More customization in public education can ease tensions over testing, accountability

Discussions about how best to improve student learning often get contentious, so at redefinED we try to make a positive contribution by identifying areas of possible common ground and clarifying the historical record when we see errors or omissions. Rita M. Solnet’s recent Huffington Post column on how Florida might better utilize its standardized testing data gives us an opportunity to do both.

Rita is a founder of Parents Across America, a group that opposes excessive reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. And since Rita lives in Florida, she is particularly unhappy with how Florida uses – or, she would say, abuses – its state testing data. Rita ends her column with some ideas that provide the basis for common ground, but her piece also includes some erroneous Florida history, which I want to correct.

In 1991, the Florida Legislature passed the Education Reform and Accountability Act, commonly known as Blueprint 2000. Florida had experimented with giving teachers and schools more decision-making power in the late 1980s, and Blueprint 2000 was intended to accelerate this effort.  The grand bargain was that state and local government would stop micromanaging schools in exchange for individual schools being held accountable for results.

While the legislation passed with strong bipartisan support, the primary advocates were all Democrats. They included Gov. Lawton Chiles, Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, Rep. Doug “Tim” Jamerson and Sen. George Kirkpatrick. 

Two months after the legislation passed, the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability was convened to create the legislatively mandated standards, assessments and accountability system. I was the teachers union president in Pinellas County in 1991, and Commissioner Castor appointed me to be one of three teacher representatives on the commission.

The U.S. Department of Labor released the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report in June 1991, outlining the knowledge and skills students would need to succeed in the 21st Century. Our commission was impressed and decided to base Florida’s standards on the SCANS recommendations, which included literacy skills (reading, writing, mathematics), thinking skills (problem solving, decision making), personal qualities (honesty/integrity), resource management (time, money), information management (organizing, processing, interpreting),  and technological competence.

Several commissioners argued that we could measure the SCANS standards using an International Baccalaureate-type assessment system that included multiple internal and external assessments, but the Florida Department of Education’s student testing staff strongly disagreed. Its concerns were legal and operational.

In 1978, the Legislature passed a law requiring students to pass a minimum competency test to receive a high school diploma. This led to a lawsuit (Debra P v. Turlington, 1981) that claimed the test was racially discriminatory, given the disproportionately high number of black students who failed it. Eventually, the federal courts ruled the test constitutional, but only after delaying its implementation as a graduation requirement and convincing the DOE staff that Florida should stick with traditional standardized exams that measure basic literacy skills only.

In public hearings around the state, classroom teachers also opposed including authentic or portfolio assessments in the state system because of the additional workload. By 1993, the state’s Democratic leadership had decided to assess reading, writing and mathematics with only an annual standardized test, and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) was born.

That left commissioners with only the issue of accountability to be resolved, and again we were divided. Commissioner Castor had brought in a deputy from New Jersey named Sandy McCarroll, who was a big advocate for state government taking over failing schools. The teachers, school board members and parents on the commission all opposed this approach, and the commission became deadlocked.  Commissioner Castor threw in the towel and resigned in 1994 to become president of the University of South Florida. Gov. Chiles appointed Doug Jamerson to be the interim education commissioner, but the stalemate remained. Jamerson was then defeated by Frank Brogan in the fall of 1994, and Brogan broke the logjam by pushing through more state control.

I didn’t believe we could regulate and coerce our way to excellence. So in 1995, I resigned from the commission. In her column, Rita writes that the commission “embarked upon its ‘accountability’ journey in 1995,” but by 1995 the key policy decisions had been made.

Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, and Frank Brogan was his lieutenant governor. Once elected, Gov. Bush used FCAT results to pressure school districts to spend more resources on meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, and it worked. I remain skeptical that more government regulation is the key to educational excellence. But those were the only tools available to Gov. Bush and he used them effectively for a noble purpose.

Rita ended her column by calling for a state assessment and accountability system that is more child-centered and less punitive, that provides diagnostic information and allows teachers to focus on the whole child. These ideas have the potential for uniting current political adversaries.

Jeb Bush believes the future of public education is customization. So does John Wilson, the former executive director of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association. John recently wrote, “In the 21st century, one size does not fit all … Parents want to choose the school that best fits their children. Let’s not stifle this customization, but embrace it.”

In addition to helping Jeb Bush, John Wilson and, hopefully, Rita Solnet find common ground, a public education system organized around customization will transform assessment and accountability. Teachers will be empowered to innovate and create more diverse learning options for students, and parents will be empowered to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. Children will have personalized learning plans and will progress at their own pace. Assessment will be diagnostic and will continuously inform teaching and learning, similar to what occurs through the Khan Academy today. Public education will become more pluralistic and less regulated as consumer choice becomes a bigger component of accountability.

I wrote recently that the Berlin Wall is starting to come down in public education. As this process continues, much of the micromanagement that is inherent in command-and-control organizations will diminish, and many of Rita’s concerns will be addressed. We have a long struggle ahead, but the future looks bright for public education.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.


Doug Tuthill

I’d like to correct one more error in Rita’s column. She wrote that the FCAT should be used “as the diagnostic tool it was meant to be.” The FCAT was never intended to be a diagnostic tool. That’s a myth. Several commissioners—including me–wanted the new state assessment system to include formative and summative data, but ultimately the Commission rejected that position.

I always love taking a peek into what Doug Tuthill is thinking. You have one of the finest minds around…and you are one of the few people involved in Florida’s education sector who go back far enough to understand and appreciate the state’s journey in trying to deliver a quality education to our youth. And I feel a sense of excitement by the thinking that if everyone can just get on the same page we can transform assessment and accountability through customization…and we will do this by empowering teachers and parents. And then the fog in my memory starts to clear and I remember…wasn’t that what we had before FCAT?

Look, the Berlin Wall came down for one reason; there was something much better on the other side. And people wanted what was on the other side…wanted it bad enough to climb through barbed wire fences with bullets chasing them as they ran. They were running toward and for something real and were willing to die to get it. My biggest concern about the thought of the wall coming down in public education is what’s on the other side. With everything that is at stake, we need not go backwards and find ourselves right back where we were 20 years ago.

I am all for transforming things. But let’s not transform back to old ways by repeating history. Let’s learn from it. Let’s learn from FCAT. Let’s learn from research on the importance of teacher quality and parent involvement. Let’s find ways to truly build a quality system that can and will deliver a quality education to Florida’s youth. And I believe this system will require great teachers, involved parents and an engaged state that insures our kids are getting what we promise–a quality education.

Call me confused. While the history of some testing may be of interest, I see no connection to the choice of Florida to add high stakes to the test results, a glaring omission and seeming circumvention of the concern. Where is the NCLB provision discussion? Where is the lack of fairness in our accountability system? Certainly the Writing fiasco demonstrates a lack of reliability, when results can fall from 80 to 30 and back to 80, with the rise being the result of a phone call. Where is that provision in the A+ Plan? Where is the discussion of professorial work showing significant problems with the flawed tool ironcially called the A+Plan? Why should Floridians be accepting of so many A schools while the 2009 Seniors from Florida scored below the national average in Reading and Math on the NAEP.(Only 2 of the 11 participatng states performed so dismally.) Hmmm…didn’t these students have many years of Jeb’s strategies under his belt? Why wasn’t this broadcast? Certainly the number of A schools was a boast often made..and Jeb claimed grade inflation was a pet peeve,
Let’s face it. Jeb has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies. This does not provide him with an education background. He chose for his education adviser Pat Levesqque. She also lacks coursework in education, but does have an MBA and an undergrad degree in finance. They find themselves in a corner, one perhaps they destined for themselves by acting without sufficient knowledge or concern.
Amazingly absent from the reply was the ALEC/privatization/profiteering/free market position advanced by Jeb and his fans in the legislature. As one who sees this angle evidenced in Florida,
I can guess that many would not find common ground that public ed is safe in Florida. Here are a few reasons. Research is being downplayed and merit pay legislated. Studies on high stakes testing do not show improved academic achievement, yet Florida continues to do this in elementary and middle schools, despite a suggestion by the BUROS Institute this may be unwise so long ago. Certainly high stkes can be used in political football plays. The effects of poverty are being ignored as the FlDOE ranks districts by FCAT score on thier webpage without consideration of this strongly backed correlation. How is that appropriately informing the public?Teacher’s jobs will be lost based on a test where the results are as good as a phone call away. The number of supporters of Jeb’sFB foundations totalled is less than 1,000 while Stop Senate Bill 6 continues with 40,000 years after the veto of the bill. Did the legislators vote with the majority in reference to SB6? Is democracy being evidenced or does a political power grab exist which seeks to move the public schools from that to profit centers for adults? Recent legislation afvors charters. Ask the hedge fund managers who comprised Democrats for Ed Reform about the profitability of charters. Ask Florida legislators about their ties to charters.Is the discussion about money or children?
The dismantling of public education is underway in Florida.Tthe feeling of safety for public education seems to me as real as the unicorn waiting at my window to take me to see the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow. Some folks see through the fog and the number is growing daily.

Doug Tuthill

Thanks for the kind words Joe. Our readers should know that Joe Mizereck was the first Teacher of the Year in Pinellas County, Florida, and was a legendary social studies teacher who worked in a high-poverty urban school where he did amazing things.

I share your concerns Joe, but I’m hopeful because of what teachers and parents are creating when they slip through the Wall. We have over 40,000 high-poverty children on tax credit scholarships in Florida today. Their parents go through a rigorous application process to prove they are sufficiently poor to qualify, and then they take this scholarship to the school they think will best meet their child’s needs. And if they are dissatisfied with their choice, they move to another school. This is motivating private and district-run schools to raise their game to meet these parents’ needs, so everyone wins.

As you pointed out, the real key is empowerment. People made enormous sacrifices to leave East Germany because they wanted more control over their lives. This drive for control over one’s life is innate. We all have it and that’s why the school choice movement is accelerating. Parents want more control over how they educate their children, and that’s particularly true of low-income parents who know education is the key to escaping the cycle of poverty.

I wish the opponents of teacher and parental empowerment would spend some time listening to the low-income parents who are using the tax credit scholarships to help their children. I just can’t imagine anyone with an ounce of human decency would look these parents in the eye and say what they are doing for their children is wrong. The greatest power on earth is the love parents have for their children. We need to build a public education system that utilizes this power instead of fighting it.

I’m not sure exactly what happens when the Berlin Wall in public education finally comes down, but I’m confident that if we base our future public education system on the wisdom of teachers and the love parents have for their children, we’ll be successful.

Thank you for the kind words, Doug. I was in good company.

It all starts with a key question, or at least it should. And that question we must always ask and answer is this: What’s in the best interest of our kids? We ask this question as parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, elected officials, business leaders and community members. That is where we all must start and end. Given our great diversity it is rare to get the same answer from all parties. But, if we can all keep our top priority in mind, then we can do more good than harm while we figure out the best balances of roles and resources.

I have always admired your passion and commitment to teachers. And I admire your belief in the power that exists in the love parents possess for our kids. But you know as well as I do that these two pillars in your vision for the future of public education are very weak. Unquestionably, helping parents deal with the challenges they face in holding their families together and making teaching a more valuable, respected and rewarding profession will go far in improving public education, but this will require large scale social and economic investments with broad cross-sector coordination. And I’m thinking the most promising guidance we might have that could be utilized in helping to empower parents and teachers as well as all the other players on a broad scale is found in the work of Harvard’s Michael Porter with his research on regional clusters.

Consider this from his website: “Clusters are geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular field that are present in a nation or region. Clusters arise because they increase the productivity with which companies can compete. The development and upgrading of clusters is an important agenda for governments, companies, and other institutions. Cluster development initiatives are an important new direction in economic policy, building on earlier efforts in macroeconomic stabilization, privatization, market opening, and reducing the costs of doing business.”

Now, where does public education fit into these clusters? Mr. Porter thinks it is an integral part. And that is the kind of broader perspective we need in order to really get a handle on what we should stop doing and start doing to better serve our kids.

In other words Doug…we need to think BIGGER…BROADER…DEEPER…in order to have any chance of doing what’s in the best interest of our kids…and doing no harm. It’s a big challenge, but one we have to meet.

Keep fighting the good fight Doug…there is too much at stake.


While Mr. Tuthill ignored my points, I narrow my input to a few for his comment. What makes you believe that Jeb’s foundation’s severely lacking FB fan numbers show a majority opinion/want and democracy in action? Isn’t itinstead the intrusion of market forces in education, making schools profit centers and children commodities? The cheapest service provision means the biggest profit for adults, doesn’t it?

Doug Tuthill

Hi Diane-Thank-you for making your query more focused and succinct.

I don’t believe using public funds to enable low-income parents to better match their children with the schools that best meet their needs turns these children into commodities. We provide publicly-funded Section 8 housing vouchers that low-income families use to pay for housing, we provide publicly-funded Medicaid that low-income families use to pay for medical care, and we provide publicly-funded food stamps that low-income families use to buy food. These programs also do not turn children or families into commodities.

I also disagree that expanding school choice to include low-income families is bad because it turns publicly-funded schools into corporate profit centers. Public education would not exist without the products and services provided by for-profit corporations. If these for-profit corporations were not a part of public education today we would have no buildings, computers, desks, books, buses or gas to fuel the buses, and no health insurance for employees, among other things.

I do agree that market share and money are why school districts oppose allowing low-income parents to choose their children’s schools. The Broward County School District has decided to follow the lead of Dade County and start creating district-own charter schools. School Board Vice Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel on Wednesday as saying, ” We have lost so many students…We would be remiss if we don’t go after this market share.” And Superintendent Robert Runcie added, “Charter schools are going to continue to grow and proliferate in the district. Our customers are looking for choices.”

This is the proper way for a school district to respond to parents who want better options for their children. The improper way to respond is to use legal means to block parents from having the ability to choose.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I won’t have time to answer every question you have, but I’ll respond when I can.

All the Best,

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