Having directed their attention for the past year to boosting student test scores to avert any possible loss of students to vouchers, many educators in Florida now want the state’s A+ Plan to be sidelined so they can go back to the way they were teaching before the plan was put into effect. They contend the unrelenting focus on test scores not only has detracted from the “fun” of learning, but also has caused some lessons to be neglected.
Under the A+ Plan, each public school in Florida is assigned a letter grade depending upon how its students perform in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). If a school is assigned an F grade in two out of four years, students in that school become eligible to transfer to a non-failing public school, or to use publicly funded vouchers to attend a secular or religious private school.
Students attending as many as 78 schools were expected to be eligible for vouchers by the end of the 1999-2000 school year. But the state department of education recently reported that all of those schools had significantly improved their student test scores, thus avoiding the F grade that would have triggered vouchers.
Improvements were not restricted to schools in danger of failing. Nearly one-third of the state’s elementary schools received an A grade because of improved test scores. While voucher supporters view those results as evidence school choice enhances accountability, some educators decry what the process is doing to students.
“It’s really a lot of pressure for 8- and 9-year-olds,” Miami Herald reporter Analisa Nazareno was told by Patricia Bennett, a fourth-grade teacher at D-graded Charles R. Drew Elementary School. “They’re just babies, and to have this on their backs is not really fair,” she added, noting she misses the “fun” and wants her students to be “creative” again.
The students have become “walking numbers–walking, breathing test scores,” complained Bettye Woodson, principal at D-graded Opa-locka Elementary School. “We’re not looking at the child as a whole child,” she told Nazareno.
Not all of the state’s educators agree.
Robert Wright is a teacher at Vanguard High School in Ocala and co-founder of the pro-voucher group, Teachers for a Better Education. He doesn’t understand how anyone who calls himself or herself a teacher could object to the A+ Plan.
“Our schools have simply not been providing children with a decent education,” he noted, pointing out that until the A+ Plan came along, the only solution to the problems of public schools was “money, money, and more money.” Per-pupil spending had been raised from $3,749 to $4,744 a year over the past decade, to no avail. With the threat of competition, however, failing schools had been motivated to meet their educational obligations.
“There will be those who will say the students in the 78 schools were just ‘taught the test,'” wrote Wright recently in The Wall Street Journal. “But let’s not miss the point. The lesson to be learned here is that even the threat of competition motivates change.”
That lesson appears to be lost on A.A. Dixon Elementary school teacher Fonda Robinson, who still maintains competition “can’t increase test scores”–even though that’s exactly what happened at her Pensacola school. Like many public school educators, Robinson contends students and their families are the problem in failing schools, not the teachers.
“Why has A.A. Dixon been punished for something that begins even before the students enroll in school?” asked Robinson, arguing defiantly that “competition will not make public schools do better because public schools can’t work any harder than they are already.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.