Sunday, July 21, 2013

My sit down with Superintendent Vitti Part 1: Fired up, but not fired: An education-reform critic and teacher talks shop with Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

Fired up, but not fired: An education-reform critic and teacher talks shop with Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

I played football for Ed White high school, where I later taught for five years. While on the team I would have done anything for the coach, whether it was to run through a wall or sell a thousand chicken dinners. After I graduated and time passed, my nostalgia faded and certain memories took on new, less pleasant meanings.

After my recent meeting with Superintendent Vitti, though, I have to say I felt fired up. He has an infectious way of making one feel both optimistic and enthusiastic about the direction the district is going—especially  after years of neglect, meandering and backsliding. I left with a real sense of hope. It’s his actions over the next few months and years, however, that will determine whether I retain my sense of optimism.   

I knew meeting with the superintendent would be very intimidating and that’s why I resisted his and Marsha Oliver’s, the district’s director of communication, initial overtures to do so. Full disclosure: I am an employee of the district and have been for 11 of the last 12 years, and quite often when I have questioned or criticized the district’s policies, I have wondered if this was “it,” that is,  if this would be the piece that saw me called down to the ivory tower or into the principal’s office where I would be let go.

When I write I often try to offer alternatives and ideas that come from my knowledge and experience being in the classroom, and from literally thousands of conversations I have had with hundreds of other teachers. Teachers, by the way, are often left out when the powers-that-be discuss education. Every few months you will read about some blue ribbon panel that gathered to discuss education. Teachers are usually excluded or at best under-represented. In no other field are the people who perform the job so systematically excluded from the process.

Being critical of the process has a role to play, as long as it is constructive and respectful. Everybody knows the district has issues and sweeping them under the rug or ignoring them is not going to fix them, but neither will ignoring teachers, which has long been the practice of the district, when it wasn’t cajoling teachers to ignore bad behavior or telling them to watch how many Ds and Fs they give. Given this history, I thought this meeting would be more of the same—or perhaps even a personal message from the super for me to “clean out my locker”.

It turned out to be neither. Superintendent Vitti and Mrs. Oliver were amazingly gracious and hospitable and I got a genuine sense that the super really does care about what I and teachers in general have to say. I can honestly say we didn‘t agree on every point, but then again I have the luxury of being able to be critical of certain people with whom he, at the same time, has to work if he is going to be successful. I can point out, for example, that the facts don’t always back up Gary Chartrand. I can talk about how Jeb Bush manipulates statistics to make his points, and how state commissioner of education Tony Bennett has various conflicts of interests. If a superintendent brought up these issues, though, doing so might have negative repercussions. It’s the same when it comes to talking about individual education policies, too.

I can be critical of charter schools, vouchers and merit pay because, unlike the superintendent, I am not running a district that, according to the Florida legislature, must include charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay. I can point out to the Stanford CREDO report,, the gold standard of charter school studies, which found that Florida charter schools underperform, while the superintendent has to work to integrate them into the district. My problem with charter schools, vouchers and merit pay--the crown jewels of the reform movement--is there seems to be a wholesale rush to implement them without the data that supports them.
When talking about education policies, Superintendent Vitti mentioned how unfortunate it was that so many are crafted for ideological reasons—not for reasons which would benefit children, which he said over and over would guide his decisions as superintendent. He mentioned Senate bill 736, the legislation that will tie teachers’ salaries to how their students do on tests and institute merit pay. Merit pay is one of those ideologically driven decisions that might sound good. Merit pay, however, despite being the law of the land, has no evidence that says it works, but plenty of evidence that says it doesn’t.

That, however, leads to another point that the superintendent brought up: how the realm of education research has been muddied because too many people want their answer to be right, rather than wanting to have the right answer. An example of this would be how charter schools are doing in Florida. The Florida Department of Education says charter schools are doing better than public schools while at the same time the Stanford CREDO project says the opposite. The prevailing attitude is, “I will see your study and raise with one of my own,” which creates a quandary because the data should drive the policy, and not vice versa.