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Education leaders study Florida A-F system

Kenny Kemp
Former Gov. Gaston Caperton leads a panel discussion, including West Virginia Board of Education President Gayle Manchin (third from left) and state school board member Lloyd Jackson (center) at a state education seminar held on Tuesday.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State education leaders are exploring Florida's school accountability model, which assigns individual schools grades of A through F and is based primarily on student performance.Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, members of the West Virginia Board of Education and other education and business leaders heard from Florida officials about the state's controversial education reform model during Tuesday's seminar, hosted by the Education Alliance in Charleston.Florida's A-F system, first instituted by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, has been imitated by several states across the country, but has received criticism in recent years about what letter grades actually mean when it comes to student achievement.In Florida, standardized test scores have remained steady, and in some cases improved, but schools with F grades are currently at a record high, according to the Florida Department of Education.While Florida education leaders say the system has "raised the bar" for teachers and gives the public more transparency, opponents say the system is too punitive, as schools with a history of failing grades can be closed or forced to hire new teachers, and has been tweaked so much that annual comparisons are now ineffective.Tomblin said the purpose of Tuesday's statewide "Excellence in Education: It's Everyone's Business" seminar was to examine both the positives and negatives of Florida's system while looking for new ways to improve West Virginia's."Over the years I think we've tried to be nice about the way we call schools impaired. ... We have different names for it, which doesn't really mean a lot to the community or parents. But we all understand what A through F means," Tomblin said. "It's a simple approach -- it's easier for the community. I think it's getting back to the basics and setting goals for our schools and making sure schools obtain those goals."West Virginia received a waiver to relieve schools of federal rules tied to No Child Left Behind earlier this year, paving the way for Common Core-aligned standards and a new accountability system that designates schools as one of five categories ranging from "priority" schools to "success" schools. West Virginia's new accountability system rates schools based mostly on math and reading test scores, while also factoring in attendance and graduation rates, growth among individual students and achievement gaps between high- and low-performing students.While the state's new system was introduced in May, state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin said, "It's not written in stone yet.""We may tweak it ... but I think that's the reason days like today are so important. It's not something we're going to put on the shelf after today's over and say, 'Boy, that was a great meeting, we had a good turnout. It's about actually looking at action -- where do we go from here? How do we make these things happen?" Manchin said. "We certainly have been looking at [Florida's] plan. ... We see them as a good model. We believe that we are headed in the right direction and we certainly believe that accountability is very important."Some people in attendance on Tuesday -- including leaders of both of West Virginia's teachers unions -- are opposed to some other aspects of Florida's accountability system when it comes to teacher accountability for student performance.
The Florida Department of Education has instituted multiple routes to teacher certification. Those include requiring colleges to offer an education minor, allowing out-of-state certifications and offering an adjunct program that allows professionals to teach some public school courses.The state of Florida has also revamped teacher evaluations to expand the spectrum to more than just "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" and ties student achievement data to evaluations.In addition, teachers are now hired on annual contracts, and student performance plays a role in potential layoffs and compensation.
"Changing this was not easy. Was it controversial? Yes," said Mary Laura Bragg, national director for policy and implementation for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has overseen Florida's education programs and is run by Jeb Bush. "But I'm a teacher ... and we all know who the worst teachers are in the school because we complain about them. We don't want our children to have them."We are a very protective group. We want to be treated professionally -- we clamor for it, we demand it -- but then we don't want it to change when it might impact us."Bragg said that while Florida's journey has not been easy, West Virginia is on the right path."This was a hard-fought battle. Implementation of this was not easy, and it is definitely ongoing. But teachers are already at the table and you've got community leaders, business leaders, state policymakers," Bragg said. "With the momentum that you already have and the things that are already happening in West Virginia, you have such a great opportunity to shape this."Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814. 
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