MAXWELL:  Ask the educators about education

8/12/1998- Printed in the EDITORIALPERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Republican Gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush and his running mate, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, announced last week their plan for overhauling public education in Florida.

The plan, echoing GOP Darwinism, includes annual achievement tests, parents using taxpayer dollars to transfer their children from failing public schools to private schools and cash bonuses to high-achieving schools. Low-achieving schools will get nothing _ unless they move up. They will be graded, A-F, on a scale determined mainly by student test scores.

Meanwhile, Ron Howard, a Democratic candidate for education commissioner, recently unveiled his plan: He would increase the school year from 180 to 210 days and keep elementary teachers with the same class for two to three years. He calls it the “little red schoolhouse concept coming back into modern times.”

Not to be outdone, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the Democratic front-runner for governor, has tossed his education plan onto the heap. His plan, like others, boils down to a bunch of things the Legislature will not fund.

A former teacher, I am offended by the speed with which these guys come up with this stuff. Although some of the ideas may work, no one knows. The fact is that the candidates are feeding the press mostly half-baked notions intended to impress an electorate still in the summer doldrums.

I am even more offended that the candidates, when devising these plans, are not talking to a variety of teachers, such as those attending the opening day of the Second Annual School-to-Work, Tech Prep Summer Institute in Orange Park. Here, I met more than 200 dedicated professionals in the St. Johns River Consortium, which consists of the Clay, Putnam and St. Johns school districts, St. Augustine Technical Center and St. Johns Community College.

Giving up vacation time and sitting through many workshops, most of these teachers did not have to be here. They came because they care and want to make a positive difference in children’s lives. I asked dozens of them if Bush, MacKay or any of the other candidates had asked for their advice on improving public education. Not a one had.

Brogan handpicks the teachers he consults, most of them partisans who agree with him. To his credit, Bush has visited about 200 schools statewide. But what has he learned from the professionals in the trenches? How many teacher suggestions have he and Brogan incorporated in their plan?

Keeping teachers out of the loop is 90 percent of what ails Florida public education. Every Jeb, Frank, Ron and Buddy thinks that he is an education expert. Brogan should be, having been a classroom teacher, a district superintendent and the commissioner. But he spent most of the first part of his tenure demonizing teachers, treating them like a bunch of unqualified slackers.

Imagine planning a new skyscraper without consulting engineers and architects; or changing flight patterns over Tampa International without talking to pilots; or establishing new banking regulations without sitting down with bankers. Bush, a property developer, would be offended if Teamsters told him how to build a new housing complex.

Why, then, do we routinely leave teachers out of the revolutions that we force upon them? I did not hear a single teacher in Orange Park say that annual testing would help them do a better job. Most said that Florida tests enough already. Does Bush care what teachers think? Apparently not. Standardized testing is central to his plan.

Teachers are not asking the candidates to lower the academic bar for students. They are, however, asking for the empiricism showing that these election-season schemes will improve matters.

The theme of the Orange Park conference, which ends today, is “Education is Not a Spectator Sport,” taken from Willard Daggett’s and Benedict Kruse’s book of the same name. The authors write: “Education has become a spectator activity; the people who should be active participants, the students, have, entirely too frequently and with insufficient awareness, been regulated to roles as onlookers.”

If we replace the word students with teachers, we see what happens when reform comes down from the top. “Educational improvement happens most effectively as a grass-roots activity,” Daggett and Kruse write. “Effective educational improvement in the United States is more likely to come from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local programs that meet needs of specific students and solve problems of work force development in discrete communities.”