Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for July 3, 2004

They're at it again in Florida! First it was the battle over "hanging chads"...did Al win, or was it George? It took the United States Supreme Court to settle that one. Now it's school "test scores"...did Florida schools get an "A", or did they "flunk"? Wonder who will settle this one?

And...whassup with Texas...that beacon of educational achievement...home state of Dubya and pride of U.S. Education Secretary Rod "Teachers are Terrorists" Paige?!

First from sunny Florida...

Florida Test Results Create Havoc

NCLB Clash with Florida State Standards Causes Confusion

Predictably, confusion followed Governor Jeb Bush's recent announcement of Florida's latest round of test scores for the 2003-2004 school year.

According to the Florida Department of Education, 68 percent of schools received an "A" or "B" from the state, yet only 23 percent of the schools made the so-called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal education law's testing measure of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Due to NCLB mandates, an estimated 959 schools in Florida that receive Title I money and failed to make AYP for two consecutive years must now allow students the option of transferring to another school within their district.

The conflict continues

The St. Petersburg Times editorial board described President Bush's federal NCLB standards and Gov. Bush's state FCAT standards as "competing mandates" that are "beginning to have the feel of a demolition derby." Some schools with "A" grades by Florida standards are considered "failing" under NCLB.

Gov. Bush said he was not overly concerned that 77 percent of Florida schools did not meet federal standards, even though most did meet the state standards.

He defended NCLB's controversial high-stakes testing: "It took a generation of neglect in some cases and not trying to achieve high aspirations for our students to get where we were. It's not going to take one year or two years to get where we need to be."

Can't afford to wait it out

Despite Gov. Bush's certainty in NCLB, many educators, parents, students, elected officials, and others don't think the state can afford to wait it out as schoolchildren are shuffled through a broken and conflicted testing system.

Some of the most worrisome consequences begin this fall, when Title I schools that failed to make AYP will have to offer students the chance to attend a different school. This mandated option could cost Florida's already cash-strapped schools hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that Mary Cavaioli, a teacher at Norcrest Elementary in Pompano Beach, said, "My feeling is, if you have a school that's struggling, put your effort into making the school better, not moving them out."

Speaking out against the absurdity of AYP

The Florida Education Association (FEA), an NEA affiliate, quickly responded to the confusion surrounding NCLB's impact on Florida schools. FEA president Andy Ford told Associated Press, "This one-size-fits-all federal mandate is wreaking havoc on Florida schools and creating chaos for teachers, parents, students and administrators."

The Orlando Sentinel reported that FEA spokeswoman Deborah Mitchell, said, "There are certainly a lot of issues that affect performance in schools. We need to see smaller class sizes, more professional training and more parental involvement."

U.S. Dept. of Education official: "I'm Not Sure How…"

Even the Department of Education doesn't know how to get itself out of the logical nightmare created by NCLB's rigid mandates. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok is quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, "One of the logistical challenges Florida has [handling school transfers resulting from testing required by ESEA/NCLB] is so many schools where students will be eligible…There's going to be a crunch with regard to receiving schools—I'm not sure how that will be resolved."

Frank Till, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, the fifth largest school district in the country, explained to the Washington Post , "I've said to the DOE and to the federal government that if you really tried to implement No Child Left Behind in Florida to the fullest extent as by the law it would cause total chaos in the state. There's no way you can find space for the kids at 1,700 schools."

Related editorial from the St. Petersburg Times...

Big brothers

Under the competing mandates of the president and governor, schools earning bonus checks from the state are threatened with closure by the federal government.

When a president and a governor both set about the business of controlling public schools, unusual things are bound to happen. But as Florida releases its sixth round of state-issued report cards and second round of federal assessments, the competing mandates are beginning to have the feel of a demolition derby.

The big numbers collide head-on: Under the state A plus Plan, 68 percent of the schools were awarded A's or B's this year; under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 77 percent were deemed to be making unacceptable progress. But those conflicting assessments only begin to describe the dangers on this track. Behind the numbers are state and federal regulatory edicts that are without much historical parallel, sanctions that are becoming as contradictory as they are ham-handed.

How can you tell when state and federal education "reform" has taken on a bureaucratic life of its own? Here are some certain signs:

A kiss and a slap: Some 1,200 schools were awarded A's by Florida this year, which means they will receive state bonus checks of roughly $150,000. But more than half of those same schools failed the federal standard, which means that, in many cases, parents will get letters telling them they can transfer their students to a better school. Continued failure of federal standards could even force the schools to close.

Martial law: The state's appointed Board of Education declared "an emergency" on Tuesday and thus empowered itself to order the transfer of teachers, nullify established union contracts and hire private companies to manage schools judged as repeatedly failing. Those schools are required to "restaff . . . with high-quality instructors . . . in place by the first day of school." The same agency that has blamed lax oversight of private voucher schools on a lack of statutory authority is citing three words, "other appropriate action," as the legal framework for this regulatory plunge. Aside from the many obvious political, legal and constitutional questions are two more practical ones: Who will determine which teachers are high quality and order them to move? Will Education Commissioner Jim Horne ask to interview them?

Back flips with a twist: The federal law that requires poorer and low-performing schools to offer transfers for students to attend a higher-performing school is hitting one obvious roadblock. With three-fourths of the schools declared to be unacceptable, where can a student transfer? Some rural counties have only one school anyway. So Horne offered districts a ready solution: Offer the students a "school" within the same school. Interestingly, Horne, who vehemently opposed the voter mandate to reduce class sizes, instructs districts to consider sweetening the deal for such students by the "use of smaller class sizes."

Tutors Inc.: Poor students at schools on the federal failing list are entitled to tutoring if they want it, which is a wonderful idea. Leave it to Washington and Tallahassee to turn it into a multimillion-dollar government program. Rather than turn to local schools and the kind-hearted souls in their communities, the state went out to bid. Among those that may be authorized to provide tutoring under the federal law, then, are national corporations such as Sylvan Educational Services, Kaplan K12 Learning and EdSolutions Inc.

Drop the dropouts: The state board on Tuesday also ordered the immediate closure of every charter school that has received more than one F. Failure in an experimental school certainly warrants tough and immediate action, but among the schools apparently dissolved by the board's statewide directive is Academic Research Charter School in Lakeland, which was created to deal with struggling high school students in danger of dropping out. Is it a surprise that its students score poorly on standardized tests? Is closing the school the best way to serve them?

The reformers overreaching into classrooms don't necessarily have ill motives. The goals of the federal act, championed by President Bush, and the state law, championed by Gov. Jeb Bush, are noble. But a structure fashioned from one material, standardized tests, is being battered by the potent winds of political ideology. And each gust of reform tends to come from a different direction on the compass.

Gov. Bush, ever careful not to join other governors who have criticized his brother's No Child Left Behind Act, insists the state and federal laws fit like hand in glove. He also told reporters Tuesday that: "We're not going to lower our standards so that we can look good. That's not going to be who I am."

In this rapidly colliding world of education reform, self-righteousness is also another sign of trouble.

Saving the "worst" for last, let's "drop in" and see what's happening in the great State of Texas...

Texas graduation rate worst in nation, again

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

For the second straight year, Texas has the lowest percentage of high school graduates in the nation, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study released Tuesday.

Seventy-seven percent of Texans age 25 and older had a high school degree in 2003, the same percentage as a decade earlier, when Texas ranked 39th in the country. So while other states have seen their graduation rates improve -- a record 85 percent of Americans have high school degrees -- Texas is treading water.

The results could be harmful to the state's economy as less educated people enter the work force, the state demographer said.

"The downside is Texas could be less competitive," said Steve Murdock at the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas-San Antonio. "It could be poorer because we know educational attainment is the best predictor of income."

In 2002, the average high school dropout earned less than $19,000, compared with more than $27,000 for the typical graduate, according to the study.

Texas' graduation rate is worst among Hispanics, the state's fastest-growing population. Barely half of Texas' 4.3 million Hispanics age 25 and older have a high school degree, according to the report.

Omar Garza, a 27-year-old shoveling asphalt Tuesday with a road repair crew on Texas Avenue, said he regrets dropping out of Rosenberg's Lamar High School. He earns $8 an hour.

"I needed one more semester to graduate," said Garza, who left Mexico for Texas as a teen. "I would like to finish. I don't want to do this all my life."

Garza said he quit school partly because he didn't want to take classes in English as a second language.

"I also met a girl, and you know how it is," he said. "We fell in love and started having kids."

In the Houston Independent School District, where 57 percent of the 211,000 students are Hispanic, administrators believe that as many as 40 percent of the city's students never graduate. In May, HISD called together 350 residents with various backgrounds to offer solutions to the problem. A task force is reviewing those suggestions.

Immigrant students present a particularly difficult challenge for Texas schools, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. Even so, Texas' graduation rate has increased every year for the past decade, she said.

Other states with large immigrant populations also found themselves near the bottom of the list. California ranked 42nd, New York came in at 36th and Florida was 35th.

The numbers are skewed, Ratcliffe said, by those who come to the state as adults with no education.

"We have large immigration from Mexico and Central America and that's influencing those numbers," she said.

That influx, however, doesn't entirely account for the gap between Texas' Hispanics and Anglos, 91 percent of whom graduated high school, said María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, director of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio. The nonprofit research organization founded in 1973 monitors Texas' dropout prevention efforts.

"Nationally 85 percent of young people under 18 who are Hispanic are born in the U.S.," Montecel said. "The issue of dropouts is an issue of how well schools in the state are able to educate Latino students rather than a question of immigration. It is in our schools. That's where we need to focus."

Socorro Herrera, who teaches at one of two Community Family Centers that help primarily Hispanics, said many of her students are Spanish speakers.

Herrera said she sees three reasons why students enter GED programs at the southeast Houston center on Avenue E.

"First, there is the language barrier and they want to learn English. Then there are students who just cannot pass the graduation tests. Third, they have personal problems like pregnancies or other matters," Herrera said.

Loucious Windom, 21, said he got his GED through the Houston Community College a year ago after realizing he wants to become a teacher. He had dropped out of Benji's Academy Charter School in Houston.

"I had it in my mind that I'd never have a chance to catch back up. I was the oldest kid in my school," Windom said. He now works in the children's museum cafe, earning $6.75 an hour. "I just got tired of sitting at home. I wanted to be a teacher and I knew I had to have some kind of diploma and I made my mind up to get it."