Christie commentary: Teachers look to state leaders to boost education

Updated Sept 03, 2018
For school district like Palm Beach County, this election year appears different, as a number of education-related issues seem to have come to a head. For example, embarrassingly low pay has contributed to public schoolteacher shortages in districts around the state.

It should surprise no one that this election season, public school education has emerged as the top issue for many of Florida’s political candidates — including governor.

Indeed, how billions in education dollars are spent is a perennial issue for Florida lawmakers. But this year is different, as a number of education-related issues seem to have come to a head. For example, embarrassingly low pay has contributed to public schoolteacher shortages in districts around the state. And the security of our public school campuses promises to be front-and-center again in the next legislative session.

How funding for these and other issues will be prioritized is what’s at stake, according to Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall. The head of the state’s 140,000-plus teachers union recently sat with the Post Editorial Board to talk about education issues and priorities.

As things kick in for the Nov. 6 general election, McCall said it is important for Democrats to take the governor’s mansion and 18 seats in the Senate. Because, as she made clear to the editorial board, what matters is “who’s pressing the buttons in Tallahassee.”

McCall, in her fourth year as FEA president, answered five specific questions for the Post:

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Q: You claim that Florida has a shortage of teachers, with 4,000 open positions advertised statewide as of early August. What’s the reason for this, and what does it mean for schools and students?

A: I wish I could say there’s one reason for the teacher shortage, but there are many reasons why Florida can’t find and keep enough trained, effective teachers.

There’s pay: We rank near the bottom nationally for average teacher salary, at 45th according to the National Education Association. Too many of our teachers and education staff professionals need a second job to get by. We don’t have good statistics for Florida, but nationwide the U.S. Department of Education finds that one in five teachers work second jobs.

The FEA advocates raising salaries for both teachers and education staff to the national average by state fiscal year 2023.

Florida also faces a lack of resources and funding for public schools. We keep hearing the economy is getting better, but you couldn’t prove it in our classrooms. Our education funding never completely recovered from the Great Recession. Adjusted for inflation, the K-12 education budget hasn’t topped the levels it reached in 2007-2008. In the most recent legislative session, “historic” funding for public education worked out to an average increase of 47 cents per student.

Besides pay and funding, there’s a grab bag of other reasons we don’t have enough teachers — our state’s lack of respect for educators’ professional judgment in student testing and instruction, the absence of any reasonable assurance that a teacher with a good evaluation will be allowed to stay on the job, the use of questionable algorithms in evaluating educators, Florida’s teacher certification process, students’ attitudes toward the career. The list goes on.

As for what a shortage means for students, I think we can all remember teachers who made a difference in our lives. Those teachers likely were not substitutes holding down the fort until a regular teacher was hired. More likely, they were trained, professional educators who dedicated their careers to helping students learn and improving young lives, research suggests that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other factor in our schools. Providing a quality education for students requires a stable learning environment with effective teachers leading classrooms. When schools can’t find enough regular teachers and teachers constantly come and go, there’s instability in classrooms and in what’s taught.

School districts and schools also pay a price for shortages and for problems with retention. Administrators have to invest time and resources in hiring and training new teachers, and school communities suffer from an unstable workforce — just like at a company where turnover is too high.

Q: What is the impact of low pay in a place like Palm Beach County?

A: Again, low pay plays into difficulties with finding and keeping teachers. It means that many teachers who are hired may need a second job to pay their bills, it means that they may have serious problems finding housing they can afford, and it may eventually mean that they are not able to stay in the profession, no matter how much they love teaching.

Q: Many teachers are failing the general-knowledge portion of the state’s certification test and finding themselves unable to work. What’s going on?

A: We’d also like to know what’s going on, and we supported legislation last session that called for an independent task force to ensure the validity of the test. That legislation was not successful, so we still don’t have enough information.

What we do know is that the requirements for passing the “general knowledge” test were changed in 2015 and that passing rates plummeted. Since the change, more teachers rated as “effective” or “highly effective” have not been able to pass and are not allowed to keep teaching. This summer around 1,000 teachers were not renewed. Meanwhile, we have a shortage of teachers.

The FEA would like to find out if the new requirements accurately reflect the current demands of a beginning classroom teacher.

Q: The public wants accountability in education, but at the same time, parents, students and teachers all think there’s far too much emphasis on testing. What’s the answer?

A: There must be accountability in schools, but Florida depends too much on high-stakes testing that can put enormous weight on a single day’s assessment. Parents are right to ask whether children are spending their days learning valuable information and life skills, or are they learning how to pass a test?

Successful private schools advertise smaller classes, well-prepared teachers and no high-stakes tests. They emphasize nurturing students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, flexibility in instructional methods, and soft skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and critical thinking.

In our public schools, there should be multiple measures of student progress and a change in thinking that focuses on improvement for students and not on punishment for schools.

If public schools shifted toward diagnostic, beginning-of-the-year tests that are used to guide instruction, our students would be far better off. Freed from “teaching to the test,” teachers could concentrate more on truly educating students, on teaching them information and skills that society values. Being great at multiple choice tests is not what we value most in people, so why should we place such emphasis on it in schools?

Q: Florida ranks 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending. How can we do better?

A: Improving Florida’s commitment to per-student spending is easy – make providing for our public schools the paramount duty that our state Constitution demands.

Florida has the means to improve education funding. The third-largest state in the nation, we have a good economy and stable revenue. We can make education funding a priority and still meet the other critical demands of a growing state. There are plenty of places to look for money in our $89 billion budget.

What seems to be lacking is the will. Our elected lawmakers must step up to fulfill their constitutional duty to provide for quality public education for all of our students.

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If duty won’t motivate legislators, they should listen to the people. In a recent national PDK Poll, Americans identified a lack of funding as the biggest problem facing our schools, and they have said so for the past 17 years in a row. State polls show the same sentiments. Our citizens want public schools funded.