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Julie Hiltz, NBCT
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Joshua Newhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Considering the last Teacher Voice episode featured some of my friends who are fellow literature lovers, I thought we should expand the conversation to other bibliophiles. Ever since I was a young child, I’ve always had a soft spot for librarians/media specialists. In fact, I almost pursued my MLS degree while at USF, but the classroom beckoned and I never looked back. Having worked with a number of teacher-librarians over the years, I thought it strange that these people are not considered teachers by those who are outside public education. So I sat down with friends Julie Hiltz and Josh Newhouse, two media specialists here in Hillsborough County, to discuss their critical roles in the #HubOfSchool, the #TeachingIs social media awareness campaign to help the public understand exactly what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century, and a few other issues.

Thank you so much for listening! Please be sure to share with other teacher-librarians or anyone who doesn’t know what it is like to work in this essential role at a school.

Spyglass
When you look into the future of education, what do you see?

Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.

But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.

Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.

Yesterday morning, I ranted a bit about this on my personal Facebook page, and here are a few key passages:

Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.

What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?

Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.

While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.

Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.

Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):

As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”

Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.

Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.

What do you think the future of education has in store for us? Share your thoughts below or comment on the Teacher Voice Facebook page.

Fentrice Driskell
Fentrice Driskell, Democratic Candidate for House District 63

This edition of the Teacher Voice podcast features Fentrice Driskell, a Harvard and Georgetown Law School graduate, partner at Carton Fields law firm in Tampa, and the Democratic candidate for House District 63.

Although she always knew that running for public office would be in her future, she did not realize she would run so soon. We discuss her impressive resume, why she’s running, and what she would like to do in Tallahassee. Please listen and share with others, especially voters in HD63.

Want to learn more about Fentrice? You can check out her amazingly alliterative website, Fentrice For Florida, of find her on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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About a week ago, ABC Action News caught up with the Florida Department of Education’s Commissioner, Pam Stewart. The reporter in the video had been trying to get an official comment regarding the on-going saga of teachers who are losing their jobs due to not being able to pass one of Florida’s teacher certification exams.

Bear in mind, however, that many of these teachers have already demonstrated their skills in the field, had been rated “Effective” or better, had developed a rapport with the students they serve…yet were let go nonetheless.

This truly is “must see television”:

To provide some context, ABC Action News has been investigating this issue for about a year and a half, starting in March 2017. They had updates to this story in July of that same year, May 2018, again this past July, and culminating in this report from last week.

The shortest version possible of what has happened is this: in 2015 Pearson debuted new tests and pass rates quickly plummeted. Many teachers discuss their struggles with the mathematics portion of the General Knowledge Test, despite the majority of these teachers not even teaching math. Ever.

The one year I worked as a new teacher mentor coincided with the new, more challenging tests, and it was almost always the General Knowledge Test that was holding back first and second year teachers. One of my mentees, for instance, couldn’t pass the essay portion of the GK. She hailed from Puerto Rico, taught Spanish, was adored by her students, yet had to pass a meaningless portion of a test that had no real bearing on her ability to teach Spanish.

Compounding this problem is the statewide (national, really) teacher shortage. More and more “new” teachers are people who are making the transition to a new career, not a young person entering the profession from college. If someone hasn’t used their math skills in 10 or more years, they will have eroded significantly.

And, again, if a person is hired to be an art (or any subject not related to math) teacher, should she need to be able to do the following?

Test Questions
Sample Questions from the GK test, courtesy of Jeff Solochek and the Tampa Bay Times

In the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, one would hope that the state would offer some temporary reprieve on some of the testing requirements, especially the General Knowledge Test that seems to be the biggest barrier to staying in the profession. What’s more curious is that Florida does this to no other profession. No one who is going to take the bar exam to be a lawyer has to also take this test. It seems logical that if a person can earn an undergraduate degree such as a B.A. or B.S., s/he has the basic skills necessary to work in any professional domain.

Eliminating the GK test would not necessarily mean it is easier to become a teacher. A person still would have to pass the Florida Teacher Certification Examination and a Subject Area exam, and rightly so. A candidate should be able to know and understand the laws that govern the profession, the ethical obligations they hold as teachers, and demonstrate mastery in the content the educator will teach to students.

But having to prove you went to college 10 or 20 years after the fact by taking and passing the “General Knowledge” test? Absurd.

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(Sweet Incredible Hulk GIF that wouldn’t embed. You know you want to click the link.)

Other questions arise with this approach as well:

When these teachers who have already been deemed effective during their first few years lose their jobs, who replaces them? Who will connect with those students? A long-term substitute? Pam Stewart realizes that teachers aren’t growing on trees, right?

Why do only traditional public school teachers have to pass all these tests to earn their certification? Charters and private schools can hire people with no credentials, yet the FLDOE will kick good people to the curb because they have rusty math skills?

In the end, Commissioner Stewart’s horrible handling of this reporter is telling in three ways: 1) she’s hangry, and you wouldn’t like her when she’s hangry; 2) the FLDOE clearly does not want to discuss this issue, with her even going so far as to offer a deflective answer about turnaround schools; 3) she clearly has never, ever–not once–understood nor empathized with the plight of teachers and ESPs all across the Sunshine State who routinely sacrifice their lunch time for their students on an almost daily basis.

But, hey, like the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recently wrote, “No wonder there’s a teacher shortage in Florida

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Sue Woltanski, Co-Founder of Accountabaloney and Monroe County School Board Member

This week’s guest on the Teacher Voice podcast is Sue Woltanski, a mother, pediatrician, public education advocate, and now recently elected Monroe County School Board member. We spoke over the phone this past Thursday, one day after the FLDOE released the school grades, which happens to be her area of expertise and what prompted the creation of the Accountabaloney blog. For those of you who are parents and don’t know how school grades are calculated or ever wondered why we have so much testing here in the Sunshine state, this podcast will be particularly insightful.

If you’d like to learn more about Sue and her advocacy efforts, you can also like or follow the Accountabaloney page on Facebook, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Thanks again for tuning in, everyone, please listen/share with others, and have a great week!

Corky
House Speaker Richard Corcoran brings the hammer down on the status quo, or so he claims…

Long before Richard Corcoran became Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he claimed that what was “destroying this country and this state” was “the status quo and the protectors of it.” He again recently harped on his favorite phrase–this time in relation to “institutionalized school boards”–when he penned a column that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times just over one week ago.

What follows herein, then, is a direct rebuttal to many of the points addressed within the Speaker’s column. As an independent voter who has never had a party affiliation, I am one of many citizens who feels disenfranchised by a two-party system that has been largely hijacked by extremists on both sides of the aisle. The entire Sunshine State needs collaboration and compromise between its lawmakers; our citizens have received very little of either in the two decades I have lived in Florida, however, and this is especially true during the last two contentious legislative sessions overseen by Speaker Corcoran.

The Speaker’s column begins with a bombastic claim that Floridians will have the opportunity “to vote on the best slate of constitutional amendments ever.” Much of what follows from there is largely opinion with few facts to corroborate his assertions, so let’s examine his claims individually to see how they stack up against reality during Governor Scott’s tenure in office as well as Representative Corcoran’s time as Speaker of the House.

Speaker Corcoran initiates his column by proudly stating he and Governor Scott have cut taxes 80 times totaling over $10 billion dollars since 2010. As someone who is personally fiscally conservative, this would be welcome news if my perspective weren’t already tempered by the realization that all Floridians have an obligation to the future, which requires investment in public institutions and services, something our state cannot afford to do by constantly curtailing revenue streams for no other reason beyond pandering to an ultra-conservative political base.

As opinion editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Tom Tryon, noted last year during the 2017 legislative session, Florida ranks 49th in per-capita revenue generation despite the fact that we are the third most populous state in the U.S. This lack of revenue ultimately leads to frequent actions such as raiding trust funds to cover rising costs while politically saving face with the GOP’s core constituency. Tampa Bay Times columnist, John Romano, noted similar concerns in a recent piece that called these “anti-tax laws…ticking political time bombs that could blow up our future.”

All it will really take is the next economic recession–something that Speaker Corcoran surely knows is coming considering how much he touts his love of free markets as a panacea for every economic ill–and the boom and bust cycle will ensure that our consumption based revenue will collapse in on itself much like it did during the housing crisis a decade ago.

Instead, however, the Speaker is pushing for yet another homestead exemption that will further reduce revenue by $637 million dollars at a time when we desperately need funding for Medicare and Medicaid expansion, infrastructure, and public education. And what do Floridians stand to receive if this amendment passes? $250. Annually.

Taken another way: this is 68 cents per day, which will not buy anything of value in today’s day and age. To the Speaker’s credit, though, it should be noted that 68 cents per day is much better than the 47 cent per-pupil increase school districts will receive in 2018-19 for the entire school year, a move that has left nearly all 67 counties financially hamstrung.

And while discussing per-pupil funding, let’s acknowledge how abysmal it has been for the last decade despite constant claims by Governor Scott, Speaker Corcoran, and Senate President Joe Negron that this year’s “record-level” $7,408 per-pupil amount is “unprecendented” and “historic”; adjusted for inflation, the $7,126 from 2007-2008 would need to be $8,415 to have the equivalent purchasing power, a fact anyone can check with the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator.  $8,415 is clearly far more than the $7,221 our schools received this past school year, meaning we are at least $1,200 behind and lag the national average by approximately $4,000.

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Remember, Joe: “Historic”, “Unprecedented”, and “Record-Level”. If we just keep repeating these words perhaps everybody will believe us about public education spending here in Florida.

This point is perhaps best summed up in another John Romano column when he states the following: “The Legislature likes to brag about education funding being at record-high levels, but it’s a disingenuous argument. It does not take into account inflation. It does not take into account new state mandates that force schools to spend more money. It does not take into account that Florida’s K-12 spending is woefully inadequate when compared to the rest of the nation. In short, that argument is a load of bull.”

At a bare minimum, the students, parents, and education professionals deserve a special session so that the Florida Legislature can actually provide the $400 million it pledged for school safety, rather than shuffle all the money around in the education budget and still claim to have increased funding. Far more importantly, it also begs the question of why education spending did not increase by $1.5 billion when the entire budget climbed by over $6 billion. Public education is already one quarter of the state’s budget after all; shouldn’t it deserve an equitable increase as a total proportion of the new budget?

It’s not just education that needs the funding, either. Two other areas that sorely need attention are healthcare and infrastructure. Despite being a donor state that sends more money to the federal government than it receives, Governor Scott famously rejected federal dollars for both Medicaid expansion that would have meant coverage for over one million Floridians in poverty, as well as a high speed rail that would have connected Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. In a recent column written by Sue Carlton of the Tampa Bay Times after she slogged through hours of traffic on I-4, she reminds us all that “in the name of politics, Scott turned his back on what would have been an important step toward the kind of modern transportation this state will need. Make that: already needs.”

Speaker Corcoran then points out the 1.5 million jobs that were created during his and Governor Scott’s tenure, yet without noting that “much of the job growth during Scott’s tenure has come in low-paying corners of the economy” or that “45 percent of households across the state…still find it practically impossible to obtain even the most everyday necessities – lacking what it takes to pay bills, afford health care, housing and transportation, regardless of regular employment.” When one adds these two facts together, it is no wonder why Florida has an affordable housing crisis.

At this point it is worth noting the about face of Speaker Corcoran, who, lest we all forget, was chief antagonist of Governor Scott for much of the 2017 legislative session, fuming over “corporate welfare” and wanting to eviscerate the funding of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two of the governor’s beloved pet projects. This animosity evaporated almost immediately at the end of the session after a closed-door horse-dealing session that every public education advocate knows all too well.

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Psst! I’ll sign HB7069 if you give me an $85 million dollar jobs slush fund.

After detailing how he–along with Governor Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga–appointed the 37 members of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commision, a group that has set out to attempt to install its politically conservative agenda into our state’s most precious civil document rather than listening to what the Sunshine State’s citizenry wants, Speaker Corcoran segues into hollow words about ending corruption in Tallahassee because of his “ethics reform package.”

For someone who constantly preens himself over his record on challenging special interests and ending “corporate welfare”–a point upon which he and I philosophically agree, interestingly enough–Speaker Corcoran’s words run diametrically opposed to his actions when it serves his own interests and agenda.

Case in point: HB7069 and HB7055, both of which go out of their way to steer our public taxpayer dollars to the for-profit charter management industry. Rep. Manny Diaz, for instance, who sits on both the Education Committee and K-12 Appropriations subcommittee, is paid a six figure salary for a job he supposedly holds at Doral College, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Academica, the largest of the for-profit charter management companies. Along with Charter Schools USA and Charter School Associates, Academica heavily donates to the GOP coffers and must not be regulars on what Speaker Corcoran dubs the “capital [sic] cocktail circuit”. As Fabiola Santiago notes in her excellent Miami Herald piece, Florida’s ethics laws “are a joke” and further states “it’s a clear conflict of interest for members of the Florida Legislature who have a stake in charter schools to vote to fund and expand them.”

Speaker Corcoran also goes on to boast of his and Governor Scott’s education priorities, noting–quite incorrectly, one might add–that “Florida is one of the only states in the nation to significantly improve math and reading scores.” He is referring to the NAEP, which is small sampling of random students and schools that deals with proficiency not growth. Truth be told, all the NAEP report demonstrates is that some random students did better than other random students from several years ago.

It is noteworthy, however, that Polk School Board member, Billy Townsend, keeps pointing toward an exhaustive report done by Stanford University that clearly tracks all students across multiple grades to build a robust picture of student growth (or lack thereof) on standardized tests, which, as anyone in public education knows, is the only metric deemed worthy of consideration by the Florida Legislature. This report, oddly enough, has been routinely ignored by every single person in Tallahassee. Why? This map speaks for the entire study:

Purple Is Bad
All one needs to know is that purple is bad and represents a lack of test score growth.

With regard to the school board term limit proposal in Amendment 8, Speaker Corcoran neglects to mention that this is one of the “bundled” amendments that will also establish a state governed charter school authorization board that can circumvent the power of our own locally elected officials in addition to establishing a parallel “public” school system that will not answer to local school boards, which is only another ploy to redirect precious, scant taxpayer dollars to entities that have little oversight or accountability.

Finally, as an insult to all Social Studies teachers across the entire Sunshine State, Speaker Corcoran tells us that the Florida Legislature and the CRC have set out to enshrine civics education in our Constitution in an effort to ensure “a student should not be able to graduate without understanding what makes America great. Our founding documents and the values of our free society should not just be taught, but understood by every student who comes out of a Florida school.” This is already happening here in Hillsborough where Civics in a mandatory course that all students take in 7th grade, and undoubtedly everywhere else throughout the state. How else could Parkland students so quickly organize the “March For Our Lives” events and eloquently share their views if we had no robust civics education in Florida schools?

At the end of his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran has clearly failed at what he set out to do when he took the gavel and stated he would disrupt the status quo. What he failed to realize was the paradoxical nature of his quest that did not acknowledge a single fact of paramount importance:

That Speaker Corcoran–and by extension the entire ideologically-driven, GOP-dominated Florida Legislature of the last two decades–is the status quo.

 

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Potential “Credit Recovery” Candidates

On the heels of my previous post, “Cooking the Books,” another teacher from elsewhere in Florida sent along the piece you will read below. While I only focused on exams in the last post, they are only one small cog in the graduation rate manipulation machine. The problems mentioned in this teacher’s post are REAL.

I am not a fan of “credit recovery” efforts in my school district.  I think they are burdensome to teachers who are already overworked and underpaid.  They provide students who choose to underperform in class a way out, which is punitive to those students who work hard all school year. Our “credit recovery” efforts in my district also do not align completely with state statute because our district is taking advantage of the statute’s ambiguity.

In my central Florida district, if a secondary student receives a D or an F for a school quarter they are given a “credit recovery” packet.  This “credit recovery” packet is given to students every, single, 9 weeks.  The packet is usually designed by the teacher of whichever core subject was failed and given to the student to complete.  Upon the completion of the packet, the teacher is to give that student a “C”.  There is no universal packet because it will vary by teacher, subject, grade level, and school.  A student who is taking a 6th grade social studies class at School A will get a very different packet to the 6th grader taking social studies at School B.

I want you to imagine that you’re a teacher and you have lovingly prepared engaging lessons using multiple teaching techniques that cater to a variety of learning styles, but also that meet state standards.  You arrive to work early on a daily basis in order to make sure your room is set up properly, get your copies made, ensure your technology is working properly, maybe grade some papers, and enjoy a few quiet sips of coffee.  However, every day little Bobby doesn’t participate in the lesson or complete any activities.

Little Bobby doesn’t even bother to put his name on any of the papers.  All little Bobby seems to do is sleep or play on his phone.  As a teacher, you try to counsel him one-on-one to encourage him.  Nothing changes.  You then call home on several occasions.  Nothing changes.  You go to guidance, a more seasoned educator, a coach, your administration, ESE teachers, the school psychologist, and check to see if little Bobby has an IEP/504 to ensure you are following all of his accommodations (if any).  You even provide him missing assignments weekly for him to make up. Still nothing changes.

Nine weeks go by and report cards are getting ready to come out.  Little Bobby has a 0% F in your class.  All your documentation for every parent communication, accommodation, and effort you’ve put in to trying to help this particular student is ready.  Then you get told by your administration that you now have to design him a “credit recovery” packet that goes over everything you did in the previous 9 weeks.  He is given 2-3 weeks to complete it, and upon completion you must give him a 75% for the 9 weeks.  Little Bobby repeats this same behavior every 9 weeks. This is a student who is clearly not proficient in the subject matter but because of the system, he is still going to get pushed through.

The Florida statute 1003.413(2)(d) states “credit recovery” should be “…competency based and offered through innovative delivery systems, including computer-assisted instruction.”  A packet is not innovative nor is it computer-assisted instruction. The intention was to use an online platform we lovingly call E2020, which provides content for core curriculum, elective, advanced placement, career and technical courses, and “credit recovery”.  It’s supposed to be for a semester.  This program alleviates the burden of teachers having to create and grade “credit recovery” packets on top of our already burdensome workload. But the programs also requires another prep, which means either the district will need to pay a teacher to give up their planning period or hire another teacher to teach those E2020 courses.  As it stands, having teachers create the packets puts the burden solely on them and there’s no accountability as to whether or not the packets actually meet the standards.

Kids are not dumb, and when kids learn how to work the system to their advantage they will do it.  I have had these students throughout my career as an educator who have stated there is no reason for them to work in class because they know they will get “credit recovery” and get moved along.  They do not have the impetus to do otherwise.

However, even when given a “credit recovery” packet there are still kids who do not complete the packets.  I think at my school we had over 160 students receive a “credit recovery” packet in one of the four core class (Social Studies, ELA, Science, and Math) during the first quarter of this school year. Only 40 students turned in a completed “credit recovery” packet. I often hear how “Kids are kids, and they make mistakes” when I discuss this issue with people outside of education.  They’re right…kids make mistakes all the time.  But the best way to learn from our mistakes is to receive a natural consequence.  A natural consequence for not doing your work in class is to fail that class, at least for the quarter.  In the hope, that the student will get their act together.

In my opinion, we should allow the students one opportunity for a “credit recovery” packet from the teacher.  If the student fails to meet the requirements of the packet, then that student’s grade needs to stand.  If that student’s performance still leaves something to be desired and they have a “D” or an “F” for the semester, they should be provided opportunity for E2020. If they fail E2020 and still continue with their lackluster performance they need to fail the course.  They need to go to summer school or repeat the course the following year. We need to prepare them for college or the workforce.  By allowing a student to do nothing all school year and give them multiple opportunities to make up their grade to a “C” is not a reflection of reality.  If you fail a course in college there is no “credit recovery”.  If you fail to finish a task given to you by your employer, you could be fired. There has to be a better way, and what we have now isn’t it.

Thanks for reading, everyone. The Teacher Voice project is always looking for guest authors, whether anonymous or not; I have always envisioned this blog and podcast to be a diverse and collaborative endeavor. If you’d like to contribute and share your “teacher voice” (and you don’t have to be a teacher, any education advocate is welcome to submit pieces), please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com

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FLDOE…and by extension every district in the state of Florida

One week ago yesterday, Hillsborough County Public Schools announced that its graduation rate had jumped 3.8 points to reach its highest total yet, 82.9%.

And in the midst of what should be encouraging news, I cannot help but feel unavoidably ambivalent. While I am glad that so many students earned their high school diploma here and across the state of Florida, I wonder how many of them—especially the bottom quartile of graduating classes—are truly prepared for college or career, let alone life.

Anyone who has been teaching for the last decade and has been paying attention to this so-called accountability movement unfold is aghast at the amount of grade inflation taking place. As a high school teacher, I have watched with dismay over the years as we continually lower our expectations for students, especially on the semester exams when we try our best to give students grades they don’t deserve.

The state of Florida ensures that students pass certain classes in order to be considered worthy of a high school diploma, and in the chart below I pulled the percentages that constitute passing scores for exams within the “core classes”—language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. The scores that our students must achieve on these exams are low.

Really low.

Exam Samples

I pulled well over two dozen scales out of curiosity and the numbers generally fall in line with what is seen above. Students typically need to only get approximately 70% of the questions correct to earn an “A” (most tended to be in the upper 60s) and, even more shockingly, only have to correctly answer 37% of the questions to earn a passing grade of D.

Perhaps it’s simply my age at this point, or the fact that I grew up in Rhode Island, but in my hometown you could earn an A, B, C—there was no D option—or an F. If a student received any grade lower than a 70 on any assessment whatsoever, it was considered a failing grade. To my recollection, there were no curves on exams either; I only learned of the existence of such curves when I attended college, and even then they were done on a standard bell curve distribution, which ensured that the majority of students earned a C, not an A.

The most pernicious aspect of this grade inflation is the false sense of confidence it instills in students. When I was teaching regular level Geometry, for instance, the students who earned high marks such as an A or B strutted around like proud peacocks until I had all of the students calculate the averages for themselves so that they could see the cutoffs with their own eyes. As their teacher, I knew that these students were nowhere near a level of mastery that these inflated exam grades seemed to indicate, which is why I had to disabuse them of this notion before we entered the second semester. Some were disappointed when they discovered how low the averages truly were, but if nothing else it motivated them to work that much harder in the second semester.

For a number of struggling students, however, this is not the case. There is a considerable amount of gamesmanship on the part of these students because they know that the scales will bail them out and let them pass. I’ve seen with my own eyes a few students who were so completely apathetic that they pencil whipped the bubble sheet without opening the exam, put their heads down, and went to sleep.

And, yes, those scores still counted as part of my VAM.

Looking at the chart below, it is easy to see why these unmotivated students use this strategy. For example, a student who earned a D for both the first and second quarter only needs to get a D on the exam to pass and earn credit towards his or her diploma. In fact, a student can FAIL one quarter, earn a D in the other, and then get a C on exam (which is about the same odds as calling a coin flip) and still get credit for the semester.

EOC Exam Scale
And for non-EOC courses outside the core, it’s even EASIER to get a passing grade.

On top of this, many teachers in Hillsborough and across the entire state feel the pressure from district administration to help these kids pass, whether that means offering lots of extra credit opportunities, not giving a grade below 50%, etc. Surely the outcome will be similar to the unfolding debacle in D.C. , but for now most are willing to turn a blind eye so long as they can tout rising graduation rates across the Sunshine State. And so we pass these struggling students along from one grade to the next until they walk across that stage, shake someone’s hand, and receive a diploma that they didn’t truly earn.

The truth always comes out, however…

If there is one statistic that demonstrates how our K-12 test-driven education model is failing our students here in Florida, it’s the number of students needing remediation (now euphemistically labeled “developmental education” or DE) when they arrive at college. Florida State University has a program that tracks much of this data, the Center for Post Secondary Success, and statistics found in those articles are illuminating: 70% of students entering a local community college, as well as 50% of students entering a four-year university, are in need of remediation in reading, writing, or math. How can these students have demonstrated proficiency in high school, earn a diploma, and then suddenly need help with the basics?

In the end, I’m truly torn about this situation. As Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend recently wrote (please read it; the entire piece is great), these students who struggle are better off with a high school diploma than without it. Even if these students never go on to higher education, the diploma will prevent them from a life of economic hardship and misery. Without the diploma, however, these students would be doomed. Ultimately, we have to do better, and that will begin when we start having honest conversations about how the entire metric is a sham and only invites this type of manipulation by the state and districts all across Florida.