An Education Worth Fighting For

zU6fwmDaSVWZdCXcZfot_IMG_3838 I’m a Floridian.  The Sunshine State has been my home for nearly 25 years.  And while I freely admit there are times I’ve taken it for granted, Florida is a wonderful place to call home.

For its many desirable qualities, Florida is not without blemish.  We don’t experience much change of seasons, our roadways require masterful defensive driving skills from October through March, and I’m told the humidity has a way of making hair completely unmanageable.

But, this isn’t so much a story about Florida as it is a story about education.  An education worth fighting for.

As students return to school, it’s a chance to peek at the past with an eye on the present.  Because the landscape of American education is fraught with differing opinions on the best way forward.

For my money, any meaningful conversation about education begins and ends with teachers.  You can think tank and policy debate all you want, but….teachers!  Show me a good school and I’ll show you good teachers.  Show me a bad school and I’ll show you bad teachers.  That may seem an oversimplification, but it isn’t.

As with other professions, compensation has a lot to do with attracting talent.  The way someone is paid is an indication of how they are valued.

Here’s where Florida comes into view.  Only seven other states pay their public school teachers less.  When compared to the national average, Florida’s teachers make nearly $9,500 less each year than their domestic counterparts.

Sure, there’s no state income tax.  The cost of living is higher in other places as well.  But, does that even matter?  How can an epicenter of tourism and lavish lifestyles pay its educators less than roughly 85% of other states?

To try and make sense of these questions, it helps to gain a better understanding of how public schools are financed.  While tax dollars represent a substantial portion of public school funding, there are other sources as well.

Take the lottery for instance.  Lotteries were illegal in the United States until 1964, but today they’re available in most states.  So, how did legalized gambling gain acceptance in the United States – particularly in the Bible Belt?  Why, give some of the proceeds to education, of course!

Over time, the lottery has emerged as a revenue source for many states’ public schools.  A significant number use some funds toward education.  It goes without saying that lotteries do not exist to support education alone.  44 states maintain lotteries across the country, and all 44 use the majority of funds for prize winnings.

Florida’s department of education derives financial support from its lottery.  For most of the 1990s, Florida’s public schools received over two-thirds of the state’s lottery-based education funding.  Over the past decade, Florida has changed course and appropriated a considerable amount of that support to higher education.  Since 2005-2006, public schools have typically seen less than 50% of lottery-based education dollars.

New York devotes 100% of its lottery-based education funds to public schools.  As do Virginia, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois, and others.  Among the five most populated states in the nation (California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois), all but Florida direct better than 80% of lottery-based education monies to public schools.  Given that Florida is home to five of the ten largest school districts in the contiguous United States, this is no small matter.

Last year alone, Texas contributed over $1.2 billion dollars to public schools.  Florida contributed a little less than $872 million during the same period – no small amount.  Using the Texas model, Florida’s public schools would have received over $1.7 billion.  For school districts unable to offer teacher raises, might that tip the scales?  I think so.

To be fair, Florida is not alone in its approach.  South Carolina allocates a far greater amount of its lottery dollars to higher education than to public schools.  This philosophy, however, is the exception rather than the rule.  Many states prioritize public school funding.  And for good reason.

Minors are subject to compulsory education in the United States.  Fifth graders may not quit school on a whim to begin working on the family farm.  If I were forced to choose between great elementary teachers or great college professors for my child, I’d take the elementary teachers in a heartbeat.  The foundation a child receives in their formative years has huge repercussions for their future.

Improving college accessibility and affordability is needed.  But how accessible can higher education truly be if students are underprepared when it’s time to go there?

There are numerous examples of America’s varying degree of educational quality.  Lessons can be found in documentaries, collaborative studies, and in demonstrations of how other countries educate their youth.

Many children have been left behind, and despite the best of intentions, one thing is perfectly clear: if we expect more from our students, we must treat the teaching profession with greater esteem.

There are two “simple” steps which would go a long way in improving America’s schools: more rigorous teacher training and better compensation.  These aren’t new ideas.  But they require a yet-to-be-realized intentional commitment.

So, what does it take to become a teacher?  Teacher certification standards vary from state to state.  To be eligible for initial teacher certification in Florida, one must meet the following requirements:

  • Fill out an application
  • Hold a bachelor’s degree
  • Earn a passing score (generally 70% or better) on the Florida Teacher Certification Examination (FTCE)

That’s it – which is cause for concern on several fronts.

The FTCE is a subject test taken in one sitting.  Someone with a sport management degree who is good with numbers could pass this 150 minute test and qualify to be a math teacher in Florida.  This person wouldn’t have been trained in classroom management, child/adolescent development, differentiating instruction or any other best practice.

To say nothing of critical/higher level thinking, how can we expect students to demonstrate consistently greater proficiency in reading, writing, math and science unless their teachers have been adequately trained?

College students entering honor programs go through a screening process.  Aspiring attorneys must achieve acceptable LSAT scores.  Medical schools examine MCAT performance.  If we are to improve teacher preparation, should American colleges not consider similar practices for future educators?  Other countries do.

Am I saying public school teachers are categorically inferior? No, I am not.  I know many outstanding public school educators.  They are passionate and talented individuals who are a credit to the profession.

Florida’s issues are really just symptomatic of our nation as a whole.  While every state’s challenges are unique, they persist en masse.

The truth is, there are regions, states, and neighborhoods that educate better than others.  Inequality is real, and that needs to change.  44 states have adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in an effort to regulate what students learn from Albany to Phoenix.  Only time will reveal Common Core’s effectiveness.

Standards are only as good as those they’ve been entrusted to.  Teachers need support.  Let’s provide better training to aspiring educators through mentoring and apprenticeship.  Let’s improve take home pay.  If New York City can raise minimum wage to $15/hour, we can find a way to pay teachers more.  And let’s empower those already in the classroom with the right tools and research-based professional development.

What a sight that would be.

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_G_Holland and http://www.timhollandonline.com 

Recommended Reading:

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works by Elizabeth Green

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