Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What's slowing student achievement in Pinellas? Everybody has a theory

It's clear Pinellas County public school students are making less academic progress than their peers in nearly every other big school district in Florida.

It's not clear why.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of a decade's worth of FCAT scores found none of the state's 12 biggest districts has made less progress in reading than Pinellas and only one, Hillsborough, has made less progress in math. A Times article last week noted a few possible factors in the district's performance, including leadership turmoil, resegregated schools and budget cuts.

But those are hardly the only theories.

District officials declined to speculate about explanations, saying it was more productive to find areas where Pinellas is having success, then copy and repeat. Other education leaders said there's merit in taking a closer look at what is not working in Pinellas, as well as what more successful districts are doing.

Too often, districts only look within for solutions, said Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a group of business leaders who steer private sector support to public schools. Boehm, who previously worked with schools in Hillsborough and Polk, said he has often heard school officials make comments like "we're going to be the model for the nation" without realizing there may be a better model nearby.

"Business people will immediately say, 'Well, that's nice. But what can we learn from other people?' " he said.

No one the Times surveyed has a complete answer to Pinellas' woes. But here are some of the explanations that have been advanced, along with what school performance data say about each idea:

More poverty?

The theory: Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union, suggested a flood of low-income students weighed down Pinellas' progress. She wondered whether the district adjusted quickly enough to more challenging demographics. "It hasn't been this bad here in years," she said of the numbers of kids in poverty.

What is known: Among the 12 biggest districts, Pinellas had the third-lowest percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch in 2001. It still had the third-lowest percentage in 2010. But in that decade, the number of low-income students in Pinellas increased by 15 percentage points; the average increase for the other big districts was 13 points.

Career programs?

The theory: Art Johnson, Palm Beach's superintendent from 2001 to 2011, said his district invested in career and technical programs, which more directly prepare high school students for careers — and the effort rubbed off on FCAT scores.

What is known: Last year, Palm Beach students earned five times as many industry certifications, a by-product of career programs, as their counterparts in Pinellas. (Palm Beach has about 175,000 students to Pinellas' 104,000).

In 2001, Palm Beach 10th-graders ranked No. 10 in reading among the 12 biggest districts. In 2010, they ranked No. 3. Over the same period, Pinellas' 10th-graders fell from No. 2 to No. 4 overall, while its black 10th-graders fell from No. 5 to No. 12.

Focused curriculum?

The theory: Steve Iachini, the former head of Pinellas' research and accountability office, threw out the possibility that other districts do more FCAT preparation than Pinellas, at the expense of a broader education. "Does Pinellas County spend as much time on FCAT type of teaching as other districts do?" he said. "Have other districts narrowed their curriculum to the point where there's not much enhancement going on in education?"

What is known: This is a tough one to check — after all, many kinds of courses can be considered "enhancement.'' The Times asked the state Department of Education for the number of students enrolled in art and music classes in each district during 2000-2001 and 2010-11. But the numbers, which districts report themselves, were so inconsistent they could not be compared reliably.

Mediocre principals?

The theory: Gerald Hogan, a Pinellas Education Foundation board member, said Pinellas doesn't do enough to prepare good principals or remove bad ones. "You can count on one hand the number of principals who have been terminated (in recent years)," Hogan said.

What is known: In a state review released last spring, Pinellas received the lowest ratings possible on standards for principal development. But reviewers said they couldn't get adequate information due to turmoil in the district's professional development department. So it's impossible to know whether the ratings were low because of poor efforts, or poor record-keeping.

Pinellas is far from the only district where principals are rarely fired. As with other district employees, some principals with performance issues are demoted and/or transferred to other schools where it is hoped they will be a better fit.

Special education?

The theory: Judy Owen, vice president of advocacy for the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, said there might be a link between Pinellas' performance and how many students have disabilities.

What is known: In 2010, 13.3 percent of Pinellas students were classified as disabled, a tad below the state average of 13.7 percent. (That includes all disability categories, from learning disabilities to profound physical, mental and emotional impairment.) But a full 20 percent of black Pinellas students are considered disabled — much higher than the state rate of 15.3 percent. Among the 12 biggest districts, only Brevard had a higher figure, 21.8 percent.

Black students in Pinellas make up 19 percent of total enrollment. Compared with black students in the other big districts, they rank last in both reading and math, and their progress has been slower.

School choice?

The theory: Kathleen Shanahan, who chairs the state Board of Education, said the Times findings made her want to see district-by-district data on vouchers and charter schools. "I believe competition within these districts . . . drives performance," she said.

What is known: The Times looked at the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools in each of the 12 biggest districts last school year and the percentage of low-income students who received vouchers.

Miami-Dade, which had the largest FCAT gains among big districts, was the only one to rank high with both charters (No. 3, at 10.2 percent) and vouchers (No. 3, at 3.6 percent). Other districts with high percentages of vouchers (like Duval, at No. 1) or charters (like Polk, at No. 2) had some of the weakest FCAT trend lines.

Pinellas ranked No. 6 in vouchers (2.1 percent) and No. 11 in charters (2.5 percent).

Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.

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