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Florida Educators Know What it Means to be Accountable

Paige’s back-to-school speech last fall, he noted that Florida rewards high-quality schools and places sanctions on those that tend to fall down. And even failing schools are getting better with each passing year, according to John Winn, deputy secretary of education in Florida for accountability, research and measurement.

While the state started an accountability system in 1991, the newest initiative, named A+ Plan for Education, kicked off in 1999 under Gov. Jeb Bush. Every school is graded ‘A’ through ‘F’ based in part on achievement standards in reading, writing and math. The standards are based on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which starts in grades 4, 8 and 10. The accountability is based on five achievement levels. It has been expanded to grades 3-10. The assessment has been aligned to instructional standards, so teachers and students know what students are expected to learn, Winn says.

Schools that make the ‘A’ grade or improve one letter grade from year to year get $100 for every student in the school. So if a 1,000-student school earns an ‘A,’ the school receives $100.000. The money is used for teacher or staff bonuses, or any improvement purpose to which the School Advisory Council or faculty agree.

In the past three years, 77 percent of Florida schools either improved a grade level or got an ‘A.’

“That’s good evidence that someone is moving somewhere,” Winn says.

The schools that receive an ‘F’ twice in four years give parents the option to send their children to another public or private school. In the first year, there were 78 ‘F’ schools. Vouchers were given and 10 percent of the parents chose to send their children elsewhere, Winn says. In 2001, there were no ‘F’ schools.

“It was built as an obligation that if the school ? was so bad, the parents deserved an option,” Winn says. And those schools receive state aid to help improve.

Failing schools also have to show the state Board of Education an extensive school improvement plan including steps to dramatically improve achievement, Winn says.

Taking Aim at Attendance

Deer season is a big deal in Missouri—so big that some students tend to skip class to hunt down the best buck. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That’s our attitude,” says Dan Vandiver, principal at Twin Rivers High School in Broseley, Mo. “And we have some fun with it, too.”

Vandiver says when it comes to increasing student attendance, the task should be fun. With that attitude and some other ideas, student attendance at the high school increased from 91.6 percent in 1997 to 96.6 percent in 2001.

In 2000, Vandiver created a Big Buck contest. With gift certificates from a local sporting goods store, school officials measure students’ bucks. The biggest deer win prizes. The catch is that students cannot miss one day of school during deer season, which lasts for most of November.

Vandiver allows students with perfect attendance in a class to be exempt from taking a final exam in that class. In fall of 2001, about 125 students had perfect attendance for all seven of their classes. While Vandiver says he believes in accountability and testing, it’s more important for students to go to class. “I can’t guarantee they are learning all the time while they are in class,” he says, “but I can guarantee that if they’re not in class, they’re not.”

Which Came First, the Principal or the School?

Start early. That’s the philosophy at Beaufort County (S.C.) Schools, which is now filling principal vacancies for schools not yet built. Rather than take a few years to really get going, new schools can begin at "full speed" when principals are given extensive preparation time, says spokesman John Williams.

The strategy "makes sense on so many fronts," Superintendent Herman K. Gaither explains. "It allows the principal personally to shape the staff, to develop special curricular needs, to help define what it is that school will represent to the community. It creates an immediate sense of ownership by the principal ... that is well worth the [salary] investment."

How much is enough time? Here are two examples from this district: the hiring process for Bluffton High School, now under construction, will begin in April, allowing the new principal up to 14 months on the job before school starts; Okatie Elementary’s principal will have six months to settle in, which is sufficient because of less structured curriculum standards at the elementary level, Williams says.