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F-cat scores

When I taught middle school I went to my lead teacher frustrated. A few of my kids weren’t getting the material despite my best efforts. They’re not dumb, I said, they just don’t seem to care. She looked at me and calmly said, Chris if your kids aren’t meeting your expectations, lower your expectations. Her message was clear. If I lowered my expectations they would be easier for the kids to meet.

Fast forward a half dozen years and it seems like the State of Florida recently took her advice when they changed the writing and science requirements on the f-cat. Science went from a mix of multiple-choice, open-ended questions, short answers and essays to mostly multiple-choice questions. In short they took out the type of questions the kids did poorly on. Passing on the writing went from a 3.5 being out of six being barely acceptable to a three. By the way if we were scoring a test and a student got three out of six correct they would get a score of fifty and fail. This is what is now acceptable to the state.

Parents if you are worrying how these new changes affected your child, please don’t. The science test isn’t a graduation requirement here in Duval County, it turns out the test is just for funnsies and very few students did poor on the writing portion of the test. Though since so many students are below grade level in reading it does make me wonder if the same students are capable of reading and interpreting what they wrote.

Most educators and critical thinkers don’t care for the f-cat and even point to it as causing many of the problems facing education in Florida. As bad as it was before it’s become even worse with it’s dumbing down of itself, how are people supposed to take it seriously. The high stakes testing environment it has created is full of strife, riddled with reliability issues and it’s way past time we got rid of it and did so immediately.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

A Lack of Vision

One of the biggest problems the Duval County School District has is it lacks vision. We don’t seem to have a comprehensive and realistic plan for our children. Now we do have a vision statement. It says: Every student will graduate from Duval County Public Schools with the knowledge and skills to be successful in post-secondary education and/or the workforce.

Unfortunately recent indicators say we’re not doing such a good job achieving that.

Florida State College at Jacksonville reports that seventy percent of recent grads have to take remedial courses before they start their studies. Then several employers have likewise said that finding competent workers among recent graduates is getting harder and harder to do. Which begs the question what are we doing wrong?
Could it be that we are requiring every student to take and pass the same classes to graduate? That’s right folks, here in Jacksonville we require every child regardless of ability, aptitude, intelligence, interest or desire to take the same classes to finish school. We in effect have a one-size fit’s all curriculum that sadly isn’t leading to many children being successful either in school or once they graduate.

The truth is the reality of society doesn’t support our districts vision. We don’t want a society of just brain surgeons or engineers, which is what the school board will have you believe, is possible. We need laborers, artists, tradesmen, and dozens of other professions that won’t be outsourced to India or other emerging third world countries. We however do need them to be able to do their jobs well.

Shouldn’t our vision instead be to help every child be as productive member of society as possible regardless of what they do? Whether they work with their hands or with their brains? Whether they dig ditches or fix hearts? Shouldn’t the vision we have for our children be realistic and achievable?

Furthermore if some or our students after they graduate high school get a job with a decent wage that has potential for advancement even if they never plan to go to college we should celebrate that. Not every child is going to be cut out for college and even more aren’t going to have the desire to attend. We as a society should not just accept that fact we should also embrace it. We should encourage children to be the best they can be whether they have a degree or not and public school should help develop whatever skills they have, not what skills we wish they had.

Also as society has evolved it’s become completely debatable if it’s even necessary that college be required to be successful. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 employment sectors that are growing the quickest, those that include occupations such as home healthcare aide, customer service representative, food prepares and servers not only will see the largest gains over the next decade but require little more than on the job training to do successfully. These jobs don’t require four years of college and tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt to do. They also don’t require advance maths like algebra II or other courses that the DCPS system requires. A math teacher colleague of mine once asked, why am I teaching algebra II to a kid who wants to drive trucks for a living?

In a recent Las Angeles Times article W. Norton Grubb, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Education said that "People with bachelor's degrees will increasingly get not very highly satisfactory jobs. In that sense, people are getting more schooling than jobs are available." He also noted that in 1970, 77% of workers with a bachelor's degree were employed in professional and managerial occupations but that by 2000, that number had fallen to 60%. The article went on to quote the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers, which said that only one out of four college seniors this year had a job waiting for them upon graduation.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying college isn’t important, you will find study after study, which indicates it leads to higher salaries and more opportunities. I also personally greatly believe in education and encourage the kids in my class to pursue as much as they can, even the ones I know because of desire or ability won’t get that far.

I am also not saying we shouldn’t have minimal standards. Kids should be able to read and write, do math to a realistic level and have the ability to critically think upon graduation. They should also be respectful and have some semblance of a work ethic too, things the school system destroys when it doesn’t give kids consequences for bad behavior or pushes then along without the skills they need to be successful or just teaches to one test.

What I am saying is we need to have graduation tracks that teach kids, skills and trades. We need to serve the needs of all our students not those just destined to go to college upon graduation.

What I am saying is a bachelors degree is not the end all be all that it was a generation ago and what with the fast food eating, video game playing, Ritalin popping kids we have roaming the halls of today’s schools we should be exploring other options. I am saying that instead of just unrealistically preparing all our students for college, instead we should be preparing them for life and to be successful at whatever they choose to do.

How’s that for vision?

Those who are in charge at 1700 Prudential Drive might disagree with me when I say we lack vision. They would probably point to the Magnet School programs that have seen two of our schools, Stanton and Paxon be ranked in the top eight of the whole country. They might also point out that for years students here have been required to take advanced maths and science classes to graduate. That these are requirements that the state is now just beginning to phase in over the next four years.

The thing is for every success like above that the district points to, critical thinkers can also find numerous blaring drawbacks. There’s our graduation, reading and drop out rates, which are some of the worse in the state that people can easily point to. That and the fact even that college isn’t for everyone and by forcing all students into the same track more and more are needlessly dropping through the cracks. Plus I never said we lacked vision, I said we lacked a realistic and achievable one.

School Police

The Duval County School District announced today that it would be hiring a police chief for it’s sixty-man force. Is this a sign of progress or a sign about the sad state of affairs that we find our education system in.

Unfortunately the forces biggest job won’t be protecting students and teachers from intruders, it will be protecting students and teachers from certain students, students who for the most part already have no business being at school. The one’s whose grade point averages start with zero and who already have a history of causing problems. Perhaps if we removed them our need for a school based police force would either go away or be greatly diminished.

A police force, where necessary in today’s society is by its very nature is mostly reactionary. If we want to make real changes we need to be proactive. We need social workers to provide wrap around services to our most needy students and counselors to get to the root of some children’s problems and to help them develop appropriate replacement behaviors. Until we do that a school-based police force is both just an expensive band-aid on the gaping wound of education and only one piece of an incomplete puzzel.

John Thrasher

When John Thrasher speaks I find it amusing. He has a very difficult time keeping his stories straight. Take his recent statement about how it’s better to keep an experienced quarterback like him in charge rather than putting in a rookie like Deborah Gionaulous. Just a few months ago when he was trying to justify his ill conceived senate bill six, one of his selling points was that a first year teacher could have the same or more ability than a tenth year teacher. Apparently experience only matters when it comes to him, not when it comes to caring for our children.

Actually now that I think about it I don’t find it amusing at all. Instead I find it terrifying that some people might actually be listening to him.

A lack of leadership

It’s no secret that Duval County schools are in the midst of a budget crisis. To help alleviate this last year they enacted a quarter mill property tax which basically amounts to 35 dollars on a hundred and forty thousand dollar home. They are considering whether to maintain this for a second year and if they should put it on the ballot so the tax payers can decide if they are willing to pay it in the 11-12and 12-13 school years.

Before I continue let me say that I fully get it, nobody likes taxes and in this economy the vast majority of us including me are already feeling the pinch. I will likewise say where I know there are needs not being met in Jacksonville's schools I also think waste is occurring. With that being said I think extending the millage rate is a no-brainer.

W.C. Gentry on the other hand isn’t so sure. He said he would only support the extension if the district first makes some hard decisions where to cut expenses. When I read this I did a double take. Mister Gentry is part of the school board that in recent months looked into hiring a public relations person and put aside fifty thousand dollars to obtain private representation to fight the charter review commission's suggestion we switch to an appointed school board. Furthermore the school board increased the travel budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, authorised a study of the districts practices for a half million, settled with Aramak services for a similar amount and authorized tens of millions of dollars in new construction. Is Mr. Gentry suddenly concerned with finances? Does he not know that the federal stimulus is the only thing that propped us up last year and is saving us from a financial disaster this coming one. Finally the superintendent himself said we probably wouldn’t be able to fully implement the class size amendment, are we just refusing to do so, or is a lack of money involved?


Every time somebody from 1700 Prudential Drive opens there mouth it shows the city once again what the number one problem affecting our schools is and that’s leadership as in the district is sorely lacking it. Leadership that does the right thing even if it is hard like holding kids back who don’t have the ability to be successful at the next level or disciplining children for bad behavior. Leadership that does the right thing even if it’s unpopular like asking for more money through taxes.

Next year unless the stimulus is extended or the Florida legislature develops a conscious, Duval County Public Schools will automatically be down 43 million dollars. Mr. Gentry may feel comfortable adding another sixteen million to that but I am not and neither should you even if it costs you around thirty five bucks.

Disingenuous

The Florida Legislature and all the gubernatorial candidates are seeking to roll back the class size amendment with their own amendment eight. They say a roll back will give districts more flexibility and lessen potential penalties given to districts that don’t fully comply. This is them being disingenuous at best and insulting at worse but regardless begs the question, do our representatives present and future in Tallahassee think we, the citizens of Florida will believe whatever they tell us?

Our own senator Wise who is no friend to North Florida's children as shown by his recent support of increased voucher programs; he said he supported them because enrollment in private schools is down throughout the state and where that’s’s true in most places it’s not true in the district he represents as it has dramatically risen here, had an equally inane reason for supporting the roll back of the class size amendment. He said if a new student came in after the year started, schools would have to hire a teacher just for that student. Senator Wise instead of having one class of 25 and one of one, why don’t we have two classes of thirteen. After reading this I couldn’t also help but wonder how he would do on the enhanced graduation math requirements, despite the fact many of our students can’t master the current ones, that he supported.

It’s true the present economy is rough and revenues are down, but let’s think back to 2002. 911 had happened the year before and Florida along with the rest of the country was still in a full blown panic. People weren’t travelling and people weren’t spending money either. Instead we were glued to our television sets listening to stories about anthrax, terror alerts and weapons of mass destruction. The economy was not exactly setting records then and hadn’t been for some time. Does anybody remember the March-November 2001 recession? Furthermore the start of the smoke and mirror housing boom was still two years away. Despite the weak economy the citizens of Florida, along with almost the full backing of the legislature at the time, voted for the class size amendment.

The legislature wanting to roll back the amendment is just another example of how short sighted they are. The economic down turn didn’t happen overnight but they act like it caught them off guard. The reason I believe they are so concerned is because now they will have to close loop holes and tax breaks for certain businesses which are campaign contributors. I know it’s not because they care about the children of Florida because if that was the case they wouldn’t have cut so much from education over the years.

I am not sure if the general public is aware of the following but they are all directly controlled by the state legislature. Florida is currently ranked 50th out of 50 states in per capita funding for K-12 public education and 39th in per pupil funding. In 2006, we spent $7,400 per pupil today we spend $6,400 per pupil (The national average is over $10,000.) and Florida ranks 16th in the nation in spending on corrections. I mention the last part because I believe if we spent more on education we could spend less on prisons and all society would benefit.

Yes, we are having tough economic times but it’s wrong to point to 2002 and say, the economy was so much better back then. Also when the residents of Florida passed the amendment they knew it was going to cost money and voted to pass it anyway. In effect they told the legislature to do their job and find the money to pay for it, perhaps they can ask all the new yacht owners they gave a huge tax break to during this past legislative session to chip in a little more. Or maybe it’s time the government did it’s job and provided for our children rather than just special interests and their big donars. If you agree please contact them and let them know.

Chris Guerrieri

Cake

I found it odd that Superintendent Pratt-Dannals said we are preparing more students than ever for college especially when a Times Union article three weeks ago said that 70 percent of Duval County graduates had to take remedial courses before they started taking college classes, though then he said the tests weren’t asking the right questions.

But what I found truly amazing is when he said, when talking about passing students not ready to be successful at the next level, "We're not interested in students moving along without the necessary skills," he said. "We're also not interested in them being held back." I guess you really can have your cake and eat it to if you work for the school board.

Chris Guerrieri