Category Archives: DCPS Teacher of the Year Essay

These are excerpts from my 2013-14 Duval County Teacher of the Year essay. It got me selected as a semifinalist (Final 15) out of 8,000 teachers despite being somewhat critical of State/District climate and policies. Being so close to having a public forum to speak about these real issues, then falling just short, honestly was the impetus for me to start this site.

Duval County’s CAST System is worse than using a dartboard

The CAST system is how Duval County rates its teachers. Our salary, retention and termination are completely dependent on this metric. You would think great care would be taken to ensure all teachers are treated fairly. You unfortunately would be incorrect. Through State Law, District Policy, or a combination of the two, the system we use to grade teachers is a mess, and as I think you will see, really tells us almost nothing about the quality of a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong — in all professions, some “bad” workers slip through the cracks; teaching is not an exception, and we must minimize this. But in order to do so, we must be measured properly with qualitative measures.

For the skeptical, you can be the judge of the current quantitative CAST system. I present to the committee: three teachers at Sandalwood marked “Needs Improvement” (bottom 9% of all teachers). They are personal friends, which is the only reason I’m aware of their issues. Each story is being shared with the teacher’s permission. I’m sure there are dozens of others.

Teacher #1 was a three-time Teacher of the Year (in two different schools) and one-time finalist for DCPS Teacher of the Year. He’s a history professor at FSCJ. He created and teaches Holocaust and Vietnam curriculum, and is a dual enrollment teacher. He is a two-time recipient of the quantitative “Needs Improvement” rating. Teacher #2 was a young Math teacher, lauded as a top teacher by administrators and students. Despite her young age, she was selected as Math department head. When I returned to Sandalwood, I was told to observe her as a “master teacher”. She took the initiative and time to visit me during her own planning time, providing course materials, lesson plans and advice when I replaced a teacher mid-year. She received a “Needs Improvement” rating last year, and resigned as a result. Teacher #3 regularly tutors other teachers’ students and coaches multiple sports. He stepped into the GIS Academy mid-year, saving it after a teacher’s death. His students earned multiple industry certifications. He helped secure multiple business partnerships and in-kind donations for the school, but he “Needs Improvement”.

I now ask you: is there any chance these three are part of the bottom 9%? Did lawmakers think the process through properly? Do we truly believe these teachers are the ones who must change?

The effect of all this is, good teachers either resign in disgust, or fight long, protracted, stressful, year-long battles to preserve their careers. I think you will agree these teachers  are fighting battles that shouldn’t have to be fought in the first place. And it’s because some combination of Duval County and the State of Florida did not take the proper steps to ensure a complete, fair system to grade teachers.

Maybe it’s time we realized some things, like the impact and value of a K-12 teacher, can’t be accurately measured with a number.


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Most Duval high schools were not budgeted full-time librarians

Duval County Public Schools determined this year that school libraries just aren’t that important.

Sandalwood – and nearly every Duval high school – was not budgeted a librarian this year (see the May 2013 DCPS Board Meeting minutes to confirm my statement). A shocking number of low-income kids don’t own a computer, and the Public Library is inaccessible for most; their school library is their only option for research. It is misguided to deem libraries expendable.

Along these lines, I think some of us have lost perspective on Education and are holding the wrong people accountable for the wrong things. Most problems in Education don’t arise from classrooms, but from well-meaning policymakers who are not experts in Education. If we insist on holding Districts and Administrators accountable for quantitative statistics, I believe it should be for things that directly affect classroom instruction, such as:

  • Accuracy of student head-count estimates. For example, Sandalwood has always had 3000-3300 students. This year, DCPS budgeted for 2200. Our final head-count was 3000 students, just like previous years. As a result, First Coast News responded to parent complaints on our 70-80 student math classes that had to be moved to the auditorium. The District hired extra teachers about two months into the year, leading to the next:
  • Percentage of students whose education is interrupted by involuntary schedule changes (Indicative of disorganization and/or lack of preparation for the arrival of students).
  • Percentage of courses with curriculum fully mapped to a textbook with pacing guides (Teachers’ hunting material takes time away from polishing its presentation to students).
  • Percentage of courses, and classes, which issue these textbooks to 100% of students. (Many classes only have class sets of textbooks, meaning students can’t take them home).
  • Percentage of classes below 25/50/75/100/etc. students (The system is currently gamed by assigning enormous numbers to small percentages of classes; this should end).
  • And yes, the percentage of schools with full-time librarians.

Issues like these have a huge impact on student learning, and are completely out of the hands of individual teachers. So before policymakers blame teachers for the problems in Education, insisting we be “measured” for “Student Growth”, perhaps they should considering putting their own house in order, first so our teachers can teach, and our students can learn.


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“Health Gains”?

A young man with health problems visits his doctor. The doctor is skilled and her knowledge up-to-date. She gives her patient a thorough checkup, blood work and a stress test. The doctor tells the man, “According to this chart, you are 150 pounds overweight. Your blood sugar and cholesterol are high, and your blood pressure is 200/140. But before trying prescriptions or insulin, I want you to try some lifestyle changes. You need to stop smoking, start walking 20 minutes per day immediately, and work your way into jogging. You need to limit your caloric intake to 2,000 calories per day, 65 grams of fat, no more than 20 grams saturated. Start immediately, and I’ll see you in a month.”

The patient comes back, but nothing changes. The doctor says, “Sir, your lifestyle is very bad for your health. If you don’t take responsibility for your health and change your habits, you’re in great risk of a heart attack, and your quality of life is going to suffer until then. If I don’t see a change in the next month, I’ll have no choice but to prescribe medications and put you on insulin.” The patient does nothing, skips the next appointment, and has a massive heart attack two months later. As a result, the doctor’s Health Gains score plummets to the “Needs Improvement” level. The patient sues for malpractice, wins, and the doctor loses her license.

We all know blaming this doctor for a “Health Gains” score is ridiculous; I’d love to hear Governor Scott or a State Legislator explain how blaming a teacher for a “Learning Gains” score is any different.

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Two boys

In 1877 Morgantown, WV, an immigrant coal mine worker and his wife had their first child, a son. This family, like many in West Virginia, had a difficult time keeping food on the table. Soon after the child’s fifth birthday, he began working in the coal mines for $0.50/day as a “trap boy”. His life consisted of sitting in a black, unlit cavern by himself fourteen hours a day, opening and closing a trap door as needed. Luckily, his mine never collapsed while he was inside. His life had neither hope nor opportunity to improve. By the age of 18, he began working with the coal crusher. Tragically, like many coal miners of the day, he was deformed by accidents over the years, and breathing coal dust took a toll on his health. At the age of 35, he lost his life to black lung.

In 1977 Morgantown, WV, an immigrant coal mine worker and his wife had their first child, a son. This family, like many in West Virginia, had to work very hard to keep food on the table. But since Compulsory Education laws were passed 69 years earlier, this boy’s story is quite different. Soon after the child’s fifth birthday, he was in a kindergarten class, learning nursery rhymes and arithmetic. By the age of 18, he had graduated from Terry Parker High School, becoming a National Merit Scholar and earning a full scholarship to Jacksonville University. He earned his degree, went to graduate school, and spent ten years in the Information Technology field, even running his own successful business for a while. He finally found his calling in Education. At the age of 35, he was named Teacher of the Year at Sandalwood High School.

I hope you will forgive me for speaking of myself in the third person. But while trying to put my philosophy of  Education into words, I was overwhelmed with the thought that except for the year I was born, my story could be the first paragraph instead of the second. Thankfully for me – and all of us – we decided as a nation to do something differently. We decided to treat every childhood – not just those of rich, privileged, or educated heritage – as a priceless commodity rather than a consumable resource. People say we as a country don’t care about education, but I strongly disagree. We agreed as a nation to reserve nearly two decades of each human being’s life exclusively as an opportunity to learn. As a teacher, it is my job to ensure that my small corner of this enormous investment into children’s lives is being used wisely.

Nothing more, nothing less.

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