On Tuesday Aug. 10, 2021 during the Regular School Board meeting, the issue of Equity in Education teacher training was once again a subject brought up by concerned citizens. About a dozen citizens expressed concerns with the Equity in Education teacher training program (called ‘Unconscious Bias’) where Franklin Covey’s “The Impact Journey: Equity in Education,” has been used as a manual. They also expressed concerns about the Equal Opportunity Schools program that aims to bring lower performing students into Advanced Placement classes, questioning how lower performing students could be brought into the classroom without hurting the students that worked hard to be there or how they could keep up. Questions were also raised as to the effectiveness of targeting an older age group of students rather than investing those dollars into programs that build stronger foundations in younger grades.
Citizens have been concerned about this teacher training because it could possibly be an unlocked “backdoor” for critical race theory to enter the schools. Citizens objected to several teaching techniques recommended by the manual such as rejecting colorblindness and meritocracy.
The manual defines meritocracy as, “the belief that our social system is the one in which success and status in life depend primarily on an individual’s talents, abilities, and effort- that people advance on the basis of their merit.”
However, according to the book, the impact of this thought process is that:
“Only a narrow gauge of intelligence is honored.”
“It undermines growth mindsets, collaborative instructional practices, and emotional belonging.”
According to the manual, “Color-blindness is the misguided belief that moving past racial discrimination means ‘just seeing people as people.’ This allows the dominant race to ignore the ongoing inequalities, racism, and adversity minoritized races experience.”
The book defines minoritized in the following way:
“Minoritized is a verb. It refers to mistreatment and prejudice resulting from situations outside one’s control. People who are minoritized have less power or representation than members of other groups in their society.”
Many of the citizens who spoke found the ideas put forward in this training to be the antithesis of what creates achievement. By focusing on victimhood and discounting meritocracy the training could lead to a decrease in achievement.
Citizens’ comments were regulated by the Board chairman Linda Prescott as she called each person to the podium for their allotted three minutes of time to speak. Several citizens who spoke in favor of the Equity in Education teacher training were called to speak near the end of the meeting. Some of these individuals stated that those with opposite views had “drunk the kool aid” and are politically motivated.
Kathleen Gates, a retired teacher and former union rep described these concerned citizens as part of a national movement to disrupt school districts and school boards and worried that this has the potential to turn into a witch hunt on teachers.
Jerry Melby from Brooksville took a unifying approach with a takeaway that supported the school district’s efforts.
“Critical race theory employs the same paradigm shift of cultural division in their use and definitions of terms like the cultural dominant race and the minority races depicted as the oppressors, and the oppressed. Slavery ended in our nation because of our paradigm of equality. Martin Luther King Jr, civil rights achievements in the 60s were based upon that paradigm, along with those absolute truths of Jesus’ teachings applicable to peaceful demonstrations, thus some terminologies being discussed and generating concerns in our community which often are included in some CRT discussions, deeply aroused my concerns as well. And after considerable personal research, my concerns were relieved yesterday through my meeting and discussion with Mrs. Prescott, Mrs. Michalicka and her team for which I’m very grateful to them for their time and efforts.” Melby urged the district to address community concerns on a wide scale with testimony from parents and teachers.”
Superintendent Stratton addressed the issue by explaining what equity means to the school district.
“When we start talking about equity, to us in education, it means awareness. Every one of us has equal access to an education but not every one of us walks in here on equal footing. That’s what it means. I need to understand your background to really get to know you…
“What it means to us, where it came from, and why we’re having these conversations, the federal government as somebody described up here, identifies subgroups: Black, Hispanic, Speakers of second language, All of those that we mentioned, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities. We have an obligation for the federal government and the state government that we have to close what’s called an achievement gap.
“They measure those against the White group, and if they’re underperforming; any of these subgroups are underperforming, we have an obligation to close the gap. At the federal/state level, this has been around for years, guys. This is not new; this has been around for years through many different administrations at the federal level.
As a side note, while school districts have been charged with closing the achievement gap since the 1980s, the particular program in question through EOS schools was approved in June 2019 by the school board.
The teacher training program called “Unconscious Bias” was approved for use during the Jan. 26, 2021 school board meeting. It was a new training program associated with Crucial Conversations which the school district has been using for many years.
Stratton questioned why the program is garnering such concern, saying that only 60-100 teachers have taken it at this point and there are 1700 teachers in the district.
“Yes, it’s training we did. With comparatively 1700 instructional staff members, we had 66 to 100, I don’t know, guidance counselors, social workers, and yes some teachers. Teachers that are in the equity task force at each of our schools, because we’re charged with closing the achievement gap.”
He explained that all school districts in Florida are charged with closing the achievement gap by implementing methods to do so.
“I also want to point out there are state statutes 1000.05. I read it to you before. Some of you that were here, I’ll read it again. Public schools, and Florida College Institutions, shall develop and implement methods and strategies to increase the participation of students of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin, general, disability, or marital status and programs in courses in which students of that particular race, that ethnicity and so on, but have been traditionally underrepresented including but not limited to mathematics science, computer technology, electronics, communications and so on. We’re doing what the Florida state statute tells us we have to do.
“I look around the room and what I hear is that it’s been a while since probably many of us in the room have been inside of a classroom. I encourage you to volunteer, encourage you to visit. I encourage you to see the reality of the thousands of incredible lessons that are happening every single day in our classrooms.”
School board members all agreed with Stratton’s comments.
Board member Susan Duval chastised the citizens who voiced their concerns on the matter. “A continual and continuous disruption to our school system is not in the best interest of persons who were speaking tonight. It’s harming us and it’s not the truth. And Mr. Stratton has spoken the truth as he has consistently.”
Board member Gus Guadagnino stated, “I’ve got to tell you something, in the 10 years that I’ve been here, I’ve never been so proud of the superintendent as you just made me with your speech.”
Jimmy Lodato remarked, “If I found that it was being done, I would bring it to the attention immediately because our governor has said it, our board has said it. Our superintendent has said it. I don’t know how many more times we have to say it, but there are people with agendas among us, and their agenda is to stir up the public.”
Kay Hatch stated, “We are in the Hernando County school district most fortunate to have Mr. Stratton as our superintendent and the leadership team that surrounds him. It is a gift for me to serve the students and the teachers and the rest of the staff in the school district with Mr. Stratton. I can’t tell you the kinds of work that I witness educators doing in the classrooms day after day after day. We in this county with our school system, have much to be proud of, and I stand by that, I have stood by it. And unless something profound changes, I will continue to stand by it.”
Board Chairman Linda Prescott stated, “And I think Mr. Melby, you have an excellent idea that along with some of our programs we need to maybe reach out to the public in a better way to explain some of the things that are happening and involve students; involve community members.”
Perspective on the achievement gap
A report published by the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation in 2010 attributes Florida’s significant headway in closing the achievement gap to the broad educational reform adopted by the state in 1999. Reforms included establishing alternative teacher certification, a grading system for schools and school districts, promotion to fourth grade dependent on passing the FCAT, merit pay for teachers and school choice.
Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms by Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., and Lindsey M. Burke states, “After a decade of strong improvement, black students in Florida now outscore or tie the statewide reading average for all students in eight states. Florida’s Hispanic students now outscore or tie the statewide average for all students in 31 states.”
In 2013, Ladner co-authored another report Transformation: What South Carolina Can Learn From Florida’s K-12 Reforms. One section of the report answers the question Why Have Florida’s Disadvantaged Students Advanced So Strongly?
First under private school choice, children with disabilities or low income can receive financial assistance to attend a private school. This benefits those “most poorly served by traditional district schools.”
Next, the elimination of social promotion from third to fourth grade is working to increase academic progress according to a Manhattan Institute study that examined outcomes of retained students versus students who scored low enough on the FCAT but received an exemption and moved to fourth grade. The Manhattan Institute study found that after two years, the retained students made significant gains in comparison to the control group (socially promoted students).
In Florida’s school grading system, the report explains, “Every school has a bottom 25 percent of students. Regardless of why those students have struggled academically, Florida’s grading method will not grant schools a high grade unless those students make progress.” Schools are forced to improve the academics of those lowest performing students in order to receive a high grade. Since 1999, Florida school grades have improved significantly. In 1999, 677 schools received a D or F in Florida, while in 2019, 173 schools received a D or F. There were also fewer schools in 1999. In 2019, 2090 schools received an A or B, while in 1999, 515 received an A or B.
Between 2014 and 2019, Florida has made slow progress in closing the achievement gap in the areas of mathematics and English language arts between Whites/ African Americans; and Non-economically disadvantaged/Economically disadvantaged.
Mathematics State Gap Trend of White and African American
2014-15 to 2018-19 gap closed by 1; Percent of students achieving grade level or above performance increased by five points for Whites and six points for African American students.
ELA State Gap Trend of White and African American
2014-15 to 2018-19 gap closed by 2; Percent of students achieving grade level or above performance increased by three points for Whites and five points for African American students.
Mathematics State Gap Trend of Economically disadvantaged and Non-economically disadvantaged
2014-15 to 2018-19 gap closed by 3; Percent of students achieving grade level or above performance increased by three for Non-economically disadvantaged; increased by six points for economically disadvantaged.
ELA State Gap Trend of Economically disadvantaged and Non-economically disadvantaged
2014-15 to 2018-19 gap closed by 4; Percent of students achieving grade level or above performance stayed the same for Non-economically disadvantaged; increased by four points for economically disadvantaged.
According to Andy Porter, Professor Emeritus of Education at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, since the 1960s, solutions to the achievement gap problem have fallen into four categories: preschool reforms, teacher reforms, instructional reforms and standards-based reforms.
Porter has this to say about Addressing the Gap in Terms of Opportunity:
“Schools are not the major cause of the achievement gap. Long before kids go to school, the gap is alive and well, and, during the academic year when kids are actually in the classroom, it tends not to increase. Any increases that do occur take place largely outside the context of schooling.
“Still, it is the schools we turn to for a solution. But we do well to remember that we are asking schools to solve a problem not of their own making. For schools to solve the achievement gap, we will need much more aggressive interventions—interventions that address the critical issue of opportunities to learn—particularly the opportunities we do (or don’t) provide to our most disadvantaged children.”
[Hernando County’s AP program through EOS schools would fall into the “opportunity to learn” category as lower performing students are given the opportunity to learn at a higher level.]
“The most promising reforms are alike in their attention to addressing the pervasive inequalities in opportunities to learn. Consider preschool. Done well, it shows some impressive effects, some lasting effects. But we need to make sure that the kids—all the kids—get this high-quality preschool. This is an opportunity to learn issue.
“Consider teacher quality: the research shows that black students have less access to high-quality teachers than white students do and less access to good materials. This is an opportunity to learn issue.
“Consider student course-taking patterns. The percentage of students taking college prep high school coursework is going way up for white students, for black students, and for Hispanic students. Over the last 20 years, the gap between black and white students in course-taking has dramatically reduced. This is an opportunity to learn issue—one where we have made real progress.
“The achievement gap is unlikely to be totally eliminated by school reform. But that doesn’t get education off the hook. Some education reforms, especially those that provide greater opportunities to learn, do reduce the gap. High-quality preschool, effective teachers in every classroom, a challenging curriculum of enriched classes—all have been shown to have demonstrable effects on students’ academic performance and all have the potential to reduce the achievement gap.”
Why won’t the achievement gap be eliminated by education reform? Porter surmises, “For an education reform to solve the achievement gap, it must produce bigger gains for black students than for white students. But most education interventions actually exacerbate the gap, and the more effective they are in raising mean achievement, the more they widen the gap. So if every teacher in every American classroom were effective, then all students—black and white—would have an effective teacher and student achievement across the board would rise. Closing the gap means instituting reforms that improve black students’ achievement at a higher rate than white students.”