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Perspective

For a better Florida: Public education

Like herding FCATs, Crist's challenge is elusive: Make accountability appealing.

By RON MATUS
Published February 25, 2007


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In the front office at historic, prestigious St. Petersburg High School, Newsweek covers are displayed on neat plaques. One says, "America's Best High Schools." Another says, "The 100 Best High Schools." St. Pete High, of course, is among them. The 109-year-old school is home to the first International Baccalaureate program in Florida and produces National Merit finalists by the handful. Last year, two of its graduating seniors headed to Harvard.

In many ways, St. Pete High - Gov. Charlie Crist's alma mater - is an inspiring example of just how jaw-dropping good a public school can be.

And yet facts buried on the Florida Department of Education Web site reveal another St. Pete High: Last year, only 57 percent of its ninth- and 10th-graders were reading at grade level. In other words, only a slim majority of them could find the main idea in a newspaper column like this one. Among black students - who make up more than a quarter of the school - only 16 percent of ninth- and 10th-graders could do so.

Sixteen percent.

Let that sink in.

The point isn't to laud or lambaste St. Pete High, but simply to show that the reality of Florida schools is often more complicated than the perception. And that in an era of accountability, applying different measuring sticks to the same school yields very different realities.

A radioactive test

Crist, new to the governor's office, knows there is a disconnect at public schools across the land.

He inherits an education system radically reshaped by his autocratic predecessor, Jeb Bush, and widely despised by the teachers, parents and kids who live it. The centerpiece of that system, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, has been a punchline for years and continues to be impossibly radioactive. A few weeks ago, state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said at a legislative hearing that the FCAT determines "who will have a future and who won't." In a recent column, Miami Herald institution Carl Hiaasen called the FCAT a "monster."

It's come to the point that everybody hates the FCAT because ... everybody hates the FCAT. Of course, it's not that simple.

There is strong evidence that for all its flaws, the much-maligned, test-heavy system so branded by Jeb's personality is in some ways working. Which could put Crist, the self-proclaimed "people's governor," in a bind. Can he make an unpopular system at least palatable? Can he save the parts of the accountability system that work? And can he sell the benefits to teachers so brow-beaten by the top-down Bush model that it can be hard for some to see any good in it at all?

That isn't easy. It will mean he somehow needs to find a third way - a world in which the FCAT and accountability are not going away but are not so reviled either.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, likens accountability to a "bitter medicine." If he's right, then Crist and his doggedly chipper personality must sweeten the pill.

A public school kid

Crist never had to take the FCAT - it arrived in 1998, and he graduated from St. Pete High in 1974 - but he can, if he wants, dramatically reshape its role. Crist has said repeatedly he believes in measurement and accountability, but he also says he's looking to tweak. Nobody really knows how far he'll go.

Some of Bush's critics take comfort in the fact that Crist attended public schools. But in the 1960s and '70s, schools in St. Petersburg and everywhere else were far different than they are today: Less diverse, less tested and not accountable in the least for kids who fell through the cracks. Like many students who come from stable homes with engaged parents, Crist thrived. At Bay Vista Elementary, little Charlie beamed in the back of his second-grade class. At Riviera Middle then Riviera Junior High, he was Mr. Raider. At St. Pete High, he matured into a confident young man with long hair, sideburns and an uncanny flair for politics.

Those schools helped make Crist who he is. And like all of us who got excellent educations in public schools, he owes them.

"I love the public school system. I really do," Crist told the St. Petersburg Times recently. "It's just my opinion, but I think it's the equal opportunity provider in our country."

Crist says he's going to support "our public schools." But to many people in the schools Crist attended, support means rolling back the revolution.

Before Al Bennett became principal of St. Pete High last year, he was the principal at Riviera (remember, also a school Crist attended), which recently went from a C to a B to a C because of up-and-down FCAT scores. Besides the stain of a bad grade, Riviera missed out on "school recognition money," a pot of state cash often converted into teacher bonuses. "You work your butt off and the grades come out and you think, 'Man, are we really a C school?' " Bennett said.

At Riviera, 49 percent of all kids were reading at grade level last year, and 23 percent of black kids were. The school is high poverty, 50 percent minority and, in Florida, not at all unusual. Meanwhile, in north Pinellas, a more affluent school like Palm Harbor Middle earns A's every year.

"I don't think they work harder than the school here," said Riviera reading specialist Rebecca Huffman.

It's hard not to sympathize. Nobody likes being told they're not working hard enough or smart enough, especially when the job is so hard.

Doing better

But for accountability's critics, here's an inconvenient truth: Under Bush, struggling kids did better on tests. And for those who wonder what higher test scores actually show, the question becomes, what other way is there to measure learning gains? Since 1998, the reading scores of elementary school students in Florida rose as fast, if not faster, than those of students in any other state in the country, according to national tests that observers across the political spectrum consider credible measures of real learning. At the same time, Florida became No. 1 in the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams, and joined the nation's elite in the percentage of kids passing.

In other words, thousands upon thousands of Florida kids - many of them poor and minority kids - can now read better and do basic math better, and now have a better chance of mastering all the other subjects they need to be successful. Thousands more will be graduating without having to spin their wheels in remedial college courses or bumbling through technical manuals.

There's plenty not to like about Jeb and his education regimen. But some very important trend lines are moving in the right direction.

The sales pitch

So this is Crist's challenge.

In a thoughtful, 16-page report, his transition team concluded there are two big threats to continued progress. No. 1: The huge cost of the class-size amendment, which will gobble billions of dollars that could be used for better things, like finding and keeping more good teachers. And No. 2: Sustaining public and stakeholder support for needed reforms. (Emphasis added.)

Crist isn't going to get teachers and parents to buy-in by watering down accountability, said Kathleen Shanahan, a Bush appointee to the Board of Education who helped lead the transition for Crist.

He's going to sell it better.

"I think we'll see in the next 24 months," Shanahan said, whether it was "the messenger people were frustrated with" - that would be Bush - or the system.

The timing is critical. Both in Florida and nationally, the big debates in education are finally shifting to the heart of the matter: Teacher quality. For all the gnashing of teeth about STAR, the state's new performance-pay plan, the real question isn't whether better teachers get bonuses. It's whether we finally get to a system where we can truly find out who the better teachers are - and then get more of them.

In his own, upbeat, non-threatening way, Crist is moving with urgency.

Just days after the inauguration, he publicly distanced himself from Bush by withdrawing the appointment of Phil Handy, a key Bush confidante, to the Board of Education. And at the end of the month, he'll say goodbye to Education Commissioner John Winn, whom Bush hand picked. Critics are cheering those moves but the truth is, they'll allow Crist to stay more true to Bush's transformation by claiming he changed direction.

Crist also has positioned himself as flexible. Maybe performance pay for teachers could rely less on student test scores and more on evaluations from principals, he says. Maybe the formula for school grades should put even more emphasis on the gains of low-performing students, so schools filled with them could get more credit, says the report from his transition team.

Above all, Crist is bringing his intangibles to bear.

Jeb liked to pound the bully pulpit. Crist sends thank-you notes.

The other day, at Bay Vista Elementary in St. Petersburg, Crist stopped by to watch students do a tornado drill. At the direction of their teachers, hundreds of kids carefully knelt down in their classrooms and covered their heads with their hands. Just a routine drill? Crist didn't think so. At a press conference later, before a wall of TV cameras, he went out of his way to thank everyone involved, but saved a special compliment for teachers.

Teachers "were such an important part of this exercise this morning," Crist said, with all sincerity. "Without their leadership and without their dedication to Florida's young people, we wouldn't be the great state that we are."

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com Comments can also be posted on the Times new education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 06:14:41]


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