Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

The Ten Biggest Florida Education Stories of 2012

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Tony Bennett's hire as Florida Education Commissioner was one of the biggest stories of 2012.

2012 was a busy year in Florida education. One state education commissioner left, while another will take the reins early next year.

And Florida got great news on an international comparison.

Here are the biggest education stories of 2012, with links to StateImpact Florida coverage.

International test results — The biggest education story of the year was a positive one — Florida fourth graders ranked with the world’s best readers on an international exam.

Florida was one of a handful of states which volunteered to have its reading, math and science scores individually released among U.S. results.

The numbers could have been embarrassing. Instead, they showed that Florida fourth graders registered the second-highest reading scores in the world. Former Gov. Jeb Bush said the results validated the state’s long-held focus on teaching reading young, including retaining third graders reading below grade level.

Critics pointed out the high scores of Florida fourth graders disappeared among older Florida students, a trend that has repeated on the National Assessment of Education Progress test.

Tony Bennett hired  — The state Board of Education ended the year by hiring Tony Bennett as the new education commissioner.

Bennett is an ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who refused to back down on instituting third grade reading requirements, teacher evaluations and Common Core State Standards as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Those positions cost him his reelection bid.

Bennett arrives in Florida with a national reputation, but facing school boards and teachers who have grown increasingly skeptical the school overhaul model Florida pioneered.

Gerard RobinsonRobinson surprised many in the state by resigning the top education spot just one year after beginning the job. Robinson said his family had remained in Virginia and the long-distance marriage was less than ideal.

Like Bennett, Robinson was known as a combative school leader whose tough medicine often irritated teachers and school district officials. Robinson is likely to be best remembered for…

FCAT Writing scores — Under Florida’s policy of continuously increasing the challenge for students, the state Board of Education made the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test more difficult this year.

Spelling errors now count against student scores, and students were asked to better support their logic in their writing. The state also added a second scorer to review student essays.

The result was scored plunged — the percentage of fourth graders who earned a passing score of 4 (out of 6) dropped from 81 percent to 27 percent.

Parents, teachers and school leaders were outraged. The State Board of Education called an emergency meeting and lowered the passing score — but only for this year.

FCAT revolt — Spurred by the FCAT writing results and other issues, 2012 was the year many Florida school districts went into open revolt against the FCAT and Florida’s accountability system.

More than a dozen Florida school boards — including many of the state’s largest districts — approved resolutions asking the state to put less emphasis on FCAT results.

The Florida School Boards Association joined the outcry in June, approving a resolution asking for less emphasis on test results.

Then-Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said the resolutions “ignored progress,” leading to Robinson’s speech to the group at their annual meeting. Many school board members felt Robinson was challenging their authority.

DoE data mistakesFirst the state forgot to include a new change to the school grade formula and had to revise grades upward for more than 200 elementary and middle schools.

Then the state issued statewide teacher evaluation data only to quietly recall the figures a few hours later after learning some teachers were double counted.

The goofs had the State Board of Education as concerned about the public relations black eye as they were about hiring a new education commissioner at their December meeting.

3 Teachers Elected to State House — One interesting outcome of this fall’s election? Three teachers were elected to the state House of Representatives.

Mark Danish teaches middle school science in Hillsborough County. Karen Castor Dentel is an elementary school teacher in Maitland. And Carl Zimmerman teaches broadcast news and television production at a Palm Harbor high school.

All three are Democrats and all three are critical of current state education policies.

K12 — It started with one teacher questioning why she was being asked to sign off on class rosters which included more than 100 students she hadn’t taught.

Then a tipster sent emails to the Seminole County school district asking them to check out issues with K12, the nation’s largest online education company. The district did — and raised concerns that K12 was using teachers who weren’t properly certified in subject or grade level.

The Florida Department of Education is investigating the company. Some school districts have checked to make sure the listed K12 teacher was actually teaching the course, but many other provide no oversight to K12 programs.

The company is involved in a chain of online charter schools which have applied around the state. Some districts have approved the schools, while other have rejected the applications over concerns about unrealistic enrollment projections and out-of-date curriculum.

Teacher Evaluations — This was the first year statewide data was available based on a controversial new law requiring school districts to try to quantify teacher performance.

The data showed nearly every teacher who earned a rating was considered “effective” or “highly effective.”

School districts are still ironing out the evaluation systems. Many districts purposely designed their evaluations so most teachers would score well in the first year. Those scores are likely to drop in future years.

Amendment 8Florida’s largest teachers union got involved in a big way in a constitutional amendment fight. The Florida Education Association spent more than $1 million on radio ads around the state urging voters to oppose Amendment 8.

The amendment would delete state constitutional language prohibiting spending public money on religious or sectarian purposes. Supporters argued the amendment would protect prison ministry programs and other services from being challenged in court.

But the union raised the possibility — inaccurately – that the amendment would open the door to use public money to fund private, religious schools. The threat of the voucher big, bad wolf was one reason the amendment was easily defeated.

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