FLPE Spending
It all boils down to this…

If you are an educator working in Florida wondering why you are paid so poorly, look no further than this chart above. The Sunshine State has the dubious distinction of being dead last in the United States when it comes to inflation adjusted spending on its students and their future.

This is not the first time raising the flag about this issue. Some primers on how we got to here can be read in The $8,358 Question; Thanks for Nothing; Tallahassee, We’ve Had a Problem…; About Those Stubborn Facts…; and Numbers Don’t Lie.

In a recent op-ed published in the Tallahassee Democrat, Patrick Gibbons of redefinED practically boasted about the “increase” of $4.8 billion dollars across 20 years of Florida  GOP-led education reform, noting that in 2019 dollars Florida spent $7267 per student in 1999 and will spend $7672 this coming year.

Really? Is that the best we can do for our kids? An average increase of $20.25 per student, per year?

While these numbers may be accurate, there is a larger issue with one of Mr. Gibbons’ premises: namely, that our spending on Florida’s children should be indexed to inflation. In reality, however, we were spending more than what inflation required, because in 1999 Florida ranked 27th in the U.S. when it came to per-pupil funding, yet now we have slipped down into the bottom ten states (it has floated between 42nd and 44th the past few years), with teacher pay also infamously reaching an all new low of 46th.

Prior to the Great Recession, Florida’s high water mark for per-pupil spending was 2007-2008. The final FEFP calculation for that year was $7,126.33. If we plug this into the CPI calculator, this is the result:

CPI Screenshot

This effectively means that we are still lagging inflation by $672 from what we spent on education just over one decade ago, which is why we should look at the actions of the Florida Legislature across that time span as a passive divestment in our students and their future.

There is a fine line between frugality and parsimony. The overzealous, ideologically driven need to continually roll back tax rates for homeowners year after year because people like former House Speaker turned Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran say “Hell no!” to additional revenue being generated from rising property values has financially hamstrung all 67 districts. It is the reason why 20 of those counties decided to tax themselves to cover the shortfalls from Tallahassee (for those who are unaware, all tax rates are decided by the Florida Legislature, not your local school board). And it’s also the reason for perhaps the ugliest chart that now exists due to their continual unwillingness to properly invest in our students and their educators.

Declining Salaries
Sorry to say it, Florida Legislature, but you OWN this mess

Two things are immediately remarkable about this graph: 1) the peak of teacher salaries comes around the time that the “Pay for Performance” debacle began (circa 2011). Many of us jumped at the chance to earn more money by sacrificing our tenure in lieu of an annual contract. Each year since it was instituted (in Hillsborough at least), the total of performance pay dollars has declined; 2) because the graph illustrates “inflation adjusted” salaries, what is really under the lens is purchasing power.

When the dollars provided cannot keep pace with inflation, the purchasing power of those dollars declines even faster. Think about it: when you need more money to purchase even less “stuff” (staff and services for students), this makes the lack of funding that much more pronounced, and is exactly why inflation cannot be discounted. This is why legislators can no longer give the canned response of “salaries are bargained for at the local level with school boards,” because it is ultimately they who decide how much will be given to the districts. It is they who must make this badly needed investment in all of us, most especially our students. Until they recognize the funding being provided is completely insufficient, we will continue to see pay disputes erupting all over Florida like the most current one in Orange County Public Schools. This short video effectively details why:

And in another sense the Florida Legislature needs to get ahead of inflation at this point, yet it will take tremendous bipartisan political courage and will. But our legislators must first see the value in what we do, and there is no better way of doing this than by showing up in their offices this summer. They need to see your faces and hear your voices. We must remember that education is one issue out of many and that, ironically, we must teach our legislators about the ramifications of the legislation they pass.

Case in point? Last week I had an engaging conversation with Representative James Grant-R (HD64) that lasted nearly an hour. Although we touched on several issues, the three principal issues I have been focused on are increased funding, reduced testing, and CMO industry regulation. During our chat, he was shocked when I told him my family would see our household income reduced by $14,400. Unfortunately, as I surmised when I asked the $7,200 question, I also told him that the majority of Florida’s teachers would be facing some sort of pay cut due to the new, terrible “Best & Bogus” program, which is worse than the original bonus scheme. At least last year every teacher who was rated effective or highly effective got something; now it appears that only 43% of teachers are eligible, with 41% of that group already working at an A rated school.

And this $2500 or $1000 is going to “retain” the state’s veteran teachers while it offers an insulting $4000 “recruitment” bonus to “content experts” in high needs areas yet have no pedagogical experience at all?

C’mon, Florida. We gotta do better than this…

If you are an educator, concerned parent, public education advocate, or anyone in general who cares about the dire lack of investment being made in our children and their future, please call, write, or visit your legislator. Tell him or her your story. Let our elected officials know how much this is hurting your family and exacerbating an already massive teacher shortage.

This is not right.

And it must stop now.

Otherwise all of this will undoubtedly get much, much worse…

Poor Pants
Every teacher in Florida

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

MB

Nathaniel Sweet, the former HCPS legislative intern, current Political Science major at the University of South Florida, and guest author of Shifting the Discipline Discussion, returns with this short reflection on differentiating between behaviors and, ultimately, what the fundamental challenge is behind behaviors at certain schools here in Hillsborough and across Florida.

I think that when we talk about our approach to student behavior, we need to make a distinction between different levels of behavior problems. If we’re talking about a student who gets in an altercation with a friend over some personal drama, or a student who’s trying their best but gets frustrated and acts out, those are textbook restorative justice cases. That’s all about developing grit, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution.

Cases like persistent discipline problems, or violence against school staff, or major destruction of school property–those are different issues entirely; they fall well outside of reasonable expectations for classroom management. However, I still think that it’s unwise to use suspension in these cases. Instead, I think we should re-think referrals, not in terms of suspensions, but in terms of a referral you’d get from your general practitioner to see a specialist. More on that in a second.

Like you mentioned in our last conversation, it seems like the worst behavior problems are concentrated at extreme ends of the income distribution. Some of the wealthiest kids feel like they’re invincible, while some of the poorest kids feel like they’re invisible. The former think they can get away with stuff no matter what, while the latter believe they’ll be punished and pushed out no matter what. Entitlement at one end, disillusion at the other.

And in some ways, they’re both right. Very few rich suburban white kids end up poor later in life regardless of what they do, and the inverse is true for poor urban and rural kids. Your home zip code is a much stronger predictor of whether you’ll get caught up in the criminal justice system than your actual propensity to commit a crime. All the while, the animating force behind these outbursts tends to be something deeper & outside of the classroom–after all, disruptive students are very much in the minority.

When it comes to the poorest kids, then, I think that disruptive students need referrals in the sense that they’re sent to three resources: a) a counselor, to help them unpack their feelings about school and why they act out; b) a social worker, to uncover the bigger problems they face that might be driving their behavior; and c) an ombuds, someone who they can trust and rely on to advocate for them in creating a plan to get them back on track.

Critical to this framework is that it recognizes the seriousness of the student’s misbehavior without inherently criminalizing or pathologizing them. It approaches the student with curiosity rather than presumption, hopefully helping to re-build trust. Of course, that can only begin to happen if district leaders work with teachers and school employees to demand more funding from Tallahassee, but it always goes back to funding and leadership anyway, doesn’t it?

As a broader matter, I think that there’s a strong role for educators to play in movements advocating for policies that combat income inequality and child poverty. Rich kids wouldn’t feel like they were above the rules if we didn’t have an economy that concentrates such a huge amount of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

More importantly, however, we wouldn’t need to invest so heavily in wrap-around services like healthcare, nutrition, and mental health for low-income kids if those things were guaranteed as rights by state and federal governments. We wouldn’t need to worry about homeless students if cities and agencies guaranteed affordable housing, either through subsidy or public provision. We wouldn’t need to worry about students coming to school unprepared or without supplies if their parents had stable full-time work that paid a living wage.

To put a finer point on it, maybe the solution for helping poor kids learn is just to make them less poor.

As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog or appear on the podcast to discuss the issues, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!

Ramification
One of my favorite polysyllabic words in the English language, “ramification” has such a specific, nuanced meaning: unwelcome and unforeseen consequences stemming from an event or cause.

As any economist will often say, everything has a cost. Even things that appear to be “free” in one sense or another have costs, often ones that we do not think about beforehand.

Just over two decades ago now, under the direction of then-Governor Jeb Bush, Florida legislatively effected the A+ plan, ushering in an age of sham school grades that tell us nothing more than a neighborhood’s relative level of affluence. The ramifications of what has grown to become Florida’s  “test and punish” model of public education are still not widely recognized by elected officials who have fallen prey to a false idol–data.

IMG_3525Data, while useful, has a corrupting influence due to its ability to be manipulated, which is clearly what the Florida Legislature has done to continue the ruse for so long. To outside interests such as businesses and would-be future citizens who only see “data” without the proper context or history, the cherry-picked points pronounced by legislators ignore the bigger picture and at what cost these data were produced.

The cost, unfortunately, has been all too human.

When we reduce human beings to numbers, whether Lawson IDs, VAM scores, pass rate percentages, or any other metric, we marginalize the inherent dignity of that living, breathing, human being.

This is not right and it must stop. But it will take bold action on the part of all leaders throughout the Sunshine State to stand up and push back against such a demoralizing and dehumanizing way to “prepare students for life.”

No one will deny that this is happening all across the state of Florida, but Hillsborough County Public Schools is a perfect case study for what happens when we double-down on terrible ideas that erode the dignity of our students and educators.

Since 2015, HCPS has had a bold strategic plan that included the idea of 90×20, which largely meant raising our then-current high school graduation rates from 76% to 90% by the year 2020, a noble goal to be certain. But a 24% increase in a five year period? Surely it’s not possible, right?

Wrong.

All things are possible when the FLDOE is constantly helping all Florida districts have similar increases because it is in the state’s interest to control the narrative of “success” happening across virtually all 67 districts. Did students suddenly become smarter? Did educators suddenly become much better teachers? Or have unseen state assessment measures such as the FSA merely been rigged to foster this false narrative?

IMG_2957My money is on the smoke and mirrors of this entire sham system and how political panderers in most districts are compelled to go-along-to-get-along by cooking the books, from lower and lower exam grades to so-called “credit recovery” factories, all in the name of helping kids cross that stage and receive a diploma. The result? Entire cohorts of Florida’s “graduates” cannot properly read, write, or do math, as evidenced by the 2017 report from FSU’s Center for Postsecondary Success that clearly demonstrates 70% of students entering 2 year community colleges, as well as 50% of their peers entering 4 year universities, require remediation in reading, writing or math. If that’s the case, then how could they have sufficiently demonstrated these skills well enough to graduate from high school?

Poker chips, large sum concept

But the human costs and other associated ramifications of HCPS’ “All-In” mentality and subsequent doubling down on these spurious data points has only exacerbated many of the persistent problems happening all over Florida. From the worsening teacher shortage to the manufactured demand for charter schools that sends students and parents fleeing their traditional neighborhood school due to the bad behavior and lack of discipline, our school districts have had their hands tied behind their backs by this so-called “accountability” system that has only wrought suffering. All of this is interconnected in myriad ways and has fostered these big-picture problems.

If we take a deeper dive into the HCPS strategic plan, for instance, this single chart of ABCs effectively demonstrates how these inextricably linked causes are directly responsible for much of why our school district–like virtually any other here in Florida–has hundreds of instructional vacancies. Quite simply, no one wants to teach any more because the profession has become an almost untenable career choice for many reasons.

ABCs

Attendance is a critical component of the school grade system, so districts are incentivized to keep students coming to school regardless of how badly they behave or perform academically.

Behavior is directly connected to this because administrators are now reluctant to discipline students for two reasons: 1) enough documented behavior incidences would require students to be suspended, thereby reducing said student’s attendance record and potentially jeopardizing the school grade; 2) the conflict of interest created by area superintendents or district administration, which effectively encourages site based administrators to downplay behavior/discipline issues because keeping the numbers low helps with their own evaluations. The downside to this, however, is that these decisions tacitly tell the students they can act out with impunity and that teachers have no authority or autonomy, thereby perpetuating a cycle of leniency reinforcing bad behavior.

Exam Samples
Small sample of exam scales for core classes

Course Performance? What is a C even worth any more? On the majority of our district semester exams a student needs to answer fewer than half the questions in order to earn a “C”. And while we never are shown the scales to the FSA, I’d imagine much of the same dynamic is at play to further perpetuate this false narrative of Florida’s increased public ed performance.

 

The human costs to these ABC’s are seen in the frustrations of new teachers like Bianca Goolsby who walked away due to the toxicity of her school environment. The costs also affect veteran teachers such as Seth Federman who was bullied by his principal for his “lifestyle” and, like many other teachers and ESPs, struggles with inordinate amounts of stress surrounding the constant testing, push for questionable metrics, worries about VAM, and many other quiet injustices silently suffered by those in the classrooms all across the district and state. And yet still more and more tasks and their associated pressures are heaped upon us while rates of mental health issues such as PTSD continue to climb in the classroom–both for students and teachers–none of which is acknowledged by virtually any of our education leaders.

Ultimately, students and teachers are trapped in a dead-eyed system that continually erodes the creativity of children and autonomy of educators, all while the vast majority of seemingly clueless district leaders across the state smile and applaud the metaphorical burning of Rome that is bent on the destruction of the vestigial remains of humanity found within Florida public education.

We can and must do so much better for those who work with our children every day.

If district administrators and locally elected school board officials don’t start to push back now, to take a stand on behalf our students, teachers, ESPs, and site based school personnel who are living with the ramifications of the A+ plan and/or 90×20, the powers-that-be, especially the Florida Legislature, should expect a whole lot more of this…IMG_3524

P.S. – #WhenWeAreSilentWeAreComplicit

IMG_0297
Seth Federman, HCPS teacher and doctoral student at Florida Southern.

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Seth Federman, a product of Florida public schools who has studied at FSU, Harvard, and is currently working on his doctoral degree with a focus on mental health issues surrounding education, making this an important and timely follow up to last month’s conversation with Bianca Goolsby.

Seth first came to my attention when he asked to write a guest post for the blog, which was “Band-Aids for Broken Bones“. His second post, “PTSD and Teachers“, clearly resonated with many people considering how much people read, commented and shared. So when Seth asked to be on the podcast I figured this would be the perfect time to discuss what so often is never talked about–how teachers are often left to deal with their own stress and resulting mental health issues with few to no supports.

Please listen to and share this important conversation with others, especially fellow educators who may be struggling with these issues.

Seth also asked that I share the following articles, some of which are referenced during our discussion:

PTSD in Teachers: Yes, It’s Real!

The Challenges of Mental/Emotional Health for Teachers in Public Education

Teachers Attached by Students Show Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

Lessons-Marcus

Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.

For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus AureliusMeditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.

I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.

But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.

Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?

And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:

Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?

Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?

Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?

Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.

Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?

Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.

As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.

We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.

With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.

Yes, we understand the pressure from the state that you clearly won’t take a stand against despite how many times we ask, but a good number of us all suffer for it. So while you’re offering Richard Corcoran and his entourage sycophantic smiles and thunderous applause as he and his fellow charlatans dismantle public education one brick at a time, many human beings at our most challenging schools are living with the ramifications of you going along to get along…you know, trying to cook the books by keeping attendance numbers up by not suspending kids, having exam scores so low kids know they can Christmas tree them and pass, all so that the almighty school grades and the ever-increasing graduation rates continue to climb.

If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.

We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.

And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.

As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.

Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.

In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.

Thank you.

Marcus Coin

CTC

This guest post was written by Nathaniel Sweet, a University of South Florida student majoring in Political Science with a minor in Education. He spent this spring semester working as a legislative intern for the Hillsborough County School Board, and he sent this to me via email. It has been published with his permission, and I hope that you read and share his perspective with others. We will need many, varied voices sharing possible solutions once the difficult discussions about what needs to be addressed in HCPS begin.

I wanted to offer some items for consideration in terms of the discipline problems that the Hillsborough school district has been facing. Obviously, I’m not a classroom teacher, and it’s certainly not my place to judge what teachers decide are the working conditions they need, especially if they work in a Title I school. They’re the professionals, so I’d trust their judgement more than anybody, especially when it comes to day-to-day issues of classroom management.

But I wanted to try to shift the conversation around these issues, because I think the district’s discipline problems go deeper than their handling of referrals. I personally believe that initiatives like SEL, PBIS, and restorative justice are absolutely important reforms, but that the district’s implementation of these programs has been ham-handed and insufficient. Time and time again, it seems like teachers are required to incorporate new and contradictory requirements into the classroom, without a reduction in other obligations and without the necessary groundwork on the district’s part.

A truly effective restorative justice program requires more than a few units of PD and a hard requirement to reduce referrals. It takes an institutional lift, and a comprehensive roll-out across multiple cohorts of students. By the time a student with discipline problems reaches the secondary level, those habits are set pretty firmly. It’d take a lot of time, resources, and focus to get one of them brought into a restorative justice framework, resources that our schools just don’t have. To me, it seems like the most viable way get it right is to work comprehensively and start early. Instead, the district moved under outside pressure to pass the buck onto teachers and principals.

Make no mistake, I think that disproportionate discipline, particularly against low-income students of color, is a nationwide problem and a serious driver of the school-to-prison pipeline. Implicit biases among teachers and administrators likely plays some role. After all, we live in a country where racism and classism are our cultural base temperature–an inescapable artifact of our history. But focusing exclusively on implicit bias shifts the burden onto individual educators, when the biggest factors driving these outcomes are systemic. It’s a direct consequence of bad policy.

Take, for instance, the role of high-stakes testing. It’s obviously in the interest of teachers and students that kids are well-behaved in the classroom. But the pressures of high-stakes tests amp this up to eleven. Suddenly, the teacher’s livelihood (and the school’s very existence) is on the line, and that means maximizing the amount of time devoted to the standards. Whereas additional time could previously be used toward something like SEL, now there’s a very strong incentive to push disruptive students out of class.

This same high-stakes testing culture, alongside defunding at the state level, forces districts into a defensive crouch. Long-term questions fall to the wayside and systemic changes become impossible, because the most important questions become the current year’s test scores and the next year’s budget. Any additional policy changes will be highly reactive instead of proactive, and will likely be under-resourced.

It took civil rights complaints to institute PBIS, and now that the district has made facial changes to keep critics satisfied, they have a strong incentive to wait until the next crisis to do anything different. It would be easy to blame district leaders for this holding pattern, but the truth is that this is the incentive structure our state and federal government have created: anything other than money and testing is a secondary question.

Meanwhile, at the classroom level, it’s apparent that teachers are expected to fulfill completely contradictory goals. We make it difficult to suspend disruptive students, yet we leave in place the incentives to push them out. We add additional requirements for things like SEL, yet we still expect teachers to devote full time to the standards. We want students to be well-behaved and interested in course content, yet we make curricula extremely regimented and boring. We set up an already pointless game of standardized tests, impose requirements that make it harder for public schools to compete, and then punish public schools for the ensuing results.

At the end of this pipeline is an underclass of burnt-out teachers and disenfranchised students. In the presence of high-stakes tests and in the absence of proper funding, at-risk students have nobody to give them the time of day, even as overworked teachers and counselors try their best. From an early age they’ll stare down the barrel of a life marked by poverty and prison, calling into question the value of school altogether. The testing culture and zero-tolerance will condition them from elementary school to view learning as irrelevant and school authorities as hostile.

And yet, because the policies are set, the budgets are thin, and the test scores are essential, the only reform that districts can muster is forcing those kids to sit in a class they don’t want to attend, while making it impossible for the teacher to engage them. We’ve allowed the “education reform” movement to turn students and teachers against each other, when true learning requires them to work together.

The solution is not to go back to pushing kids away. It’s to move forward in bringing kids in. To that point, restorative justice and high-stakes tests simply cannot coexist, period. Restorative justice is about empathy, cooperation, and shared responsibility. High-stakes “accountability” is about exclusion, competition, and blame.

Again, this is just the perspective I’ve developed from my own learning and experience, but I think it offers a pretty comprehensive view of the problem. Certainly teachers, principals, and district leaders have some level of responsibility in these issues, but time and time again their hands are tied by systemic problems, most of which come down from Washington and Tallahassee.

If you enjoyed these insights from Nathaniel Sweet, you can find him often posting in the Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook forum on Facebook. As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

 

Leadership
There are leaders in classrooms all over the state of Florida–why are we squandering our human capital when it comes to our teachers?

May 31st marked the end of my 15th year teaching in the state of Florida. What I have seen change in that time, mainly by legislators in Florida who have zero experience in the classroom, has largely been to the detriment of our most precious resources–our children and their future.

Sure we could be like them and point to ginned up statistics, smile, clap and cheer, but for any person with a remotely discerning intelligence and an eye on the big picture, it is easy to tell this is all smoke and mirrors to delude potential/future Floridians to move here. At the end of the day, the highest ranking for our K-12 public education system was the recent one in U.S. News and World Report, which indicated Florida ranked 27th.

Considering we’re the 3rd most populous state in the U.S. with a one trillion dollar economy, this ranking is downright shameful.

But what’s more shameful–and far more insulting–is that teachers, the very people who work with our children on a daily basis, are never part of these conversations. At least not in any meaningful way. Sure politicians and district administrators may point to data for a lone annual survey that asked for our feedback, but it is no substitute for putting people in a room together and letting them generate ideas.

Over the last several years, there have been numerous people who suggested that I go into the administrative track, often telling me that I would be an excellent principal. Heck, I’ve even had people with highly informed opinions tell me that I have the potential to even be a great superintendent.

While I appreciate the words of confidence–and do agree with these people who share these suggestions–I cannot leave the classroom for a few reasons:

1) at nearly 44 years old, I fully realize that time is the most valuable asset I have. Being a classroom teacher means I work 9 months out of the year. Sure if we add up all the extra we do outside of school it probably is like a yearlong job, but the huge blocks of time off are restorative and rejuvenating. I wouldn’t be nearly as effective if I didn’t have so much time to work on myself personally and professionally.

2) when I was a new teacher mentor, as much as I loved the experience of helping newer teachers find their grooves, it only made me long for being with my own kids again;

3) as a lifelong learner and massive nerd, I don’t think I could ever top my current job as an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge teacher. It’s difficult for me to put into words how much I enjoy being around these incredibly bright, talented, and motivated young people. Though they often tell me I’m the most impactful teacher they’ve ever had, my common refrain to them is that I’m the one who is getting the better end of the bargain. There’s only one of me, but there are over a hundred of them, each one adding so much meaning and value to my life and career;

4) perhaps most importantly, we simply need teachers who are innate leaders to help shape and craft policy at all levels, and if we are not invited to the table it’s about time we just pull up a chair, plunk ourselves down, and start sharing important ideas or perspectives that are often overlooked.

Here in Hillsborough County Public Schools, I’m just a number. Literally. But I am also one of 15,000 teachers, which means the odds would dictate there are many more “teacher-leaders” like me who love the close contact with kids and do not want to move into administration. Why are we not tapping into these resources? Why are we not leveraging our human capital in ways that allow us to maximize the positive changes we could bring to this district? Meeting with legislators who routinely nod at our concerns and then vote the opposite way will get us nowhere, but at least at the local level, regardless of what county or district, we can effect change if we are simply asked.

So let this be an invitation to any teacher who wants to help impact his or her local community. Show up at local school board meetings, ask how you can get involved, or provide suggestions. If enough of us do this, perhaps it will move the needle and get your local school board members to come back to the well of our experience and expertise. Here in Hillsborough, we should be organizing town halls for solutions-driven people who want to band together and help our students regardless of where they live or go to school. Two issues that immediately come to mind yet are undoubtedly intertwined are the lack of literacy in our youngest, most disadvantaged students coupled with the bad behavior that is reinforced through a lack of discipline.

So how do we move forward?

I believe two of the most crucial characteristics of the best, most effective leaders are when they admit these two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. Let’s face it, most people don’t like to say these things, but I am quite fond of saying both because they demonstrate a humble-yet-confident mindset seeking opportunities for learning and growth. By admitting we don’t have all the answers or that something we tried didn’t work out should give us pause for reflection. And all great leaders are great thinkers. They see the big picture and are always willing to take their egos out of the equation. These are the types of teacher-leaders we need at all levels helping everyone else pull together and get behind a vision for positive change.

Does this sound like you? Perhaps it is time for you to emerge as a local teacher-leader!

TV Help
Are YOU ready to be an agent of change?

 

Bianca
Bianca Goolsby, MBA, Brand Strategist and now former HCPS Jennings Middle School teacher

As of today, Bianca Goolsby no longer works for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Approximately two weeks ago her blog post was published as a guest column in the weekend edition of the Tampa Bay Times. The piece generated a lot of discussion on social media with many, many teachers from schools all across the district and state lamenting the lack of discipline in Florida’s schools. As noted in my own blog post, although suspensions are clearly on the decline, students and teachers alike are suffering the ramifications that include a self-perpetuating cycle of emboldened misbehavior met with leniency.

I will warn listeners of this episode that what you hear may disturb you. Bianca clearly pulls no punches about what is wrong with her school and how she tried to generate a conversation for how these issues could be met head on in a proactive manner, only to receive lip service with no follow up–if she even got an answer at all. I spent much of the conversation listening as she poured her heart out, occasionally speaking with tears in her eyes while conveying the concern and love she has for her students.

Please listen and share this important conversation with others. Bianca’s words are a powerful testament to the challenges numerous teachers face on a daily basis, and underscore the need for a long overdue conversation for how we can address these challenges head on. And, if you can make it, please join Bianca, myself, and others at the next HCPS School Board meeting at 3:30 pm on Tuesday, June 11th at the Temple Terrace Town Hall.

If you’d like to read some of Bianca’s former students’ stories she talks about during the podcast, you can click the “Student” links below:

Student A   Student B   Student C   Student D   Student E

Goolsby-Alege Email
The email sent to Yinka Alege that Bianca reads during the podcast.

This is fine

About two weeks ago, Bianca Goolsby publicly declared her resignation from Hillsborough County Schools. Though reactions were swift and strong, her words provided the impetus to a much needed conversation among teachers, ESPs, and community stakeholders.

If we asked teachers at some of the most challenging schools in our district, many would share her perspective and know that the events Bianca describe are an all too common occurrence at a number of our schools. And for those who would doubt the veracity of her claims, the data from her peers clearly back up the assertions she makes. But what about at other schools across HCPS?

Numerous anecdotes from fellow teachers at other sites lament how bad behavior has become at their schools. It seems that in the last 6-7 years especially, the words and actions of the most unruly students have only grown steadily worse while the actual repercussions for these students seems to have an inverse correlation. Here’s what the data has to say:

07-08 Discipline Data

A decade ago, there were 191,965 students enrolled in Hillsborough. Out of those students, 7% (about 1 out of every 13) served an out-of-school suspension, and roughly 16% of all students (close to 1 in 6) were sent to in-school-suspension.

17-18 Discipline Data

Last year, however, when the district enrolled 211,959 students, there was a slight decrease to OSS, with only 5.7% of students staying home for various reasons; in-school suspension had a drastic decline down to just under 7%.

While all of this data is publicly available here, it would be interesting to dig into these numbers to see the actual length of suspensions. When I first started teaching 15 years ago, fighting was a zero tolerance issue. The aggressor was sent home for 10 days, and the other combatant received 5 days. Now principals have to beg their bosses just to give a kid two days out of school for very serious offenses.

So have students gotten better over the last decade, or are school districts throughout Florida simply not reporting incidences so as to reduce the number of them on paper?

All of this combined ultimately strikes at the heart of the issue–when students receive little to no consequences for their actions, they are emboldened. We now live in an age in which teachers themselves are physically attacked by students, which is an indictment against our entire culture that also shows how little we respect teachers as caring adults who only seek to serve our students in the community.

Bianca shared many details during our conversation yesterday, and they echoed many of my wife’s experiences in Renaissance schools during her first 12 years teaching. In her final year at one particular inner city middle school, she was attacked by a 6th grader who was swinging his backpack at her (she was luckily only hit with straps) while stomping through the classroom breaking things including a favorite picture frame that included our wedding photo on her desk.

He was “talked to” by administrators, but otherwise received no consequence. Destruction of public property and attempting to injure a teacher = “don’t do it again” finger-wagging.

What the district needs to focus on–especially at the secondary level where these issues pose real challenges to the learning environment–is to develop a uniform discipline policy that has immediate consequences that scaffold upward depending on frequency and/or severity. At my school, for instance, our principal still does old fashioned “lock outs”; when students are tardy, he gets on the intercom and asks students who are not in the classroom to come to the elevator. From there, an administrator gives the kids a red pass to notify the teacher as they return to class, and the student in question picks up trash the very same day at lunch. After a couple lunch details, it escalates to ISS. The result? We had 59 total disciplinary incidences last year, whereas many other high schools had well over double that amount.

There’s also an issue of “disappearing referrals,” a seemingly all-too-common occurrence in certain challenging environments. Whether the principals at these schools perceive pressure from downtown or if they have been actively given orders to delete discipline referrals from the system is unknown. But many teachers have reported this practice of either acknowledging the referral way too late so that the consequence is completely decoupled from the action, by never doing anything with them at all, or, in some cases, having these deleted from the system altogether.

This has become a massive issue that needs to be rectified. Rather than “gaslighting” whistleblowers such as Bianca Goolsby, we need to all work together to devise a plan that is fair to all parties involved. While there was clearly a need years ago to adjust disciplinary measures due to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Hispanics being suspended, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that we are bordering on sheer pandemonium at some schools. All students need to be in school, and trying to keep kids in school by suspending them less is noble but clearly has had unintended consequences.

We need to address this issue rather than hide from it. The unruly behavior at some of the most challenging schools is certainly hastening the flight to charters in our area, and more parents will probably avail themselves of the new scholarships to attend private schools if they can. Why? Because bad behavior is still not tolerated in these places, and students who disrupt the learning or potentially harm others are kicked out altogether. The sooner we begin open and honest conversations involving the entire community for how we can serve Jennings or any struggling school in Hillsborough, the better it will be for everyone affected by these negative behaviors.

Loma
Florida teachers just took another one on the chin from the Florida Legislature

Remember the tail end of last year when Rep. Chris Latvala, the chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations committee, went on record stating, “I don’t anticipate the type of bills that will dramatically change the education system, as we’ve done the past few years”?

He couldn’t have been more dead wrong.

SB7070, introduced just days after session began, sailed through the process and was recently touted as a crowning legislative achievement by Governor Ron DeSantis‘ office. Setting aside the fuzzy math being used by our legislators that was recently covered in the Florida Phoenix, the legislation wrought numerous changes that only minority special interests and lobbyists wanted to see pass.

Whether it’s arming teachers, using the public’s money to provide private school vouchers to religious schools, subverting the will of local voters, or just flat out ignoring the wishes of Florida’s majority, the Florida Legislature did what it does best–pass legislation no one wants or is asking for.

Destroyed
YAY! We finally passed completely unconstitutional legislation to ensure that convicts and crackheads can teach kids about how dinosaurs were our pets 5000 years ago!

Instead, teachers all across Florida got a legislative session that will only exacerbate the current teacher shortage and make everything much worse for the tens of thousands of educators all across the state, let alone the millions of students who will be impacted by these disastrous decisions.

Despite the return of phrases such as “historic funding increases” in the news and on the DeSantis press release, the truth is that even with this new FEFP total that is close to $7700, it would still be nearly $1000 shy of an inflation adjusted $7126 per-pupil amount from more than a decade ago, something that has been discussed at length here and elsewhere.

But guess what? Costs have risen and the increases will barely cover expenses.

There’s a reason why 20 out of 20 counties/school districts across Florida voted to tax themselves to cover the financial shortfalls from Tallahassee, and it’s precisely because these citizens realize the value of our public schools and the funding they require to keep up with routine maintenance, technology upgrades, or salary enhancements to local teachers and ESPs. And how does the Florida Legislature react? By trying to co-opt the windfall and force districts to share the funds with charter schools, many of whom are for-profit managed and will simply siphon off much of that money to their bottom lines.

Meanwhile–and as if the Florida Legislature hasn’t done enough to tilt the playing field already–an issue that has largely flown under the radar is that for the last several years the Florida Legislature has continued to give more and more of the PECO dollars to the charters, even after already forcing the districts to share revenue with a provision in HB7069 two years ago. Back then, traditional schools received $50 million, and charters received $50 million. And while that may seem equitable, it’s a lot less money when we consider the fact that there are over 3600 traditional public schools and just over 600 charters statewide. Last year, they gave traditional schools $50 million, and provided charters with just over $140 million, even though they have schools that are only 5-6 years old on average. This year? Well they just went ahead and gave them all of the PECO dollars, a cool $158 million.

So guess where cost overruns outside of categorical spending will come from? The BSA, or Base Student Allocation. But while everyone is cheering the $75 increase–which amounts to a 15,857% increase over last year’s 47 cents, a number I’m honestly surprised the governor, FLDOE, or legislators haven’t put on billboards yet–many forget that with the increased costs much of this will be eaten up and not go toward salaries. Here in Hillsborough, for instance, that portion of the budget would mean a $16.5 million dollar increase if every single student attended a traditional public school. They don’t, which means the number is smaller. Yet even if it were that number, it costs our district $17 million per year just to ensure step movement on our regular pay scale.

IMG_3006
Oh! Every teacher in Florida needs a sizable raise? Silly us! We thought you asked us to CUT your pay, you know, because you’re making too much already.

And that massive loss of gross earnings that nearly 10,000 teachers were fearing? Yeah, that happened too. Only the Florida Legislature could take a really bad idea and make it SO much worse. Setting aside the faulty premise of the previous Best & Brightest program, there were two beneficial aspects:

1) to some extent, it was within the teacher’s control to be rated highly effective (although many have noted the wide disparities in these ratings across districts throughout the state) and to then either have the scores from years past or–like my wife and I did–simply retake the test to get the requisite scores. Ultimately, it was largely about taking initiative and demonstrating individual excellence;

2) even if the scores were not there, virtually all teachers across the Sunshine State got something. If rated “Effective,” last year teachers would earn $800, and “Highly Effective” received $1200. The proposed House version of the updated program this year would have scrapped the scores and given all E rated teachers around $1100 and all HE rated teachers a bonus of $2300. Unfortunately for all of us, the Senate version was adopted, and that one is chock full of terrible ideas for how to “reward” teachers…

A one-time $4,000 recruitment bonus for new hires who are considered “content-experts” (Yet have never taught?! Sort of like the fresh out of college kids who got $6K because of test scores, right?!).

An “anybody’s guess” bonus attached to cockamamie schemes that are largely beyond the control of any given teacher at a school that now has to move up 3 percentage points over the two previous year’s school grade data (Yeah, good luck getting that…here’s your lottery ticket).

A “recognition” bonus of who knows how much based on the “how-much-of-the-previous-two-categories-did-we-spend-money-on-let’s-use-the-leftovers-for-that” plan. And oh yeah, the principal will decide. Nothing like putting him or her in a bad place or having teachers hating each other because they weren’t chosen.

In the end, this was another lousy legislative session for teachers and students all across Florida, regardless of how legislators try and spin this hot mess. There are several veteran teachers who have personally told me they are walking away after this year is over, and until the Florida Legislature actually starts listening to the people who serve our children on a daily basis things will never get better, and we’ll all be seeing more posts like Jonathan Carroll’s on Facebook.

Thanks for the pay cut, Tallahassee!