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Fla. Panel Balances Accountability, Local Flexibility

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TALLAHASSEE, FLA.--A Florida panel last week took a significant step in the state's shift to an outcome-based education system by reaching a compromise on the knotty issue of holding schools accountable for meeting state outcomes while preserving local flexibility.

Meeting here last week, the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability agreed in principle to a set of indicators that would measure schools' progress toward seven goals established by a 1991 reform law.

But the 23-member panel also agreed that, while schools must consider such indicators in developing improvement plans required by the law to be prepared by June, they do not necessarily have to focus their plans on the measures on which they fall short. They would be required, however, to explain their decisions to the local school board and the state commissioner of education.

Panel members also suggested creating "charter'' schools that could develop their own methods of assessing progress toward state standards.

Commissioner of Education Betty Castor, a co-chairwoman of the accountability commission, said the plan approved last week--which is slated to be presented in final form to the state board of education for approval in January--represents a "critical juncture'' in the commission's deliberations.

"On the one hand, educators think they should be free to develop individual [school] plans with very little oversight,'' she said. "On the other hand, the public and the business community want to know what's in those plans.''

"I think we reached a merging of those two'' points of view, she added.

Goals, Not Regulations

The 1991 reform law that called for the creation of an outcome-based system made Florida one of a handful of states that is moving to strip schools of most regulations, such as course requirements, and requiring them instead to meet standards for performance.

In Oklahoma, which in 1990 mandated a shift to outcomes-based education, 44 schools are piloting such a system, which will be implemented statewide next year.

And in Pennsylvania, another state making a similar shift, the state board of education last week--at Gov. Robert P. Casey's request--put off for the second time a vote on "learning outcomes,'' or the skills and knowledge students are expected to attain in order to graduate from high school. (See story, this page.)

Here in Florida, the 1991 law, known as Blueprint 2000, established seven goals--ranging from insuring that all students enter school ready to learn to enabling all adults to be literate--and shifted responsibility to schools to meet them.

The law also created the accountability commission and charged it with developing performance standards for indicating state, school district, and school progress toward meeting the goals; methods for measuring progress; methods for rewarding schools that make adequate progress; and "actions'' for schools that fail to improve after three years.

Last month, the state board of education approved the commission's recommendations to create 22 standards for student and school performance. The heart of the system, according to commission members, are the 10 standards that outline what all students should know and be able to do.

'Safety Net'

Commission members noted that the state education department is currently developing new assessments that will gauge student performance against the standards.

But they also pointed out that such assessments will not be in place until late in the decade, while schools must begin this spring to develop improvement plans. The commission met here last week to recommend to the state board the existing assessments schools should use to measure progress, as well as levels of performance that would constitute "adequate progress'' toward the standards.

Walter J. McCarroll, the deputy commissioner of education, said the existing assessments could serve as a "safety net'' to insure that schools strive toward the standards during the transition to the new system.

"We're like a trapeze artist between two rings,'' he said. "If he misses the ring, there has to be a safety net.''

Several members of the panel, however, cautioned that a state report outlining measures of adequate progress toward the standards could hamstring schools at a time when the legislation encouraged them to be innovative.

"If we provide the data, what in essence we've done is write the school-improvement plan for every school in the state,'' said Doug Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas County Education Association. "That ignores the individual needs of particular schools.''

For example, he said, a school might want to focus its improvement plan on reducing violence even though its test scores fell below the level of "adequate progress.''

Lieut. Gov. Buddy MacKay, a co-chairman of the commission, said the burden should be on local schools to determine how they assess progress. He also urged that the commission recommend the creation of "charter'' schools, similar to those already authorized in California and Minnesota, that could negotiate with school boards to form their own programs.

"We've got to be heading in this direction if we take the law seriously,'' Mr. MacKay said.

But Ms. Castor and others warned against ceding all authority for state oversight.

'Trust, But Verify'

Not all school boards are in a position to insure that schools are aiming toward the standards, Rep. Douglas L. Jamerson argued.

"In rural areas, we've got school boards who don't think kids should do anything but pick vegetables,'' Representative Jamerson said.

"I want to give them freedom,'' he added. "I will trust, but we're going to verify.''

In a compromise, the panel agreed to compile a report that would "flag'' each school's performance on a range of indicators, such as graduation rates and scores on a statewide writing test, compared with an "expectancy level,'' or state standard.

But they said that schools could negotiate with school boards in writing their improvement plans, and could ask to be allowed not to include in the plan actions related to standards on which they fell below expectancy levels. Such plans would have to be approved by the commissioner of education, however.

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