Time to moderate? Florida sees pushback in its education endeavors, the big story of 2012
Forget the top 10 story list. In Florida education, take the longer look at Big One. 2012 was the year that the "reform" movement faced its first significant pushback after a more than a decade of ineffective complaining.
The story actually began in the waning days of 2011, when the Florida Board of Education adopted its first set of new FCAT passing scores in years, along with new school grading rules that affected special education students as well as children still learning English.
Civil rights activists, superintendents and even some south Florida Republican lawmakers, along with the state board's longest-serving member (a Jeb Bush appointee), criticized the changes, and called for reconsideration to take into account the people whom the reforms were affecting. The debate continued late into the year, as the state gave several special education centers F grades as district leaders challenged the methods and philosophy behind such a move.
Jump forward into January 2012, and up came the introduction of the "parent trigger" bill that sparked one of the biggest controversies of the 2012 legislative session. Parent groups quickly denounced the measure, saying they didn't support it or request it, while outside organizations such as Michelle Rhee's Students First and the California-based Parent Revolution stepped up to back the Republican-sponsored legislation.
By the end of the session, Republicans were splitting among themselves over the legislation to give parents more control over revamping their struggling schools (mostly the power to convert them to charters). Charter schools proved another flash point in the session, with GOP leaders again divided as they failed to push through bills that would have funneled even more tax money intended for school districts to the privately run operations.
Mid-May brought the state's attention back to testing, when the announcement came that students' FCAT writing scores had plummeted under new scoring rules that many educators said they had too little time to digest and implement. The state board's reaction: Change the grading system again.
Hoping to avert a larger public rejection of the accountability program that Florida systematically had put in place since the late 1990s, education commissioner Gerard Robinson hit the road with forums and meetings aimed at explaining what the state was up to: Increasing the rigor of academics being taught, so our kids could compete globally.
The effort had worked before, with rising scores on national tests and increased participation and performance on exams such as Advanced Placement, particularly among previously under-served groups, Robinson said. But his words did not assuage the anger. In fact, some of the things he said stoked the flames of discontent. By mid-June, several Florida school boards were calling for the state to back off its testing regimen, a core piece of the outcomes-based system begun under former governor Bush.
Mistakes in the state's school grades released a month later didn't help the cause. Days later, Robinson abruptly announced his resignation. Feeling empowered, many parent groups began clamoring for a new commissioner more in tune with the will of the public.
Gov. Rick Scott, sensing the pitch rising, launched an education "listening tour" within weeks, promoting a kinder-gentler approach. He called for more money for schools, said he wasn't keen on over-testing, and indicated he would push for changes in mandates and red tape bureaucracy that parents and teachers could support. (He notably did not back away from his support for charter school and voucher expansions.)
While Scott talked, the state board received no significant interest for its vacant commissioner post, extending the search for two months in hopes that someone with gravitas might come available after the November elections.
Scott won mostly postive reviews for his initiative. And more positive news began to emerge about the state's academic performance, including a December announcement that Florida fourth-graders were among the top in the world in reading. Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett, a leader in the national reform movement, wasn't popular enough to win reelection in the Hoosier state, but that made him available for Florida.
Amid those highlights for the leadership, though, came more seeds for the discontented: Teacher evaluation results that showed the same level of "effective" teachers as ever before, then followed by what state board members deemed the embarassment of having to recall the results because of errors. Teachers all the while criticized the system as confusing and unfair, adding that the state mistakes suggested the new evals simply weren't ready for prime time.
Superintendents and some of the lawmakers key to implementing all the state's "reform" measures began saying that the time had come for Florida to slow down, take a breath and make sure everything is being done well. Indiana's Bennett, now commissioner-select, made clear that proper implementation and alignment of efforts would be key to his work as he takes over in mid-January.
That promised to make the big story of 2012 the prelude to what will likely also be the big story of 2013. Look for the debate on vouchers, testing, charter schools, school grades, parent trigger and all the rest to remain in the limelight, with the opponents still pressing hard. Happy new year!