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Dr. Heidi Maier, elected Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools

Dr. Heidi Maier’s original dream job did not involve becoming an educator.

Luckily, however, in a flash of insight on a local college campus one early June morning many years ago, she realized that becoming a teacher and helping “her kids” (of which she is now mother to approximately 43,000 of them) was what she was meant to do. In this engaging conversation, Heidi and I discuss her rise from elementary classroom teacher, to early education college professor, to deciding to run for Superintendent of Marion County Schools during a casual conversation with friends. Sharing some of the recent successes and challenges in Marion, Heidi and I also discuss local control through textbook adoption; fending off challenged books in school libraries; and how much students are stressed out by all the testing yet continue to make gains.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Heidi Maier and Marion County Schools, click here. As always, thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast. Please share if you know others who may be interested and enjoy your week!

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

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Aaron Feis, left, lost his life saving children; Scot Peterson, right, effectively did nothing.

Today is Valentine’s Day.

It is also the painful first anniversary of the tragic school shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and ended the lives of 17 people.

Three of those who lost their lives that day were educators who sacrificed their lives to protect their students.

Three teachers who cared deeply about our children and their future.

*****

We live in an era of mass shootings that show no sign of slowing down. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been 85 school shootings that have killed a total of 223 people, including teachers and staff. On average that means there have been over four school shootings a year, with each of those killing just over three people per occurrence.

But here’s the thing…

How many traditional “first responders” died in all of those school shootings over the last two decades?

Zero.

According to the recently released Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, only one School Resource Officer (SRO) was wounded across those 20 years. Here are just a few notable quotes from the study’s findings:

“School personnel were most frequently involved in stopping attacks; school resource officers were less so.”

“High school attacks were stopped 11 times by administrators, teachers, and staff.”

“School administrators, teachers or staff members were sometimes among the first individuals killed.”

Chris Hixon
Chris Hixon, Navy veteran and teacher who died protecting students at MSD.

Educators may have been hired to teach the next generations that follow their own, but in an era of mass school shootings we have all become the real first responders. Even if a school is lucky enough to have an SRO or SSO (School Safety Officer), one person is not enough to stop a killing spree that will last only minutes at most. It takes administrators, teachers, and ESPs to work together and communicate when there are threats to student safety. Most of the time this vigilance is enough…and yet the average across the last two decades states that four times this year, it won’t be.

And the odds are that it will be school personnel who sacrifice their lives for the children, not the school resource officer.

This isn’t necessarily something that has only happened since Columbine either. Just a few days ago was the 31st anniversary of the first school shooting in the Tampa Bay region, which happened at Pinellas Park High School in 1988. Three people were shot by the young man amidst a scuffle in the lunch room: two were injured, one was killed, all were site-based administrators.

The reason these facts are being addressed is to highlight a simple fact: if educators are truly the first responders in a world of mass shootings that happen with some regularity at schools, the risks we take for our children and profession should be duly compensated.

First responders, as they are traditionally defined (fire, police, sheriff), receive a retirement multiplier of 3.0 from the state of Florida, which they undoubtedly deserve. Therefore, if a firefighter, police officer, or sheriff’s deputy works for 30 years, the Florida Retirement System pays them a pension based on 30 years times the multiplier, meaning they receive 90% of their highest five years averaged together.

Scot Peterson, for instance, now gets to take home a monthly pension of $8,702.

But an administrator, teacher or ESP? Our multiplier is 1.6, just barely over half of what traditional “first responders” receive and deserve. The top of the pay scale here in Hillsborough is $66K, a far cry from the $101,879 dollars Scot Peterson received to ride around campus on a golf cart all day until the moment when he was actually needed and did nothing. Meanwhile, a teacher in HCPS with 30 years of experience would receive only 48% of his or her final salary, netting that person a monthly benefit of $2,640.

How is this fair?

Scott Beigel
Scott Beigel, the third teacher at MSD who died saving the lives of students.

Here’s the solution: at a bare minimum, all site-based school employees–whether administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, education support personnel…anyone who directly has contact with kids and could potentially stop the next school shooting–should have their retirement multiplier pushed up to 2.0 so that a 30 year career receives 60% of the highest five years’ average. Considering the Florida Retirement System (FRS) is routinely touted as one of the best in the nation with nearly 85% of future liabilities already covered, surely there must be a way for the Florida Legislature to increase funding to the program to raise the multiplier to 2.0

And if our legislators cannot or will not at least lift the multiplier, the least they could do to compensate our additional risk as the real first responders at schools is to give us back the 3% we’ve been forced to contribute to our own paltry pensions since 2011.

If you read this and are an employee at a school site in one of our 67 counties, or a public education advocate who thinks those who protect children deserve more, please call or email your legislators to ask them to raise our retirement multiplier.

Related: The Day After… – students share their thoughts and concerns, hopes and fears in class the day after the Parkland tragedy.

Related: I’m Angry – guest post by a fellow teacher describing the initial surge of anger she felt after what happened at MSD.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns… – brief write up containing data after surveying students and fellow faculty members–specifically those who are military veterans–about how they feel regarding arming teachers.

Related: About Those Teachers with Guns: Redux – guest post by another fellow teacher with many important points legislators should consider when weighing the big picture of public education in Florida.

 

 

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“I feel strongly that people need to speak up because silence is a tacit approval.”

The first official new podcast of 2019 features Lois Horn-Diaz, the 2017 Teacher of the Year for Polk County Schools. With her wide and varied background, Lois taught children in many ways for over 30 years in public education. We sat down at the beginning of the month to discuss how she became a teacher, what it was like to win Teacher of the Year honors for an entire district and meet others from around the state, and why she is such an outspoken critic of what public education has become in the last 15 years. Please listen to this engaging conversation, be sure to share with others, and use your own voice to speak up on behalf of all children and educators across the Sunshine State.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

Andy Warrener
Andy Warrener, NPA Candidate for House District 64, along with his daughter and son

The latest episode of the Teacher Voice podcast features Andy Warrener, the NPA/Independent candidate in a three way race for House District 64 that covers northwestern Hillsborough and parts of Pinellas county. I specifically wanted to chat with Andy about public education issues and the rest of his campaign platform because, like me and about 1/3 of all Floridians, he does not belong to a political party.

Beyond the issues, we also have a substantive discussion about why he is running without party affiliation, why so many people are choosing to leave their previous party, and how the growing number of independent voters are starting to coalesce around grassroots organizations such as Unite America. Please listen and be sure to share with others, especially those who live in HD64!

If you’d like to learn more about Andy and his campaign, you can visit his website FloridaForAll or Like/Follow his page on Facebook. Be sure to hurry, though; early voting is in full swing and election day is Tuesday, November 6th!

P.S. – Andy also supports the Strengthen Our Schools initiative and was even the person who suggested the term be 10 years (rather than 15 or 20) so that it might be more palatable to Hillsborough County voters. Here is a clip of his speech from the August 24th special board meeting. The referendum can be found at the very end of the ballot; please vote YES!

My father was a business man before he retired. He understood the value of investment, especially in the companies for which he worked or outright owned. And while it may be a platitude, he drilled into me the concept of “you gotta spend money to make money.”

After living in Florida for over 20 years and witnessing the growth in Hillsborough County, I am amazed at what we have accomplished with the little tax revenue we’ve generated over that time. As our population grew and the economic base expanded, it has largely been a wash. But the last several years we have had a Florida Legislature willing to cut services to the bone, especially public education, all in the name of saving pennies for families.

The time has come for the citizens of Hillsborough to band together, pass both referenda (schools and transportation), and make a real investment in our local community.

Regardless of how any individual feels about either of these sales tax increases, the truth is it will cost each of us–on average–about 50 cents per day to pass both. All told, this will generate well over $400 million dollars per year between the two, the vast majority of which will be immediately reinvested in our local businesses and create a virtuous cycle of economic activity.

In the video above, I spoke about how the infusion of capital outlay money for the school district means that those dollars will largely go to local contractors to install new HVAC units, repair roofs, build new schools, paint old schools, upgrade technology, etc. When the district spends that money locally, those companies in turn can then reinvest in / grow their own companies by hiring more employees and giving them raises, which those employees will then inject their wages back into our local economy, thereby collecting more additional tax revenue which can be used for additional projects that require spending more money, and over and over…hence the virtuous cycle.

It is evident that many people from all walks of life and both sides of the aisle are realizing that this is an opportunity to invest in Hillsborough County in ways we haven’t seen for a long time–if ever. Beyond having the Tampa Bay Times already endorse both the transportation referendum and school referendum, even more telling is having groups such as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and pro-business conservative Republicans such as Ken Hagan back the sales tax increase to support schools.

Business leaders know that this investment in our community is long overdue. They realize that the potential for a virtuous cycle of economic activity is one of the many hidden benefits that are being overlooked by naysayers. Investing in our students and schools, as well as our transportation infrastructure, will only continue to lure more people and businesses to Hillsborough County, expanding our entire economic base and generating more momentum in the virtuous cycle.

Please join me and many others in voting YES on November 6th to support our entire local community here in Hillsborough County.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about how to help our students and schools, please visit the website for the parent-led coalition, Strengthen Our Schools, or check out the HCPS information page. You can also learn more about the All For Transportation referendum here.

Previous Related Posts: About Those Stubborn Facts…; Numbers Don’t Lie; Why We Must Pass Both Tax Referenda: The Numbers Don’t Lie Redux

Virtuous Cycel
Let’s Create a Virtuous Cycle of Economic Activity in Hillsborough! Vote YES on 11/6 for both

Nick Guy
Nick Guy, District 1 Candidate for Sarasota School Board, along with Heather, Reese, and Riley.

In Nick’s own words, he’s about principles, not politics.

The former teacher turned IT analyst wants to help his former profession and all students throughout Sarasota county, mainly by fighting back against the march of privatization of public education that has been happening during the last decade. He is in a formidable race against an incumbent who is largely funded by “dark money” pouring in from PACs that have ties to voucher and for-profit charter proponents.

If you’d like to learn more about Nick Guy, you can check out his website, Like or Follow his Facebook page, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Be sure to check out Nick’s cool commercial below, please share the podcast with other Sarasota voters / public education advocates, and have a great weekend, everyone!

DSC_4285LR
Debra Bellanti, Democratic Candidate for House District 60, along with her husband, Anthony, and their daughter, Josephine.

As we continue the summer of podcasts, this week’s special guest is Debra Bellanti, the Democratic candidate for House District 60 of the Florida Legislature. While she is running as a Democrat, Debra is building a bipartisan coalition of mothers who are deeply concerned about the level of funding devoted to public education and how it affects our students’ safety. For these efforts and others, she has received numerous endorsements and distinctions.

In addition to discussing education, Debra also shares her views on several other issues that are critical for the entire Hillsborough delegation in general and her South Tampa community in particular. Please listen and share with other voters of House District 60 or concerned public education advocates!

If you’d like to learn more about Debra, you can check out her website here, like or follow her on Facebook, or follow the conversation on Twitter.

Thanks again for listening, everyone!

IMG_1876
One view of the Arizona #REDforED movement marching on the capitol

All across the Sunshine State, education professionals and their supporters just closed out National Teacher Appreciation Week. During this time, public education was celebrated by students and parents alike. Many people wore #REDforED to stand in solidarity with teachers in other states that have accomplished change by banding together, as well as to highlight the similar challenges we face here in Florida.

Many people also took to social media to share their support and to say thanks to those who work with our children on a daily basis. A few even used this platform and time to illustrate important points to our elected officials about the starvation budgets that have been served up during the tenure of Governor Rick Scott. These are a few of my contributions, for instance, that I used to help spread awareness and build momentum as we move forward to this year’s election cycle:

IMG_1921
Numbers Don’t Lie, Governor Scott

 

Clearly one of the most effective forms of demonstration that has helped along the situations faced by states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona was marching on the capitol. What if we could do this here in Florida? Is it time for a little rally in Tally? It certainly has a nice ring to it and could easily be used as a hashtag to build further momentum during the summer and beyond. There are even two dates that would be perfect for taking this simple, effective action:

Monday, September 17th, 2018, which is U.S. Constitution Day, an idea that was originally proposed by retired educator and all-star public education advocate, Donna Yates Mace. Teachers from central to north Florida could easily drive up Sunday during the day, stay over night, march on / hold a rally in the capitol the next day, and then return home that evening. This would be a perfect time to celebrate democracy and demonstrate civic engagement to our students and communities (something the Legislature clearly thinks we don’t teach based on attempted legislation and CRC amendments). Furthermore, considering the primaries will be over by this point, it will send a strong message about voting for pro-public education candidates and hopefully all candidates will be addressing the need for increased funding for our students and schools.

And what better way to celebrate the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself than by marching / rallying again on Monday, January 21st, 2019, only a couple of weeks after committee work begins for the upcoming legislative session. Granted there probably won’t be any activity that day, but legislators will be there or returning for work on Tuesday. But if we can get tens of thousands of teachers to show up and get high-profile media coverage of the event, it would definitely put the Florida Legislature on notice.

We educators will no longer be silent about the damage being done by the gross lack of funding for our public education system. As MLK himself reminds us all: the time is always right to do what is right. The time is now. The fight is here. We can take action that doesn’t require us to strike yet still be “highly effective.” Just close your eyes and imagine it…a sea of red set out to #RallyInTally.

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Time to #RallyInTally