By Emily Topper | firstname.lastname@example.org
With a focus on testing, Common Core results in more stress, not knowledge.
The re-election of Gov. Rick Scott means more changes for education in Florida—but many Florida residents think the changes could cause more harm than good.
Though Scott has pledged to increase public school funding by $700 million through a surplus in the state’s budget, he has made extensive cuts in the past. During his first year in office, Scott cut $1.3 billion from Florida’s public education budget, later restoring $1 billion. He also implemented a bill that changed the evaluation of public school teachers and created more standardized tests for students.
The bill, which was approved in July 2011, calls for teachers to be evaluated on a pay-for-performance scale based on the learning growth of students and eliminates tenure for teachers.
Although the goal of the bill is to create effective educators and successful students, many teachers are feeling stress under the new education guidelines.
Under the bill, Florida’s teachers are placed on an annual contract that can be renewed based on school evaluations and the students’ performance on state and county tests.
Teachers on the pay-for-performance scale may see a salary increase if they receive a ranking of “highly effective” or “effective” at the end of the school year. Teachers who receive a lower ranking, such as “needs improvement” may receive termination if they fail to improve their scores in more than two consecutive years.
The bill, however, unfairly impacts teachers in poorer areas.
Teachers at schools in poor socioeconomic areas are evaluated under the same parameters as teachers in wealthier areas. Under the new bill, students must take an exam at the end of every term in their core classes.
The overall scores on the exam determine how the teacher of the course is rated. The student’s grade for that term is also taken into account. Teachers of core subjects such as science, math, language arts and history are given curriculum maps at the beginning of the school year to cover what will be on these exams—and they must cover all of it, as they do not see the tests ahead of time.
Catherine Johnson*, a history teacher at Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., which received a “B” last school year, believes the new curriculum guidelines are pressuring both teachers and students to perform.
“I’m forced to rush through things,” Johnson said. “If kids get interested in something, I have to skip over it. If it didn’t affect me at all, I would spend more time on stuff regardless of what the curriculum map says, but the scores on those tests are going to dictate my pay.”
Johnson gives lecture notes and moves quickly from topic to topic instead of spending extra time creating projects that her students would benefit from.
Johnson believes the increase in testing may be making her students apathetic.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink,” Johnson said. “That phrase can definitely be applied to students.”
Hindered by testing
Grayce Halter, a freshman at Pedro Menendez in the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program, is facing the same kind of pressure. Halter has at least two hours of homework every night, but only learns her course material so that she can pass the tests.
“Most goes in one ear and out the other,” Halter said. “I feel like I learn it and then forget it after the test.”
Madison Hobbs is also a freshman at Pedro Menendez, and part of Halter’s IB study group. Like Halter, she believes the standardized testing is doing more to hinder students than to help them.
“It takes away from teachers’ independence and what they want to teach,” Hobbs said. “I don’t like how we could work so hard over the course of the nine weeks or longer than that but everything depends on one test.”
Halter’s older brother, Chip Halter, a senior at Pedro Menendez High School, says that his school-related stress has grown over the last four years.
“I always want to know the point or purpose of what we’re learning,” Halter said. “We have an IB Procrastination Station page on Facebook to help each other and I learn more from that than the actual teachers.”
Passing the Test
Johnson, who has been teaching at Pedro Menendez High School since 2012, is trying to remain optimistic under the new curriculum guidelines. Even so, continuously high performance ratings could even have a negative effect on her career.
“If I score well, and my pay keeps going up and up, they might let me go because they want to keep costs low,” Johnson said. “They would hire someone new so that they wouldn’t have to pay them as much because they would start them right at the bottom of that pay scale.”
In addition, Johnson has no way to secure her current position for longer than a year due to the elimination of tenure. Even so, she is determined to create the best classroom possible for her students.
“Go with the flow, do what you can with what you’ve got and think about how you’re going to benefit your students,” Johnson said. “When things get to the point where I can’t pay my bills, then there’s going to be issues. But until then, I’m not going to freak out.”
Throughout her own high school career, Johnson was not dedicated to her grades. She does not want her students to make the mistakes that she did.
“I know how hard it is to do something after you’ve blown off high school. I failed algebra, I got a D in chemistry,” Johnson said. “But that’s because I didn’t care. When I moved down here and got my act together my senior year, and got A’s and B’s, that still wasn’t going to fix my GPA. I didn’t get good SAT scores, I didn’t get into college. It’s really hard to have self-esteem when the only college you wanted to go to didn’t accept you.”
Sailing through Florida’s curriculum
John Eick, a senior at Flagler College who is studying secondary education, failed to take his first few years of high school seriously. After moving to Florida from Pennsylvania at the start of his freshman year of high school, Eick was placed in remedial classes since he had never taken the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, more commonly known as the FCAT.
“Overall, I was not involved in school just because it was so easy,” Eick said. “I stopped caring and my freshman year GPA partially shows that. It was a 1.7.”
Eick says one of the main factors in his apathy in school can be attributed to sudden changes in their curriculum. Both Eick and Johnson moved to Florida after receiving most of their education in another state. After finding Florida’s curriculum too easy, they stopped caring about school.
Now, Eick believes that the statewide differences in public schooling curriculum are a problem. States do not follow the same curriculum maps, which can again differ within a state’s counties. If a student moves from Arkansas to Florida, they could be three weeks behind. If another student moves to Florida from Maine, they might be ahead of the rest of their class. These statewide differences are affecting the nation as a whole.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States has seen a decline in their rankings of math, reading and science compared to other nations since 2009. In 2012, the United States was ranked 31st in math, 24th in science and 21st in reading. Halter and Hobbs believe their teachers’ fast-paced curriculum is a contributing factor to these declining rankings.
“We learn to pass the test in order to pass the class,” Hobbs said. “We’re not learning for our benefit and not for the long run.”
Education reformers are trying to develop new ways to improve the United States’ status. In 2010, the National Governors Association (NGA) finalized the benchmarks that today make up the Common Core State Standards. The development first began in 2008 and has received opposition from Democrats and Republicans since its implementation into the public school system. The Common Core is often criticized for creating a nationwide standard of learning that infringes on states’ rights of creating education reform. Yet some supporters, like Eick, believe that the Common Core may be a step in the right direction to revamping the nation’s underwhelming educational system.
“If we are ranked lowly in math, why are we testing kids and not learning new ways to teach them? If we’re so low in science, why aren’t we learning different ways to teach it?” Eick said. “This is why I think Common Core is a step in the right direction. Because it seeks to change what we teach in the hopes that it will change for the better. Education is half practice, half experimentation.”
Florida’s full implementation of the Common Core occurred in the 2013-2014 school year. A total of 43 states have adopted Common Core standards, which includes nationwide curriculum guidelines for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers.
According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, these guidelines are an integral part of preparing more students for college and the world beyond.
Throughout his campaign for the midterm election, Scott tiptoed the Common Core, instead focusing on the increase per pupil spending during his first gubernatorial term.
According to PolitiFact.com, Scott has an education budget of $18.9 billion for the 2014-2015 school year, resulting in just under $7,000 of per pupil spending. Even though this is a significant increase of $16.6 billion his first year in office, Scott’s per pupil spending still falls short of predecessor Charlie Crist’s budget of $18.7 billion, which allotted around $7,100 in per pupil spending for the 2007-2008 academic year.
The numbers under both terms may seem large, but educators know otherwise. Although she receives teacher lead money at the beginning of every school year, Johnson says that she still uses part of her own paycheck to pay for materials in the classroom.
“I got around 250 or 260 dollars for supplies, but I usually spend more than that on supplies of my own personal money,” said Johnson.
Among students and teachers, this need for additional spending comes as no surprise. Johnson believes that the money currently spent on standardized testing could be put to better use.
“We’re putting too much stock into data and worrying about scores than we are in the actual education of the kids,” Johnson said.
Eick, who will graduate this year, would like to see standardized testing eradicated across the board.
“The biggest change I would love to see happen is to not rely on standardized testing,” Eick said. “By infecting the entire system through a means of testing students in what seems to be a graduation pass or fail requirement, you’re only putting more stress on students than you are seeing their ability to achieve.”
By getting rid of standardized testing, Eick hopes that more money will be devoted to focusing on other elements of student success.
“As much as we don’t want to say it, funding is what makes the schools run efficiently,” Eick said. “And if a school cannot run efficiently, it is just broken.”
*Name has been changed at the request of the Pedro Menendez teacher who was interviewed.