Garrison Keillor Would Love the Department of Education's Florida

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: December 6, 2013 3:55 AM
I Beg to Differ

It must be nice living in Florida's version of Lake Wobegon, home of the Florida Department of Education ... where all the administrators are strong, the students are good looking and the teachers are above average.

Yes, that's what they tell us -- all the teachers are above average. It's a wonderful story.

Lake Wobegon, a creation of Midwestern storyteller Garrison Keillor, is pure, engaging fiction.

But so is the DOE's teacher evaluation report, released earlier this week. The story line: A whopping 97.9 percent of Florida's teachers are rated "effective" or "highly effective" in the classroom for the 2012-13 year.

Only 2 percent are duds.

Wow! There isn't a Fortune 500 company that could boast such a rate. In our own Lake Wobegon, out there on the edge of the prairie, Florida must have the greatest school system in the world!

And there's a subplot: School administrators and non-classroom instructional personnel do even better than teachers -- 97.1 percent and 98.8 percent respectively are ranked effective or highly effective.

The report is an embarrassment. As nonfiction, it's meaningless. In one soft-hearted school district, I've been told, all a teacher had to do to stay out of the dreaded 2 percent was show up. 

Every district evaluates teachers based on its own criteria. In Jefferson County, not a single dud. In Leon County, 89 percent of teachers are rated as highly effective -- that's the highest rating possible. Meanwhile, there are no highly effective teachers in Collier County. Not a one.

Parents are confused. In Escambia County, for instance, where 95.3 percent of teachers received one of the top two rankings, they can't understand why the teaching is so good if five of the district's schools received an F-grade?

Certainly the guidelines for teacher evaluations sound simple enough: 50 percent of the evaluation is based on a formula called the Value Added Model. It predicts how students should score on the state’s standardized exam -- the FCAT -- and rates teachers based on how well their students measured up to the predicted FCAT score. The other 50 percent comes from observations by school principals.

The DOE accounts for the district-to-district disparity by explaining that state law only provides "a framework" for conducting the evaluations. Districts have a lot of leeway in deciding into which of the four categories a teacher falls.

Evaluations are a big deal for teachers. By 2014, they will determine how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. The first bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in 2013, SB 736, rewrote how they're paid and retained across the state.

The push for Common Core standardization to evaluate students has my vote. I'm all for clear, higher, benchmarked results for students. But perhaps it's time to insist on the same for our K-12 teachers. They deserve better. I certainly don't blame them for creating Lake Wobegon. I have a feeling the wildly optimistic "highly effective" and "effective" numbers, are disappointing even to them. How can they really know how they measure up? Or, is the unionized districts' intent just to help teachers keep their jobs?

The release of teacher evaluation numbers -- coming as it did almost simultaneously with results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) -- is powerful proof that Florida education, and probably most of the K-12 education in America, operates in ineffective chaos. PISA, which compares 15-year-olds from developed countries across the globe in math, science and reading, shows how erratic our education system is and how behind other nations we are. U.S. teenagers are now ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong are leading the pack, while countries like Poland and Ireland overtook us for the first time.

School districts have to do better for our students, for our teachers. There has to be more parity in teacher evaluations. The whole process needs restructuring, with more coursework required of school principals and other administrators to produce a meaningful evaluation.

Garrison Keillor frequently characterized Lake Wobegon as "the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve." Floridians have higher expectations of their Department of Education.

In the meantime, the less said about teacher-effectiveness ratings in Florida, the better. These were a complete waste of time.  

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. 

Comments (5)

2:58PM DEC 7TH 2013
Ms. Smith, I read your piece on Common Core. es higher standards are good, when they drive the goals. In this case it is nothing but a real disctraction. The Race To The Top Grants, voted and accepted by Florida Legislators in violation of their oath of office only transferred complete sovereignty over education decisions to the Federal Government. The aregument over CCSS is a distraction. This is the prime example of it and what is truly wrong with public education.

No one in the supply chain is accountable anymore. The scroing metrics just do not apply to those charged with delivering the results and thuge Education Industril Complex has become what Eisenhower warned us about.

The entire manner in which the CCSS and Race To the Top have been executed was for no other reaspon tohan to have a coup to remove any remaining sovereignty the states and School Baords and most importantly...parents had over their children's lives. This is a every bit the equivalent of the betrayal by Obama of Israel. All the Legislators who refuse to look, and who voted for this entire debacle must be de-elected.

Parents...if you are unwilling to pay attention to politics and self interest then you are equally complicit. If you are not political, then do not claim you have your children's best interest at heart. You might as well let kidnappers take them from you. At least then you do not have to pay for their upkeep.

If you will not protect them from ALL evil, even when packaged so adroitly, you have failed them.
12:09AM DEC 8TH 2013
Well Said RC
3:53PM DEC 6TH 2013
One wonders how federal control through "Common Core" would possibly increase efficiency, results, safeguard privacy, lower costs, reward innovation, etc.
Particularly when federalism is intended to keep education close to parents, and to government closest to the people (state and local).
1:56PM DEC 6TH 2013
we do not have enough detail. evaluations always tend to be overstated, same as students grades in our new Great Society. when everyone "walks on water", in reality, no one does. teachers have been protected by unions for years, and that is the major reason American school perform worse and worse, as time goes by.

Keep this up and you better learn Chinese, as they will some day be your masters, and i do not think you are going to like it much.
Lois Vaughn Watkins
11:20AM DEC 6TH 2013
I understand the need for changes to be made in the education system but Common Core is not it. Nancy, see it for what that is...PROPAGANDA not EDUCATION! I agree with most everything I read from you but this one NO WAY.

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