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Revolutionize information we give teachers

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Though touted as something new and bold, Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ education plan is really just part of a political reform that started in 1983, when the federal government concluded our nation was at risk because our schools were so poor. The prescription: Declare a crisis, blame the teachers and add some more state tests. So far, these two decades of reforms have done little to help our students, though, and Bush's current plan will do little to change that.

To improve student learning, we need an information revolution in public education. Classroom teachers need what they have never had before: continual access to accurate student achievement data and effective training in how to use these data to improve teaching and learning. In other words, they need to know what their students are not learning.

As the private sector has taught us over the last decade, a key to reducing costs and increasing productivity is giving better-trained employees more decisionmaking power and continual access to the information they need to make good decisions. Thanks to scanners and computers, the person who delivers soap to our grocery store knows at each moment how many soap bars are left on the shelves. No more need for middle managers shuffling phone calls and delivery schedules. The delivery person has the information necessary and the responsibility to act on it.

This same magic can occur in Florida's public schools if our leaders will provide teachers with daily access to information about how well their students are achieving.

Some will argue that the testing teachers currently do as part of their daily instruction gives them all the information they need to improve teaching and learning. But the results generated by these classroom tests are often inaccurate because teachers do not have the training or assessment tools to properly measure how well students are meeting the state's learning standards.

For example, last year in Florida's Washington and Hendry County school districts, the percentage of ninth-graders with classroom grade point averages of 2.0 or lower was markedly different. In Washington, it was 11 percent; in Hendry, it was 69 percent. Yet the passing rates for Washington and Hendry students on the state's high school basic skills test were almost identical _ 75 percent for Washington and 74 percent for Hendry. The disparity in classroom grades assigned in the two counties is not a reflection of differences in student achievement but of differences in how teachers test and grade students.

Gov. Bush addressed the lack of timely achievement information by requiring that the state administer standardized tests every year, not just every three or four years. But yearly achievement tests are still insufficient. Under current practice, the annual test results would only mean that next year's teacher will get a better idea of which state standards the student mastered this year. Gov. Bush would never run a political campaign using year-old polling data, so why does he expect teachers to run classrooms using year-old achievement data?

This information revolution is possible. For example, school districts throughout Texas are finding ways to share achievement information with teachers, and the results are impressive.

In Houston's South Central school district, high-poverty schools are using technology to regularly assess student achievement. Every South Central classroom has a computer with software capable of measuring how well students have mastered the state's reading, writing and mathematics standards for their grade level. Teachers use this software to diagnose each student's progress and adjust his or her instruction accordingly. These results are also shared with parents.

Each time a child's progress is assessed, the results are sent to a computer in the principal's office. South Central principals follow the progress of each child and meet with teachers to discuss children who may be slipping behind. In addition, the district superintendent regularly reviews each school's results with the principal.

The results speak for themselves. While a majority of South Central's students come from low-income families, more than 90 percent are exceeding state performance standards in reading, writing and mathematics.

The assessment technology available to educators today is growing more and more sophisticated. For instance, computer software can now write tests as students take them, basing each future question on the student's last response. This enables the computer to accurately determine students' knowledge and skill levels while minimizing the number of questions they must answer, thereby saving valuable classroom instructional time.

In recent years, Florida has made efforts to follow the lead of the private sector. Decision making power has been decentralized, workers have been empowered, higher productivity standards have been established and employees have become more customer-focused. The missing link is that front-line employees _ teachers _ who still do not have access to timely performance information. In this age of global competition, education is one of the few remaining institutions in which information is controlled by a centralized bureaucracy and kept from the rank-and-file workers who are expected to make good decisions.

We have spent nearly two decades changing our schools. We now need to start improving our schools. If Gov. Bush is serious about students "achieving a year's worth of learning in a year's worth of time," then he needs to address the information crisis in our classrooms. Until teachers truly know what their students are learning, or not learning, our schools will not improve.

Doug Tuthill, former president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, is currently on staff with the University of South Florida Urban Initiative.