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Column

Schools improving partly due to FCAT

By Dan Dewitt, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008


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I'm going to say something radical here: I don't think our schools are that bad.

And this: One reason they are good, or at least better than they used to be, is the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

I'm no expert, just a parent comparing my children's classes with the ones I took in school, a resident trying to sift through contradictory reports about the performance of teachers in Florida and Hernando County.

Sometimes the contradictions show up in the same place: in the results of a recent St. Petersburg Times education survey, for example.

Only 12 percent of Florida residents who were questioned, and one-quarter of parents with schoolage children, said the state's schools are better here than elsewhere. (Which is why I can say my position is radical.)

Asked about the schools their kids attended, however, the results flipped: three-quarters of parents rated them either good or excellent.

Well, I thought, that proves my point. Parents judging their own schools were the only group answering from direct experience; that's the number to trust.

Not really, according to the education policy guru I sought out - Tom Marshall, a Times education reporter and former teacher who sits in the next cubicle. These surveys always show parents are loyal to their kids' schools, he said.

Yes, but those parents are right about their kids' schools, according to Education Week, which in January ranked Florida's schools 14th in the country, and improving rapidly, based on factors including reading and math scores.

That's what I've seen in Hernando, though here I need yet another qualifier: My two sons, now in fifth and seventh grades, have benefitted from what I think is a two-tier system, attending charter or magnet schools almost from the time they enrolled.

Still, my children's teachers have almost all been good, and some excellent. My children face appropriate consequences when they misbehave. They seem challenged. Their class work, for the most part, is more advanced than mine was at their ages.

Which is not saying much. If it's true that most education trends are reactions to previous ones, I had the misfortune of living through the trend that inspired increased standardization.

My teachers in the late 1960s and early 1970s wanted to restore freedom and a sense of discovery to learning, which played out as chaotic "team teaching" schemes, and "open" classrooms that students wandered in and out of unchallenged. The library was redesigned with bean bag chairs, and nobody seemed to mind if I spent an afternoon there reading back issues of Sports Illustrated.

Some rigor was restored in high school, but not much. One English teacher gave us reading assignments at the start of class, then vanished to coach her debate team. All I learned from her class is that teenagers, left on their own, will not read short stories by Sherwood Anderson.

So, it seems like a good idea to test whether students are learning math and reading, and to hold teachers accountable for the results. Accountability is essential.

On that point I probably agree with most conservatives in this state. I don't agree that this means we ought to cut education funding, as some legislators are proposing.

Because why, if you are starting to build something decent, would you want to tear it down?

[Last modified February 20, 2008, 21:04:47]


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