Teaching tool under review

School leader Jeff Eakins heard criticism from the School Board about the use of SpringBoard.
School leader Jeff Eakins heard criticism from the School Board about the use of SpringBoard.
Published Feb. 29, 2016

TAMPA — After a barrage of criticism that culminated at a recent School Board workshop, the Hillsborough County School District is re-evaluating its use of a set of teaching products called SpringBoard.

Sold by College Board, the New York organization that also markets Advanced Placement and SAT college entrance exams, SpringBoard has been used increasingly in middle and high schools for nearly a decade.

But, while supporters say its math and language arts lessons help students succeed in college, teachers and parents have complained loudly to board members, who vented to superintendent Jeff Eakins at a workshop Tuesday.

They described teachers who urge all their students to hire tutors. "I've never seen so many tutoring companies spring up, no pun intended," said Melissa Snively, who was elected to the board in 2014.

Sally Harris, also a newer member, said while SpringBoard might help students who continue on to college, it discourages a far greater number who do not.

"It has literally caused students to want to drop out," she said.

The anti-SpringBoard sentiment at Tuesday's workshop was almost unanimous, and it's nothing new. In October, when high-achieving middle school students went to district headquarters for a question-and-answer session with the board, they were asked point-blank if they liked SpringBoard.

None of them did. One student said she burned her book. Others said the reading passages were boring and the math workbooks — which district officials call "consumable textbooks" — did not give enough room to solve the problems.

Eakins heard criticisms from teachers who turned out at town hall meetings, including a high school math teacher who complained he was forced to give up his textbooks and use a SpringBoard book instead.

SpringBoard support

Among teachers, however, SpringBoard also has its fans.

"I have used Springboard since (it was) available to us and consistently have top district exams scores," said Kelly Zunkiewicz of Lennard High School. "My pre-calculus students have been first in the county for the past three years, beating the district average by more than 20 points."

Eric Bergholm, who oversees the district's advanced academics department, said much of the criticism was warranted in the early years, especially in language arts. "It was pretty rigid, teachers tell us," he said.

But since then, teachers have been given a lot more flexibility in matters such as what novels their students can read. "I can't emphasize enough how much SpringBoard has asked for teachers' input and put it into the product," he said.

As for those math books that were taken out of the high schools, Bergholm said they were outdated and did not align to current state standards.

SpringBoard was put to use "wall to wall" in math classes later than English classes, he said. He believes math teachers are adjusting not just to the new curriculum, but to the way the state now tests math competency under the Florida Standards, its version of Common Core.

"There is always a struggle at first," he said. "But I think you will find there is less of a struggle this year."

Despite those assurances, district chief of staff Alberto Vazquez said SpringBoard is among a large number of purchased curricula that are under scrutiny as the district seeks to save money, reduce duplication and maximize its returns.

"We are taking a deep dive in all subjects," said Vazquez, who was especially troubled to hear about teachers urging parents to hire tutors. "As an educator, you really want to make sure the product delivered in the school meets the needs of students so they don't have to go for tutoring help outside of our school system."

AP, SAT connection

Like Bergholm, Vazquez questioned whether, in a district as big as Hillsborough, teachers are aware that they do have choices.

SpringBoard's goals are much like those of Common Core. Users attempt to connect math learning across grades so one leads seamlessly to the next. In language arts, students read challenging fiction and nonfiction texts and must use evidence from them when they are tested.

SpringBoard also is marketed as a way of teaching that prepares kids to take college-level AP courses.

According to a staff presentation Tuesday, participation in the AP program grew dramatically in the years after SpringBoard entered the scene, with an increasing number of students logging the 3, 4 and 5 scores that can translate into college credits.

If the connection between SpringBoard and AP seems fortuitous, consider this: Hillsborough started using SpringBoard after it got an Excelerator grant in 2007. Excelerator is a joint venture that includes the College Board and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The products were introduced in four high schools. By 2008, they were in all middle and high schools.

Critics of Hillsborough's use of SpringBoard, including School Board member Susan Valdes, say the district is allied too closely with College Board, which is paid more than $2 million in district funds each year. As part of that arrangement, students take SAT exams for free — but not the ACT, a non-College Board product.

Bergholm said if a student cannot afford to pay for an ACT, the schools foot the bill.

Vazquez agreed that, although many colleges and universities require an SAT score, "We should be looking at ways to expand and offer other opportunities."

School Board chairwoman April Griffin, meanwhile, is not convinced the district's statistics on AP pass rates are accurate. She said Tuesday that she found surprisingly little money attached to those pass rates when she investigated the bonuses of former superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who was paid extra when enough students passed.

Roughly a third of all Florida districts use SpringBoard, according to the staff presentation. Board members said they want Eakins and his lieutenants to continue the conversation with an eye toward replacing SpringBoard, not defending it.

Vazquez said there might be a middle ground. He favors an "a la carte" approach and invited teachers who have trouble using materials they are given to consult with their principals.

"Any type of text or curriculum does not always meet every student's needs, or does not meet every school's needs," he said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.