As the Republican-led Legislature opens its annual session Tuesday in Tallahassee, public education and its 180,000 teachers will be under attack like never before, facing the prospect of sweeping changes, some never tried anywhere else.
Here are some major changes to come if GOP lawmakers get their way: School budgets will be slashed. Teacher evaluations — which will determine teacher salaries — will be at least partially tied to students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other standardized tools. Vouchers and virtual school programs will be greatly expanded. Tenure-like job protections will be eliminated.
Because Gov. Rick Scott did not seek their advice, classroom teachers played no role in developing the plan that will affect their lives. I interviewed several teachers around the state by telephone and received e-mail answers from others. The responses were similar.
Below is an edited version of Melissa Heeren's e-mail answers to my seven questions. Heeren, 50, teaches Advanced Placement computer science and computer programming at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. She also has taught French, algebra, geometry and TV production. A graduate of the University of Central Florida, she has been at Lakewood eight years. Her son, a Lakewood graduate, teaches seventh-grade math at Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg.
What do you think are the real motives behind the current reform movement?
"I think that what started as a necessary move toward accountability in our school system several years ago has morphed into a pitched battle against teacher unions. The governor and some of our legislators are in a rush to make sweeping changes without any significant input from those of us in the trenches. In fact, there seems to be a desire not to hear what teachers have to say, which is very strange. Teachers do know how to improve our students' achievement. Ask us. Please."
Should teachers' evaluations be tied to student scores on the FCAT and other standardized tests?
"The devil is in the details. In the mad rush to tie evaluations to student gains, the big question of 'how do we do this?' is always left for some other time. In Pinellas, the 'pilot' evaluation (the only evaluation we will receive) at several schools now contains a component for student achievement. For many teachers this student achievement portion will be based not on a teacher's own students' gains, but on whole school averages. Why? Because there was no time to create a valid measure, but a 'gain based' measure was required by the state. So this is what was devised, even though it's not valid or fair. This will obviously make attracting and retaining talented teachers in high-need schools even more difficult. Surely this wasn't the goal."
Should the tenure-like job protections be abolished?
"We don't have tenure. We have due process. Consistently underperforming and/or unprofessional teachers can and should be dismissed at any point in their career. Currently, dismissing a teacher does require documentation, and it cannot be done on the whim of one administrator. This due process should not be abolished. We want and need teachers who will demand high standards from their students. This can generate complaints from parents. Without due process, teachers could be pressured to change grades by administrators who are under pressure from parents or athletic boosters, etc."
What are some of the best ways to improve teaching and raise students' performance?
"We need to provide more support to struggling teachers in the early years of teaching. We need to provide more significant early interventions for students who are at risk. We have students arriving at high school who can barely read and add. We need to do something different for students who are not successful in a regular classroom. It's ludicrous to have a child repeat third grade, when third grade didn't work the first time. Perhaps we need a paradigm shift away from the traditional age-6-equals-first-grade, etc., to a skills-mastery paradigm."
What do you think of Gov. Scott's idea that education funding should follow the child instead of the public school?
"In Florida, we have a public school system funded by taxpayers. We also have roads, fire departments and the governor's office. We don't get refunds for the services we don't choose to use. I'm a former homeschooler. That was a choice I made. I did not expect to take money from the school system because I wasn't using its services. If Gov. Scott wants to have funding follow the user of the funds or offer taxpayer refunds for services not used, he should look at all of state government and not just education. I don't think it's feasible or the way government is intended to work."
Do you believe that teachers are under political attack?
"I believe that everyone cares deeply about children and their education, so education is an issue ripe for political grandstanding. I hate to think that the teaching profession is under political attack, but that's what it feels like. I hope that underneath all the rhetoric, the intent of our leaders really is to improve our educational system. But the current moves in Tallahassee are so far in the opposite direction that this is becoming very difficult to believe."