Bush Education Legacy Spices up Florida Gov. Race
LYNN NEARY, host:
In his eight years as Florida governor, Jeb Bush had a big impact on public education. He's been a forceful advocate of high-stakes testing - yearly assessments that are used to rate schools, hand out teacher bonuses and even decide which third graders may be promoted. The assessments are becoming an issue in the election that will decide who will succeed Governor Bush. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.
GREG ALLEN: When asked to describe how he's changed education in Florida, Republican Governor Jeb Bush ticks off the numbers: 228,000 more children, grades three to ten, today read at their grade level than five years ago.
Governor JEB BUSH (Republican, Florida): We're on the right track. Look, our education system ten years ago was just lousy. It was lousy and now it's better. And so that would be what I'm most proud of.
ALLEN: Like every state in the nation, Florida has put an emphasis on yearly assessment tests. Here it's the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - the FCAT. That's an acronym every student knows; one they hear from their first day in school.
That's because the FCAT is more than just a test. It's a measurement not just of a student's achievement but also of his teacher and his school. Many students in Florida begin drilling for the March tests their first week in school.
Ms. DANESE TAYLOR (Teacher, West Homestead Elementary) Okay, how many sides do you have on A15? Santana(ph).
SANTANA (Student): Four.
Ms. TAYLOR: Okay, show me the sides.
SANTANA: One, two, three…
ALLEN: At West Homestead Elementary in Miami-Dade County, teacher Danese Taylor is helping her second grade students understand some of the basics of geometry.
Ms. TAYLOR: Are the sides equal in length?
Unidentified Student: Yes.
Ms. TAYLOR: Okay, show me. Point to the sides again.
Unidentified Student: One, two, three...
ALLEN: West Homestead is one of the elementary schools in Florida that has greatly improved under the annual assessment. Up until last year it earned a D in the yearly ratings - scores that are widely publicized and which can determine which principals and teachers return the following school year.
After a lot of hard work, Principal Frederic Conde says last year West Homestead went from a D to a B, earning the staff some $80,000 in bonuses. That's the part he likes. What Conde says he doesn't like is the pressure the tests put not just on teachers but also on students.
Mr. FREDERIC CONDE (Principal, West Homestead Elementary): Some of the kids, just, the minute they see the tests some of them get physically ill. I mean I've had to remove kids out of the classroom because of that. And so it's a good thing if the child does very well. But if the child maybe has a bad day on that day, then his entire - and especially in third grade - his entire career may rely on that one day.
ALLEN: Third graders who don't make it do get a second chance to take the test. But that doesn't change a key fact about the annual assessments. They're widely disliked by teachers, students and parents.
A poll in June found Floridians almost evenly split on whether to retain the annual tests. And a majority, 60 percent, said the tests should not be used to determine how much money schools receive.
Ms. KAREN ARONOWITZ (President, United Teachers of Dade): What the FCAT has become is a way to punish schools.
ALLEN: Karen Aronowitz is one of the most outspoken opponents of the tests. Aronowitz is the head of United Teachers of Dade, one of the groups that's fought Governor Bush hardest on the FCATs and other educational issues. The annual ratings, Aronowitz says, often end up hurting the schools that need the most help.
Ms. ARONOWITZ: Instead of looking at schools that have not met the requirements of the FCAT and seeing how are we going to assist these schools, you've made it so horrible that people flee from these schools. So you've undercut the very reforms you say you wish to make.
ALLEN: There is one thing about the annual test though that is hard to dispute: Especially in the elementary schools, the tests have brought results. Two separate studies released recently praise Florida for its educational gains under Jeb Bush. One of the reports by the Hoover Institution found that Florida is outpacing the national average and closing the gap between white and minority students. But that's just in elementary schools. Results have not been nearly so encouraging in the high schools.
There's a lot in Jeb Bush's educational record to debate, and this fall that's exactly what the two candidates for governor intend to do.
(Soundbite of campaign advertisement)
Mr. CHARLIE CRIST (Attorney General, Florida; Gubernatorial Candidate) Will we build on Governor Bush's education success or slip backwards. These are big stakes and big choices. I've proven where I stand.
ALLEN: GOP candidate Attorney General Charlie Crist was Florida's education commissioner under Jeb Bush and is hoping to carry the Bush banner to victory in November.
His opponent, Democratic Congressman Jim Davis, though, doesn't let a campaign appearance go by without at least one mention of the unpopular annual tests.
Representative JIM DAVIS (Democrat, Florida; Gubernatorial Candidate): I think we need to end the use of the FCAT as a political weapon against our teachers, schools and our children. It needs to be used instead as a diagnostic learning tool, a roadmap or a check-up.
ALLEN: Jeb Bush received some educational setbacks. He fought and lost a battle to stop a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes. He also fought and lost a battle to put vouchers into the state constitution. That leaves as his educational legacy the tough annual assessments. And their future now hangs on who wins the race to become his successor in November.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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