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Righting the Ship: How We Can Fix Our Public Schools

As Mark Twain famously observed, everybody complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.

You could say the same thing about public education.

In poll after poll, voters continue to express dissatisfaction with the nation’s pubic schools and an increasing level of frustration with the intractable nature of the problems that plague public education. As for how this angst is playing out in Duval County, a study recently released by the Florida Times-Union reveals that 72% of the community leaders and 76% of the readers it surveyed believe our public schools are getting worse, not better. (Does anyone actually think that public education has been improving? That really would be a man-bites-dog story!)

So what do we do about it?

For me, the most frustrating thing about the topic of education reform is the amount of misinformation that abounds and how it tends to push the debate in all the wrong directions. We can’t seem to agree on a solution because we can’t agree on any of the predicates.

In the interest of breaking this impasse and fostering a more productive discussion let us consider the following:

1. We need fundamental reform and we need it now. Remember, we’ve hit an iceberg. It was a really big iceberg and it’s torn a really, really big hole in the side of our ship, the SS Duval County Public Schools. We’re dead in the water, down at the bow and listing to starboard. It’s time we stopped rearranging the deck chairs and taking shuffleboard reservations.

2. Money alone won’t fix the problem. In Newark, New Jersey, public schools there spend an average of $22,000 per pupil per year, yet only a third of its student’s graduate high school. Adjusted for inflation, Florida has more than doubled its spending on public education in the past 30 years while graduation rates and academic achievement have continued to decline. Money is not the prescriptive fix the education establishment believes it to be.

3. Parochial schools produce better results while spending significantly less per student. Catholic schools in the United States spent an average of $5870 per pupil in 2007-2008 compared to a per student average of just over $8,400 for public schools here in Duval County. That’s nearly 45% more spending per student to produce a level of academic performance that falls short of what parochial schools are able to achieve for a lot less. Are Catholic schools and public schools perfectly analogous? Probably not and it may not be fair to do a straight up comparison. But at least this example proves that success is not entirely dependent on funding.

4. Until we’re ready to make fundamental changes it would be helpful if we stopped blaming teachers for everything that’s wrong with public education. If you want teachers to produce better outcomes then give them the authority to use their teaching skills to run their own classrooms. It’s unfair to complain about results when we allow bureaucrats to dumb down the curriculum and dictate every aspect of classroom instruction. I’m in favor teacher accountability and I thought Senate Bill 6 was a step in the right direction because it represented a down payment on the kind of fundamental reform we need. But pay for performance only works when teachers are given control over what happens in the classroom.

5. The public needs to understand that our schools are called upon to provide more than just an education. Tens of thousands of public school students come from homes that can most charitably be described as dysfunctional. For these students the only structure and continuity in their lives is what they get in school. Times-Union columnist Tonya Wethersbee is fond of reminding her readers that children who are “overwhelmed by poverty” may not be able to concentrate on learning. Fair enough, but let’s stop blaming public schools for their inability to overcome the social pathologies that are tearing apart low income communities. And let’s stop pretending that academic success is wholly a function of how much money gets shoveled into the maw that is public education. No amount of education spending will ever be enough to transform neglectful and uninvolved parents into supportive and nurturing ones. Parents who are absent, chronically unemployed, drug addicted or behind bars are, in the vernacular, “poor role models” who end up burdening our schools with the responsibility for raising their children. These conditions may be fodder for social service agencies but they’re absolutely corrosive when it comes to public education.

6. There’s a major disconnect when it comes reconciling concerns over teacher quality with a system of tenure that virtually guarantees permanent employment. According the Florida Times-Union, 16% of the educators who responded to its survey rated the quality of Duval teachers as only “fair” or “poor”. Among community leaders and Times-Union readers the numbers were 42% and 48% respectively. It’s hard to square these concerns over teacher quality with the fact that 99.7% of all Florida teachers received "satisfactory" performance evaluations in 2009. As Newt Gingrich observed, “a system that claims virtually 100 percent satisfactory performance while one in four students fails to graduate is a system in need of reform.” (Actually Newt, it’s more like one in three who don’t graduate, but who’s counting?) For the record, I think the low quality ratings are too harsh and probably overstate the problem, but that doesn’t mean our system of evaluation and retention doesn’t need to be changed.

7. Teachers are not underpaid. According to its website, Duval County Public Schools budget an average of $72,000 per teacher per year for salary and benefits. That’s not chump change and it’s certainly more than enough to attract quality teachers. In addition, the numbers posted on the DCPS website indicate the total amount allocated for teacher compensation went up by 25% over the three year period between 2006 and 2009 even though the number of teachers increased by less than 5%. Go figure. In an era of looming budget cuts, salary and benefit packages for teachers have increased at triple the rate of inflation.

8. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about cutting back on the number of administrative positions? Private schools typically operate with a staff to teacher ratio of 1 to 4, meaning one administrative or staff employee for every 4 teachers. In Duval County’s public schools, that ratio is around 1 staff position for every 1.75 teachers, fully 230% more administrators and ancillary personnel than what you would expect to find in a private school. Consider New York City’s Catholic Schools which, with a student enrollment of nearly 100,000, operate with a central administrative staff of less than 50 persons. Compare that to Jacksonville where the number of central administrative personnel easily exceeds 500. If we cut the total administrative overhead in Duval County by just 15% we could save about $30 million per year.

9. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about a slight bump in the number of students assigned to each teacher? According to the raw data posted on the DCPS website, the current student-to-teacher ratio is 15.75 students for every teacher. If we increased the average student load by just 7.5% – or to just 17 students per teacher – I calculate we could save at least $35 million per year. For the record, a student-teacher ratio of 17 to 1 is still under the state required cap and it’s the same ratio that existed in 1997. In the 1950s the average student-teacher ratio in public schools was 27 to 1. Can anyone honestly say that educational achievement is better today than it was 50 years ago?

10. If we need more money for use inside the classroom how about trimming the capital spending budget? If we need to spend more money in the classroom let’s look for ways to spend less money on classrooms themselves. The reality is that student enrollment in our public schools has stagnated in recent years despite a recent uptick due to the recession. Nonetheless, Duval County devotes $430 million a year to its capital projects budget. If we closed underutilized schools and put some new construction on hold with the goal of trimming just 15% from the capital budget we’d save $65 million a year.

The poor performance of our public schools makes it imperative that we re-examine critical assumptions about how our public schools should operate and how we should educate our children. If we’re going to move the needle on school reform we can’t allow emotional appeals and the insatiable demand for bigger school budgets to obscure the facts or cloud our judgment.

As responsible citizens we know instinctively that now is the time for major reform on a scale necessary to produce a bottom line result. In the final analysis this result means being able to graduate significantly more students who can read and write at grade level.

It’s time to speak the truth and to speaking it plainly: It’s not how much money we spend on education, it’s about how we spend it. And getting the education establishment to give up control over that money isn’t going to be easy.


STAY TUNED: Tommorrow we'll have Robin's Six Point Plan for Fixing Our Public Schools!

11 Responses »

  1. A nice start, eliminate the teacher union. The rest is easy.

  2. Mr. Lumb; you missed the main, most important reform. The moderniztion of the school calender. The calender should be divied up into quarters (4). There should have 21 day breaks between quarters. They would occur during the winter holidays (Channuka, Cristmas, Islaamic beheading day, and New years) The second would occur during "spring break season" ( Easter, National Atheist Day, April 1,). Next quarter mid-summer ( American Independence Day). Next, Equinox celebration, (Yom Kippur, Rammadan [behead a baby sheep].) This will help in students retaining more (losing less) of the education the TAXPAYER pays for, less time in the streets. Remember, we pay a salary averaging $72K. This includes a 90 day vacation.(2) The days remain the same and ALL people will benefit. If a student fails, they will repeat the ENTIRE year over; but there will be no special "rules".
    (3) There will be an "alternative" school. Students will report on the recommendation of the first offense, from the principle. If a second offense occurs, the student will automatically, without appeal, report to the alternative school, while being reviewed for more disciplinary action. The Principle will be under review to evaluate their competency keeping their job. I anticipate your apology imminately.

    • Thank you for your feedback. I refer you to Part II of my column which appear tomorrow. In it I outline my "6-Part Plan" for education reform. (Hint: It's entirely classroom-centered.)

      Your suggestions on modernizing the school calendar would dovetail nicely with what I propose.

    • I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Davis.

      Our school calendar is the most outdated facet of education.

      It has been proven time and time again that children have to be 'retaught' during the first few weeks of school. This is a waste of time and resources. A more accurate calendar that allows for year-round education with scheduled time off still allows for family vacations and little league baseball games.

  3. This is an excellent article on the Duval Public Schools and should be published widely, along with the follow up recommendations for solutions. Although Jacksonville has a number of good things going for it, the Duval School System is starting to show signs of the Detroit system - declining enrollment, white flight from the system, financial difficulty and defiant teacher unions, Administration and School Board.

    Some thoughts on "fixes":

    -election of a Mayor that can provides the leadership to design a march to a worldclass school system and make change, not a socialist "do-gooder" focused on pandering for votes
    -honest evaluation by all who have particpated in the decline of the system and absolute comittment to change
    -a religious community acting in concert with the Mayor, working from the same "pew"
    -non-government entities producing a more focused effort to improve the system, not just funding their own needs
    -parents signed on to the expectations of a reformed system and school children required by their parents to meet the parental and community expectations to succeed.
    -competition added to the system, whether privatization, charter schools, tax credits etc.
    -innovation e.g. addition of the politically incorrect "trade schools", a more "small school system"
    -move to an "employee at will" teacher force
    -total re-design of the teacher hiring, performance evaluation, merit pay and bonus and termination standards.

  4. Dear Robin, July 8
    Glad to see that you are doing some creative thinking! I have always thought that the Duval Public School System is over staffed at the county office. Having been down to the School Board office myself, I find it interesting how many folks are just walking around with clip boards, trying to look busy. My wife and I asked for a form to renew our teaching certification. We were told that they
    couldn't find any forms, and we needed to contact Tallahassee to have a form mailed to us.
    If we could decentralize our school system and allow principals more authority to run their schools,
    we could greatly reduce staff at the School Board office. It is not rocket science when you see private schools graduating a higher percentage of students than our public school, while using less administrative staff. I am thinking that some good vocational schools would also help students who have more interest in technical and vocational programs instead of the college prep curriculum.
    Again, this is not rocket science when you see other urban school systems responding more creatively for their marginalized students.
    Private and Church Schools have a standard of acceptable behavior which is enforced. Students who
    are disruptive to the learning environment must make other plans for their education. Our public schools could change their whole environment if disruptive students were sent to an alternative education school. They should have to do chores at the school to help pay for the expense of their education. Public School education is a privledge, and should be appreciated by students and their parents.
    I look forward to your next article on our school system.

  5. I've watched and witnessed the destruction of public schools in Jacksonville for the past 50 years.

    The truth is that it started with forced busing in the early 70's. Great teachers fled the field for private institutions. Parents with means removed their children to the private institutions. Once Duval county schools were destroyed, parents moved their families to St. Johns county. They continued to work in Duval (using its services) but paid taxes in St. Johns - draining schools funds. THIS IS SOMETHING THAT MUST BE FIXED.

    In the mean time, public school parents wanted their (honor students) to be separated from the pack, thus Magnet schools were created. This sucked the remaining great teachers from normal public schools along with high achieving students that would have pulled or influenced lower achieving students. You see what is left.

    Now all the schools are a wreck - patrolled by security (at millions of dollars) and producing few success stories. And, we pay tons of much-needed money for this school destroying bus system. The schools are so poor that teachers must beg parents for school supplies. Some of the downtown schools had to buy two sets of books for each student - one set for home and the other for school.

    What Catholic and private schools have which is the "secret sauce" to success, is discipline. IT IS TOO SIMPLE. It is served in high doses and order and respect is not hoped for it is demanded. Uniforms eliminate competition among students and reduces envy. If someone does something wrong they can expect immediate, severe and consistent punishment.

    The other reason these students do well is that their schools have a high expectation for student achievement.



  6. As Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, I am committed to providing the best and brightest future for our city’s children through high quality educational opportunities that will inspire and enable all students to achieve their dreams.

    Perception of the public schools in Duval County is not reality. Student achievement in Duval County has continued to improve during the last 10 years by almost any measure. The district has earned a grade of “B” from the Florida Department of Education the last two years and four of the last five years.

    In 1999, when schools were first awarded grades by the Florida Department of Education, only 17 Duval County schools received a grade of A or B. Ten years later in 2009, 102 schools received an A or B, an increase of 500%. This is especially significant when you consider that the criteria for grading schools has become more and more rigorous.
    Of the 22 possible categories tested on the FCAT this past school year, Duval County improved in 12, stayed the same in five, and saw slight declines in five areas, with the greatest improvements in the areas of mathematics and science. Significant gains were also seen in our elementary and high school turnaround schools. Students saw the most gains in grades 9-12, with the most improvement being made in reading, writing and science.

    Over the last few years, our district has seen an increase in our graduation rate, approved a Strategic Plan for the district that allows us to continuously measure and report on our progress, and received district accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement.
    While we strive for excellence, we have had to tighten our belts and pinch every penny simply to maintain core functions, and we’ve had to make tough decisions about what public schools can and should fund.

    There has been a steady decline in the funding received per student. The average per pupil funding from the state last year was $6,553 per student. Last year, Duval County Public Schools was forced to cut $42 million from our budget, which included transportation and secondary schedule changes, along with a reduction in staff. All of these services are critical to the continued academic achievement of our students. We are in the process of cutting an additional $69 million from our budget this year, with more cuts looming when the federal stimulus money is gone in 2011/2012.

    We are committed to success, and it is our intent to make clear and measurable progress every year toward our long-term objectives. Through the commitment of our students, the dedication of our teachers and with the support of the public, we strongly believe that together we will be successful.

    Ed Pratt-Dannals has been an educator with Duval County Public Schools for more than 34 years, and superintendent since November 2007.

    • Dear Mr. Pratt-Dannals,

      While I applaud your dedication to improving our schools it seems that Mr. Lumb has some ideas worth considering. Perhaps inviting him, amd other concerned citizens, to participate in an ongoing best practices endeavor would be something that the school system would benefit from.


      Jeffrey K. Graf


  1. Righting the Ship: How We Can Fix Our Public Schools | The Jacksonville Observer #edu « Parents 4 democratic Schools
  2. A Six Point Plan for Our Public Schools | The Jacksonville Observer