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September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

A+ Accountability in Florida?

Under pressure to demonstrate student achievement, principals are responding energetically to the state's new A+ program. Some like the reform; others don't.

In 1998, Governor Jeb Bush initiated the Florida A+ Program, a harsh, standards-based accountability measure that assigns grades, from A to F, to each elementary, middle, and high school. Students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) determine each school's grade. The cumulative effects of new state standards, comprehensive assessment, and the rewards and punishments that accompany the accountability program have raised educators' attention to academic outcomes, as measured by standards-based tests, to a level heretofore unknown in Florida.
In spring 2000, I took a careful look at 50 Florida schools, interviewing 50 principals and 25 central office personnel, to find out what strategies leaders are using to raise student achievement, especially in those schools and districts that have shown a dramatic turnaround in results. I identified 10 strategies that leaders are using, in varying degrees, to respond to local, state, and national standards and accountability measures.

How They Aim for Success

Set Urgent Goals

Many school leaders focus first on making a quick breakthrough in student achievement. They want immediate, concrete results that can be measured by better test scores. By aiming to achieve a standards-focused goal in weeks or a few months rather than in years, school leaders look for tasks that the faculty is ready to accomplish and that don't require any new resources or stamp of authority. Standards-based planning cannot be haphazard or spontaneous, and yet it must be flexible and visible. Principals know that they have to make identifiable progress almost immediately; a series of low school grades can, and does, result in the principal's removal.

Engage School Personnel

School leaders know that they cannot succeed without the support and trust of the school's teachers and other administrators. Principals often begin by developing cohesiveness and commitment among a small group of school and teacher leaders. By holding lunch meetings, attending conferences, and going on weekend retreats, school leaders help build mutual trust among these leadership team members. Reorganizing a school's strategy for decision making to include the input of these leaders also contributes to their sense of empowerment and involvement.
Eventually, the principal and team leaders plan parties, retreats, and other activities that build a sense of community within the faculty as a whole and within teams, grade levels, and departments. Continued expansion of shared decision making is particularly important in low-scoring schools because faculty turnover is often high and morale is low. At one school that is undergoing dramatic improvement, every teacher serves on one of three committees that draft the annual school improvement plan—safety, staff development, and student performance.
After achieving a satisfactory level of faculty cohesiveness, principals try to influence faculty members' views of student potential for achievement. Reinstating semester exams or implementing a new discipline plan may help to energize some disheartened teachers. Leaders spoke of dealing face-to-face with teachers who were not eager to do their part in a renewed school mission. When teachers see that school climate and faculty cohesiveness have begun to change for the better, they are more willing to support standards-based reform measures.

Use School Achievement Data

Florida's principals have become data-driven organizational leaders. In the most effective schools, skilled analysis of student achievement data has become a crucial step in breaking through the barriers of low achievement and low expectations.
District offices provide principals with student performance data broken down by race, gender, socioeconomic level, subject, and grade level. Data on different ethnic groups are particularly important to focus attention on the achievement of minority students. Although minority achievement is not the primary focus of Florida's standards-based reform, it is an important element of it; schools receive special demerits when their minority students do poorly on the state assessment. Middle school leaders also use data from elementary schools to adapt grouping, curriculum, and instruction for the 6th grade, and they use the data from 9th grade assessments to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the 8th grade program.
Some principals hold weekly data analysis meetings with department chairs and team leaders, who then share the data with the staff. Many schools also have training sessions for parents and school advisory council members to help them understand the data and the state's policies. In Florida schools, everyone is involved in analyzing achievement-related data. The report card for the school is no longer a secret; it is well-publicized news.
When low-performing schools get new principals whose mandate is to turn around student performance, the principals often use school achievement data to inspire discouraged teachers with new confidence that students can do better. A principal might, for example, use data from the state test at the state and district level to compare to the school level, relying on teachers' pride to motivate them to work for change. Or a principal might use data from the SAT to show teachers that students have more ability than their achievement scores indicate.

Strengthen Professional Development

Florida educators know that student achievement data point to the need for professional development in specific subject areas and grade levels and for individual teachers. Almost every district has conducted training in the Sunshine State Standards, the Florida A+ Program, the theory and implementation of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and holistic scoring procedures. Most districts offer training on writing state test questions and on selecting and using effective preparation materials. Science and social studies teachers learn how to customize class and test questions to the state test format. Teachers from every subject area study how to improve students' scores by using state assessment terms and jargon in assignments and by fostering such skills as taking —al and two-column notes and reading by visualizing, asking questions, and predicting.
Inservice education was once a casual affair, but a new sense of urgency has transformed its focus to training that will lead directly to improved test scores. The biggest change is an intense interest in developing higher-order thinking skills. Because the state test focuses on the application of higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy, leaders are scrambling to prepare teachers to gear curriculum and teaching to levels of thinking that go beyond memorization and recall of factual knowledge.

Align the Curriculum

In high-scoring schools, the role played by standards-focused curriculum alignment stands out clearly, and the degree to which this alignment has narrowed the curriculum to an exclusive focus on preparing for standardized assessments has become controversial, especially among educators. For better or worse, many schools openly declare that they review every activity in terms of how much of an impact it has on the state assessment.
School leaders spend much time monitoring and coaching for effective curriculum alignment. At one school, counselors examined students' schedules to determine whether each student was taking a sufficiently rigorous program and rescheduled many students into more demanding courses.
Leaders monitor lesson plans with new enthusiasm to ensure that all teachers address the Sunshine State Standards. Teachers might submit lesson plans first to a team leader or department head, who then reports to the principal on the group's progress. Some principals personally check each teacher's lesson plans, and others make unannounced classroom visits to monitor each teacher's focus on standards. In one school, three administrators are each responsible for visiting 16 classrooms each week.
Departments meet more regularly than in the past to discuss school goals and curriculum alignment. Teachers meet as teams and departments during the summer to write curriculum materials for the state test's target areas, especially mathematics and language arts. District curriculum alignment manuals in mathematics and language arts are commonplace.
Administrators confer frequently and closely with teachers who need help with curriculum alignment. In some districts, school principals meet monthly with the area superintendent or their direct supervisor to examine curriculum alignment at the district level.

Increase Time for Academics

One of the most typical, and perhaps least desirable, methods for increasing the amount of time devoted to tested subjects is to decrease the amount of time usually available for subjects that are not currently tested. In many schools, exploratory curriculum and guidance programs have been replaced by basic academic courses. Science and social studies may suffer.
  • Requiring reading at home;
  • Adopting a block schedule that doubles the length of time devoted to mathematics;
  • Creating an advisory period that combines lunch and study hall so that students who need help in particular areas can meet with teachers in those subjects;
  • Counseling students who are identified as low-scoring to take additional mathematics or language arts classes; and
  • Canceling science and social studies classes or suspending the regular curriculum entirely for severely low-achieving students until their state test practice skills improve adequately.
Tutoring takes place everywhere; silent reading periods are held frequently. One school replaced an elective time slot with a course on test strategies for the entire 8th grade. Many schools keep the library open during the summer so that students can use the Accelerated Reader program to improve reading skills. One district devotes January to test preparation for 8th graders, teaching no other courses and canceling all club meetings. Throughout the year, the same school devotes every Wednesday to test practice in grades 6–8. Some schools have used funding from the A+ Program to start a Saturday academy for students who are referred by a counselor. Students must attend with their parents, who meet with a school counselor while the students receive tutoring help from teachers or high school students.
In one county, all middle schools have a 50-minute daily period called Academic and Curriculum Extension (ACE), which allows time for remedial work, independent study, additional exploratory activities, or silent reading. Another county requires a full-year course on critical thinking in all 34 of its middle schools in 7th and 8th grades; the curriculum includes language arts, organizational skills, and assessment strategies. Several school leaders pay teachers to use their planning time for tutoring during the week or at a Saturday academy. Many schools require nine weeks of reading instruction at every grade level and for students of all ability levels. Time, as the currency for increasing academic achievement, is being spent much more narrowly in schools across the state.

Choose Instructional Materials to Support Standards

Schools use a mix of state-produced, commercial, and local curriculum materials targeted to improving achievement, focusing on those designed for new state standards and state test preparation. Among commercial materials, Florida schools favor Creating Independence Through Student-Owned Strategies (CRISS), which teaches independent study techniques, and the Accelerated Reader/Accelerated Mathematics programs.
Some strategies are creative, others more straightforward. One school has developed a special Web site with math problems for summer work. Students in another school comment in daily journals on books that they have chosen to read. They also spend the first 10 minutes of every math class solving a word problem on the board and writing the problem in their math journals. Once a week, the problem is a typical state test math problem taken from an old exam or devised by school staff.
Scoring rubrics are ubiquitous. Florida educators and most of their students understand how a grading rubric relates to state standards. The language arts classrooms in many schools feature posters describing the reading rubrics.

Build Interdisciplinary Teams

The interdisciplinary teams that have grown in middle schools throughout the United States encourage collaboration among teachers and a more careful focus on small groups of students. In many middle schools in Florida, leaders cite the interdisciplinary team organization of teachers and students as particularly indispensable to maintaining a healthy middle school program while responding to standards-based reforms. Teams meet weekly, sometimes daily, to compare evaluations of student work and to set team standards for consistency.
In a school in south Florida, where test scores have been improving steadily for the past three years, the principal attributes the rising test scores to the collaborative work that teams of teachers do to explore curriculum standards and to help one another. Leaders meet formally with teams at the beginning and end of the school year to set goals, discuss growth, and evaluate the year. In addition, the continuous flow of new achievement data—from the state assessment, nationally normed tests, or tests constructed by the school district—allows principals to talk with teams about each class period's group scores on a weekly basis. Teams also promote the state test through contests and other special events.

Promote the Test

Many schools target public relations efforts at students, teachers, and parents to persuade them of the importance of the standards and the state test, often using special incentives to motivate students toward improved performance.
One school's comprehensive recognition program gives prizes to students who move to a higher score level or who maintain a high score. The prizes include a limousine ride for the students who score at the highest level and new bicycles for those whose scores improve the most. Students with very poor scores may have to repeat a grade.
In many schools, the daily television show features a set of math problems, with prizes for completion. In one school, a student reads math problems each day over the public address system. Homerooms phone in their answers, and the first classroom with the correct answer receives public recognition. The homeroom with the highest number of correct answers in the set of problems that day receives special recognition.
A few leaders have reached out to community and business partnerships for support, soliciting help from churches, synagogues, mosques, and community organizations to increase family involvement in school. Leaders in one school left flyers at grocery stores near the school and put them on car windshields. Several schools have developed Web sites containing practice tests and information about the state test.

Redefine School Leadership

Florida principals now see themselves as instructional leaders; everything else is viewed as an irritating distraction from this responsibility. The best leaders have always cared deeply about instruction, but standards-based reform has mandated instructional leadership for professional survival. The A+ Program may have driven many principals beyond instructional leadership to an all-consuming preoccupation with academic achievement. For many leaders, nothing matters as much as the state assessment; for a few, nothing else matters.
Many principals speak candidly about their need to balance the state's insistence on academic achievement at any cost with their own beliefs about education and what is developmentally appropriate for students. As a consequence, they are more concerned than ever with leadership for the achievement-related side of curriculum and instruction: training and motivating teachers and support for teachers' efforts to meet new expectations.

Is It Worth the Trouble?

In spite of these many efforts to raise student achievement, troubling questions remain. Is it possible that the majority of Florida teachers continue to rely on lecture, question-and-answer formats, and worksheets? Are the standards-based efforts undertaken in many schools so highly prescriptive and unimaginative that the best teachers in our schools are being driven away? How is standards-based reform influencing the quality of the curriculum?
The long-term effects of standards-based reform on the interdiscliplinary teams of middle schools are not clear. Some educators claim that the interdisciplinary teams make standards-based reform possible. Others claim, however, that the standards pressures have damaged the middle school concept, disabling teacher-based advisory programs and weakening the exploratory curriculum by replacing it with additional basic mathematics and reading courses. Despite decades of evidence suggesting the ineffectiveness of ability grouping, many middle schools use such groups as an indispensable part of standards-based reform.
About half of the leaders whom I interviewed believe that the state's program is deeply flawed and damaging to a developmentally appropriate education for their students. The most frequently mentioned concern is a definition of school success that is exceedingly narrow. Test scores may go up, these leaders argue, but academic quality may be going down. Another concern is the impact of the new pressures on principals, teachers, and students. Fifty percent of the principals with whom I spoke report that teacher morale has never been lower and stress has never been higher. In one school, a local hospital's free comprehensive physical exam for teachers determined that 60 percent of the examined teachers exhibited medically high levels of physical and emotional stress—and they were from an A school.
Principals also struggle with the perceived inequities of the standards-based reform. An administrator pointed out that one school raised its students' scores from the 18th to the 46th percentile and got an F, whereas another school raised its scores from the 51st to the 56th percentile and got $80,000 in bonus money. Some leaders are openly cynical, pointing to research that suggests that grades earned by schools in the A+ Program relate more closely to square footage of homes or with the number of students fitted with orthodontia than with any other factors.
Recent studies of the results of standards-based reform in Florida offer conflicting interpretations. Studies authorized by the state (Greene, 2001) indicate that the reforms have produced positive results in academic achievement, especially for students in previously low-achieving schools. Independent scholars (Camilli & Bulkley, 2001) sharply disagree. The principals with whom I spoke are similarly divided. Some argue that standards-based reform has had a positive effect on students' school experience, especially because of the emphasis on higher-level thinking and consequent changes in content and instruction. Others are bitterly negative, mostly because they believe that the processes for testing and awarding school grades, bonuses, and punishments are harshly punitive and unfair.
Only the benefit of hindsight, provided by several years of experience with Florida's standards-based reform, will inform educators about the total effects of the program on school leaders, teachers, students, and parents. Eventually, we will all experience the consequences.

Camilli, G., & Bulkley, K. (2001). Critique of 'An evaluation of the Florida A-Plus accountability and school choice program.' Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 9(7). Available: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v9n7.

Greene, J. P. (2001). An evaluation of the Florida A-Plus accountability and school choice program. New York: The Manhattan Institute. Available: www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_aplus.htm.

Paul S. George has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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