Florida’s 2011 Student Success Act: How did this failed experiment affect students’ lives?

In 2011, the Florida Legislature and Governor Scott implemented a statewide experiment by changing the conditions under which teachers are employed by school districts. The highest profile provision in the legislation, which was titled the “Student Success Act”, was the elimination of tenure for teachers hired after the law’s effective date.

At the time the law was enacted, it was just as controversial as the reader would imagine. But the first detailed report on whether the law worked as intended by boosting student achievement was issued by the Brookings Institute just last week (authors Celeste Carruthers, David Figlio, and former FSU Economics Professor Tim Sass). The report’s abstract tells the story succinctly:

We take a quasi-experimental research approach by comparing the effect of teachers’ relative exposure to tenure reform on changes in individual students’ test scores after versus before the policy. We find limited and circumstantial evidence that Florida’s tenure reform slightly increased student test achievement in math and reading, and that the gains were more prominent for the lowest-performing students. Specifically, we look across schools where faculties were most versus least vulnerable to Student Success Act provisions – measured in two different ways – and find that students in the most vulnerable schools show gains that compared favorably to students in the least vulnerable schools, but by a very small degree.

In short, the law did not work as intended.

[I need to give a hat tip to Tampa Bay Times journalist Jeff Solochek for his Gradebook post on this report, which is how I found out about it.]

Of course, the economic analysis by Carruthers, Figlio and Sass doesn’t shine much of a light on the thousands of human lives that were affected by the legislation. I’m writing this post to share a story of one student – our son Josh – who was impacted by the Student Success Act. In the end, the Student Success Act didn’t knock Josh off course – he graduated this weekend with a B.A. in physics and economics from Grinnell College, a highly ranked liberal arts school in Iowa. This fall, he’ll be attending the University of Minnesota Law School. But perhaps there is something to be learned from his story, anyway.

In the fall of 2011, Josh began 10th grade at Lawton Chiles High School on the north side of Tallahassee. Chiles has a very affluent student population (the school’s free and reduced-price eligibility rate is presently below 10%). Many of the students have parents who are professionals – and some of those professionals are (like me) professors at Florida State University. The top twenty or so students in each graduating class are a very high-powered group, with several dual enrolling at FSU in math courses like Calculus 3 and Ordinary Differential Equations during their senior years.

As he began 10th grade in the fall of 2011, Josh was a member of that top twenty group in the school’s Class of 2014. His teachers for classes like Honors Precalculus, Spanish 4 and Honors Chemistry were the best the school had to offer. Josh’s Precalculus teacher in particular was effective if hard-nosed, and both of Josh’s older siblings – both daughters – had benefited a great deal from her instruction. The rigorous Precalculus course conducted by this teacher provided the foundation for the school’s success in AP Calculus classes and the dual enrollment classes at FSU.

At the time, Josh was making the turn from being a middle school student who needed constant prodding from his parents to finish his assignments (to be fair, his mom did most of the prodding) to being the self-motivated young man he was by the time he headed off to Grinnell College. He was perhaps more sensitive to the atmosphere in each of his classrooms than he should have been – and that was how the plunge in teacher morale at Chiles High School in that fall after the passage of the Student Success Act got under his skin.

My wife and I knew how important the Precalculus course with its outstanding teacher had been to our daughters. So when Josh came home in early October to tell us that this teacher had decided to take a two-week vacation that same month – right in the middle of the fall semester – we were both stunned. I wrote to the Principal, Alan Cox, and complained that teachers shouldn’t be taking extended vacations during the school year. As I recall, Cox’s response was that the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the union allowed this teacher to take a two-week vacation during the school year, so he had approved it. I was dumbstruck – the educational organization that had been so focused on excellence during the time our two daughters had been there (the second graduated in 2009) seemed to have lost its sense of mission.

Shortly afterward, Josh’s Spanish 4 teacher told the class that she was cutting back on her working hours, and that it would be some time before she finished grading the test the class had taken a few days before.

I’m sure Josh had more such experiences during that fall of 2011, and that those were just the stories that he decided to share with us. Our son – whose maturity had been improving so quickly – started to become deeply discouraged. My wife and I began to talk about what we might do to address Josh’s situation. It was clear that the teachers and principal had lost interest, at least in our son. So it was up to us to find another path.

Because we had the means, we were able to move Josh to the private Maclay School the following fall for the beginning of 11th grade. Freed of the dark clouds of shattered teacher morale that had gathered at Chiles, and with the skilled support of the Maclay faculty, Josh flourished in his two years there.

I expected other students from families of sufficient means to follow Josh to Maclay, but no one did. Perhaps Josh was more sensitive to the morale of his teachers than other students in the top-level classes he attended. Perhaps other students relied more on their peers and parents and less on their teachers.

But I have wondered since we moved Josh out of Chiles High School how other students who didn’t have the same advantages (and resources) that we did were hit by the changes brought on by the Student Success Act.

Those who read this brief account will draw their own conclusions from it. Some will blame the legislation for Josh’s experience and those of others in Florida’s public schools at the time. Others will blame teachers – and even their unions – for what happened.

But during the last week – since the release of the Brookings report – I’ve been unable to separate Josh’s experience from the failure of Florida’s large-scale experiment in teacher employment conditions. The attempt to boost student achievement using an unproven model was, in the end, futile. Josh suffered a little from the experiment, but he seems to have fully recovered. I’m sure many thousands of other students – likely those without the family advantages Josh had – suffered more permanent damage.

The lesson we should all learn from the Student Success Act experiment is this: Dramatic changes in the workings of organizations that affect people’s lives in profound ways should only be performed when the changes are underpinned by a strong research base. In the absence of such a research base, a pilot study should be performed in which the human beings involved – in this case students – have an escape hatch.

Ideology is an important and indispensable part of human societies. But no change like that made with the Student Success Act should be made purely on the basis of ideology alone.

 

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