By: Joshua Izaak, Democratic Candidate for State Representative District 81
After interviewing Mr. Izaak this week and hearing his passion for education, we asked him to write an article on the topic. We invite any and all other candidates for this office and any other relevant office to submit a response.
The current education system in Florida is fatally flawed. It is restricting the development of students, and constraining teachers from reaching their full potential. I have experienced every level of the Florida education system since moving to Florida in 1998, and have seen firsthand its detrimental effects in the classroom. The only solution to this systemic problem is a comprehensive reform package that addresses the major factors inhibiting student growth. As your Representative I will fight for these reforms because we need do better than the status quo. The first step is to replace the current state testing regime with a curriculum based approach.
Reforming Standardized Testing
I moved to Florida just as the FCAT was being implemented, and took the test every year from 4th-10th grade. I attended Waters Edge, Loggers’ Run, and both Olympic Heights and West Boca High Schools. The tragedy of the FCAT is that it pigeonholes students into learning how to take a test, rather than allowing students to learn how to think critically, and learn the actual curriculum that should be taught in the classroom. The FCAT also forces teachers to teach to the test, rather than allow them to craft creative lesson plans and techniques tailored to their students’ specific needs.
Unfortunately, the state of Florida couples school funding with standardized test results. Schools get more funding if the students do well on the test. This puts tremendous strain on teachers to spend the majority of their class time administering practice tests, rather than focusing on the actual curriculum that should be covered in the individual class.
Florida has begun to administer certain subject based tests to high school students and will transition to the common core standards in the 2014-2015 school year. While this is a well-intentioned attempt to move away from the traditional FCAT, it does not solve the problems inherent in the system. First, students are prevented from graduating if they fail the exam. This puts tremendous pressure on students, which only increases their chances of not performing at their optimal level on the exam. It also creates an incentive for schools to provide fewer resources to courses that do not have a state testing component. For example, Algebra and Geometry are two of the subjects tested. School funding, teacher pay, and a student’s ability to graduate are all attached to a student’s performance on these exams.
Therefore, schools place the most resources, and the highest skilled teachers in those subjects. However, this is at the expense of those higher level math classes such as Trigonometry and Calculus that do not currently have a state subject test. As a result, higher achieving students may not be provided with all the resources they deserve because their performance in those classes have little to no effect on a school’s revenue stream.
I have a proposed solution. It is only an idea, and not something I am wedded to, or anything set in stone. It is common practice to evaluate students based on standardized criteria, and the pushback I receive is that by eliminating all standardized testing we will remove accountability from the system. Therefore, I have a compromise that will still require a system of testing, but would also improve students’ potential for success.
We must move away from the aptitude tests, and instead shift to curriculum based tests similar to the national AP tests. I took 13 AP classes in high school, and therefore feel that I am able to accurately comment on this issue. The reason I believe I received a better education in AP classes is because AP classes are curriculum oriented. Teachers are provided with a textbook, and instructed to teach their students the information found in the textbook.
At the end of the year students must take a comprehensive exam on the information found in the textbook. There are no tricks to taking the test beyond simply learning the material. This also allows teachers to be creative in their approach, and provides them freedom to craft lesson plans that will be most effective in teaching their students.
Currently, students do not take standardized tests at the end of the school year. When I took the FCAT, it was administered around March. The curriculum based evaluations would be administered at the end of the second semester. Each class would have a separate end of the year evaluation.
Instead of these tests being the determining factor regarding graduation as is the case with the current system, the new evaluations will function more as a “final exam” and only count as a portion of the student’s semester grade. Currently, a high school student’s semester grade is comprised of the weighted average among the student’s two quarter grades and their semester exam grade. The quarter grades are each weighted 40% and the final exam is weighted 20%. Under my plan, the evaluation will substitute for the 20% final grade.
Therefore, if students have been doing well throughout the year but happen to have a bad test result they won’t be at risk of failing the entire class. Only if a student has been consistently performing poorly, coupled with a poor performance on the final, will their grade average be low enough to result in a failing grade in the class. This maintains accountability in the system while not ruining a student’s future graduation prospects simply as a result of one grade on one examination.
I realize this plan is not perfect, but I believe it is a step in starting a dialogue for improving our current system. I welcome any input in improving my plan, or even providing a plan of your own that you feel improves our education system.
Not only do we need to foster creativity among teachers and students in academic settings, but we should be providing avenues for students to pursue creativity through the arts. Florida should continue to fund and increase funding for the arts in schools. Fostering creativity has been shown to improve a person’s IQ, as well as cultivate interpersonal and communication skills. Growing a student’s ability to think critically and creatively will pay dividends when these students enter the workforce and have to work collaboratively in business teams, or are tasked with finding solutions to complex world problems. We can never be sure who will become the next great entrepreneur, starting companies like Apple or Google, and it is through cognitive creative stimulation in the arts that these individuals will have the foundation to create the world of the future.
Incentivize Individuals to Become Teachers, Improve Educational Degree Programs, and Foster Growth and Improvement for Current Teachers
I want to create an education system that works to incentivize individuals to enter teaching, improve the educational degree programs in our state colleges, and foster growth and professional development for teachers.
We must continue to increase teacher salary. Teachers are vastly under-compensated considering the responsibility they have to ensure generations of children have the knowledge necessary to succeed.
We must increase the incentives for individuals to become teachers, so that more of Florida’s best and brightest enter the teaching profession. One example would be to provide a college loan forgiveness program for those individuals who become teachers, and who work as teachers for ten years.
We must improve the undergraduate educational degree programs. Currently, many education degrees at universities are considered inadequate. The degree programs at universities do not train students how to be effective educators, and do not challenge the students in their curriculum. This shortchanges future teachers, as well as the children they teach. We need to work with the top teachers in this state, and partner with university administrators to rework the education degree curricula in universities to adequately prepare graduates to teach.
Once teachers receive the degree, schools should continue to foster staff development. We should transform Teacher Work Days into days focused on continuing education opportunities for educators. Schools will provide teachers with workshops and seminars on new and developing techniques to engage students in the classroom. This would increase teacher accountability because they will be given the tools, resources, and guidance to succeed. Schools can better identify teachers who are under-performing and tailor learning opportunities to help them excel in the classroom.
Continue to Fund Bright Futures and Provide Greater Access to Higher Education
As a recent college and law school graduate, I understand the burden the cost of higher education can be on students. The Bright Futures program is a great way to reduce the cost of in-state tuition. However, recent changes made by the Florida Legislature to minimum requirements will reduce the number of incoming freshmen who receive Bright Futures by approximately half. These changes hurt those students who need the greatest help- middle class, poor, and minority students. We should be encouraging and incentivizing all of our students to receive secondary education. It is imperative that we invest in our students today to ensure the viability of the state of Florida in the future. When elected, I will fight to reduce the cost of higher education as well as increase financial aid to students.