,"' School Board member Carol Cook said, referring to teachers. "I have not ever been exposed to anything that was so universally disruptive."

The resistance is no surprise to the administrators who implemented the program.

"It is going to be a bumpy year," said Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of elementary schools. But she and others say something had to be done.

The No Child Left Behind Act places a daunting set of goals before Pinellas and other districts over the next few years.

The federal government says 68 percent of Pinellas students should be performing at their grade level on the math FCAT by the 2007-08 school year. Only 53 percent hit the mark this year.

In reading, only 55 percent of Pinellas students tested at grade level.
The government wants it at 65 percent in four years.

That's a steep climb in a large district where success is usually measured in 1 or 2 percent increments.

The district's mantra when presenting the new program has been: "If not this, then what? If not now, then when? If not you, then who? Our students can't wait."

Said Thomas: "If we don't maintain a rigorous expectation of students, they will not be successful. ... We are ramping it up."

The initiative focuses on reading and math from kindergarten through high school. It has three components, though two of them have yet to be implemented in middle and high schools.

The program to narrow instruction to FCAT knowledge is known as "essential learnings," which is in place across all grades.

To describe it, district officials use the example of a third-grade class learning word endings. Because the FCAT is likely to deal only with the endings "s" and "es," teachers should make sure enough students

master them before plowing ahead to nontested endings such as "ing."

In math, the same class needs to master 45-, 90- and 180-degree angles before studying other angles that likely won't be on the test.

Administrators argue that children receive 9,000 hours of instruction during their 13 years in public schools, but it takes 15,000 hours to teach everything covered in the state standards.

Another element is called "common assessments," which so far is in elementary schools only. These are the FCAT-like minitests that assess students' FCAT readiness.

Teachers can factor them into a student's grade, but it's not required. More important to the district is that teachers use the results to focus their time, moving ahead with students who have mastered the material and remediating students who haven't.

The third, and most controversial, element is a system of "pacing calendars," which push teachers along at a clip that fits in as much instruction as possible before the FCAT is administered.

For example, the calendar has all 8,800 third-graders in Pinellas reading Little Grunt and the Big Egg from Oct. 13 to Oct. 21, plus working on their syllables and word relationships.

District officials say the standardization will allow teachers across the district to compare notes, and will help ease the disruption when students change schools midyear. Nearly one-third of the district's 110,000-plus students move into, out of and within the county every year.

In addition, teachers are told to make every minute count - no more than

three or four minutes between classes or regrouping after lunch. The calendars break math and reading classes into blocks of time, and they detail how teachers should use them.

Critics say the program is too regimented and that Pinellas is teaching to the test.

"I think they have simply fallen into the trap," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "I just find the whole orientation of public education to the FCAT to be criminal."

The district is not teaching to the test, said Jan Rouse, associate superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction. She said Pinellas combed Florida's educational standards and "narrowed the focus to the ones that provide the greatest chance for student success."

The district also used ideas from school systems in Brazosport, Texas, and Wake County, N.C., both of which have become known for dramatic improvements in student achievement.

Thomas said Hillsborough and Broward counties in Florida have instituted

pacing calendars in recent years with good results. They also had early resistance from teachers, she said. "As you look at the nation, I believe we're on the right path," she said.

Incoming superintendent Clayton Wilcox calls it "absolutely the right thing to do."

In the past, Wilcox said, teachers chose their own course material based

on what they learned in college, what they liked or what worked for them. That often doesn't prepare students for tests, he said.

"There's no escaping that the coin of the realm today in public education is the tested curriculum," Wilcox said. He argued that once a district gets its students testing well, it is free to concentrate on other things.

Still, Wilcox plans to consider changes to the pacing calendar after he officially becomes superintendent Nov. 1. "When you say to every teacher

in the district that on Day 33, you're teaching the same thing, I think you've gone too far," he said at a recent School Board retreat.

Teachers have complained that the calendar is so rigid it eliminates the

art in teaching. They also say the pacing calendar for math is too rapid, leaving little time to remediate struggling students.

Edgar, the Woodlawn teacher, said parents have started to question why subject matter in their children's classes comes and goes so quickly. "I've also had to explain it to the kids," she said. "They're asking, "Why didn't we finish what we were working on last week?"'

Kathy Johns noticed when her 8-year-old son, Evan, cried after she picked him up from Perkins Elementary on a recent afternoon. The boy failed a math test because the material was presented too quickly, she said. "He held it together until I picked him up in the car circle," Johns said. "He's a bright kid. He's reading at fifth-grade level. Getting an F is a big deal in our family."

Stephanie Everhart, PTA president at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, said she sees a difference between what is expected of her third-grader this year and what her fifth-grader was doing two years ago. "There's this "got to get this done this week' feeling," she said. "The hurricanes offered a chance for teachers to do something creative with the kids. They could have taught an interesting geography lesson about the Caribbean islands, but they weren't allowed to deviate from their schedule."

Thomas, the assistant superintendent, said many teachers are taking the pacing calendar too literally.

As long as they get the concepts across to students in time for the scheduled minitests, they can use any method they want, she said. The books listed on the calendar are suggestions and the exact dates are just guides to keep them on track, she said.

"We've said that over and over and over again," she said.

As for the pacing of the math lessons, the district has put out a revised calendar that is slower and accounts for missed hurricane days.

If students aren't grasping the math concepts, Thomas said, there is time built into the suggested schedule to give them extra help: up to 15 minutes at the end of a daily math session for first- and second-graders and up to 25 minutes for third- to fifth-graders.

"That is plenty of time for remediation," she said.

Math instruction has been stepped up, Thomas said, because the district has let math instruction slip in recent years while it concentrated on reading.

Despite her criticism, Edgar sees a need for change. Some teachers move too slowly through the curriculum, she said. "At the same time, (the pacing calendar) doesn't take into account that there are some kids who need more than one week to be exposed to something."

One problem has been the district's chronic difficulty conveying the details of new initiatives to more than 8,000 teachers. "There's so much confusion as to how it's being interpreted," said Sally Baynard, a gifted teacher who works in the district's regional gifted office in Gulfport. "To me, it's a matter of communication. It didn't come down from the higher-ups very well."

Thomas acknowledged that the district has given teachers a lot to deal with. They're adjusting to new math textbooks, a longer math period and a new way of teaching math in smaller groups, Thomas said. Some are simply reluctant to embrace new practices, she said.

"We really have to have a commitment to face "I can't do it,"' Thomas told the School Board recently. "It is different from what teachers have been doing for years."

— Thomas C. Tobin and Donna Winchester
St. Petersburg Times


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