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.