By: Shan Goff
Florida Policy Director
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Last month, the Florida State Board of Education met to discuss and approve turnaround plans for 46 elementary, middle and high schools with failing school grades.* More than 14 local superintendents and district leaders appeared before the board to present detailed plans to improve student academic achievement for each failing school in their district.
While many may have expected these presentations to amount to a “check the box” exercise, the exchanges between presenters and board members proved otherwise. State Board members were appropriately tough on each plan, asking rigorous questions to determine whether the new approach detailed in the plan was the best path to improvement.
Florida’s Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart, who is a former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent for instruction, set the tone early in the two-day meeting with remarks aimed at helping the state’s most fragile students receive a quality education. “The adults in the system are going to take care of themselves. We need to focus on the students,” said Commissioner Stewart.
Board members echoed this sentiment and challenged each superintendent to explain what challenges face each school and how each turnaround plan would address those challenges, ultimately leading to improved learning for the 27,000 students residing in those schools.
Thankfully Florida’s 2015-2016 school grades, which were released earlier this summer, showed a significant reduction in the number of schools earning a “D” and “F” during the previous school year.
While there is no magic formula for turning around underperforming school, if you don’t understand the problem there’s little chance you’ll be able to fix it. “I cannot approve in good faith a plan unless you have absolutely understood what the problem was,” said board member Rebecca Fishman-Lipsey to a district leader.
That’s why it’s imperative for school and district leaders to understand what specific obstacles stand in the way of better school performance and to set expected outcome measurements. During the meeting, other board members also cited that improving student proficiency rates would take more than just hiring an external partner or adding external resources. What it takes is a paradigm shift and acknowledgement that every child can learn when matched with effective educators and the appropriate environment.
Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was the first leader to address the board and was able to highlight his district’s success in cutting in half the number of schools that earned a “D” or “F” grade during the 2014-15 school year. “The most effective way of turning around schools is having effective teachers and leaders,” Superintendent Carvalho told the board.
Other superintendents echoed the need for great teachers in underperforming schools to improve outcomes. “We must hire the most talented teachers and place them in front of our struggling students,” said Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools Dr. Michael Grego.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins from Hillsborough County Public Schools shared with the board his firsthand experience as principal of a turnaround school, stressing that turning around schools must be done with “great intentionality” and “clear understanding.”
Florida has raised student achievement significantly during the past decade, but there are still pockets of underperformance where students don’t receive the quality education they need to succeed outside the classroom. I hope you will join me in commending the State Board of Education, Commissioner Stewart and Florida’s district leaders for taking deliberate and bold steps to address the needs of our state’s most fragile students and continuing to identify problems and implement solutions.
*A school with an F or two consecutive Ds, or a school that did not improve to at least a C after planning and implementing years (section 1008.33, Florida Statutes and Rule 6A-1.099881, Florida Administrative Code).