Context Florida: Unleash the power of school protests

by Catherine Shore Martinez
Jeffrey Hernandez, “whiz kid,” Jeffrey Hernandez, evil genius, Jeffrey Hernandez, testing guru, Jeffrey Hernandez, miracle principal – all contradictory but all attitudes held by different factions in the tumultuous year of his reign as Chief Academic Officer of the Palm Beach County school system in 2009-10.

At the distance of 5 years, I wonder if he had inside knowledge of what was coming statewide with the current Common Core controversy.
Hernandez had built a reputation for turning around failing schools since transforming a Miami-Dade elementary school from a D to an A. Apparently, he and then-Superintendent Art Johnson felt that these same measures would raise scores for all Palm Beach County schools. In addition to the changes at the middle and high school level, he introduced a lot of changes into elementary schools across the county.

This may be a prime example of the problem with relying too much on numbers. Students are not data points. They are living, breathing, complex human beings, each with a past, present and future.
They are part of a larger community with varying degrees of involvement in and commitment to their schools.

Both Art Johnson and Jeffrey Hernandez were and are very smart, even brilliant people, highly educated but poorly informed on the ways to win friends and influence people.

If Hernandez and Johnson had had a better appreciation for human nature, they would have realized that communities do not react well to sudden change. They could have picked a group of schools, either through voluntary participation or forced inclusion due to failing grades, as a pilot project for the 2009-10 school year. If their measures had been successful and raised test scores for those schools, the A and B schools would have been forced to go along. If they had put together a parent advisory board, got the board on their side and explained the reasons for the changes, those same parents could have sold their ideas to the other parents. By trying to do too much too fast and being too autocratic, they made enemies and brought about their own downfall.

In the brief months of Hernandez’s oversight, there were crowded school board meetings with speakers lining up outside the door to complain about the changes. Websites, Twitter hashtags, and Facebook pages such as Testing is not Teaching were created. Numerous protesters attended every meeting waving signs until Hernandez was demoted and eventually force out. Some of the changes were scaled back or eliminated. Art Johnson lost his job a little while later.

In 2011, the state Legislature passed the ironically named Student Success Act into law which mandated teacher evaluations be based on their students’ growth on standardized test scores. This new law also mandated the gradual introduction of end of course exams (EOCs) for every course. This was supposed to be phased in over time, and this 2014-15 is the year that all exams should be implemented, even performance classes like visual arts, band, chorus and PE.

The trend in education now is similar to what was happening in Palm Beach County in 2009 – highly scripted lessons, decreased teacher’s autonomy, students treated like data points, an obsession with numbers and data, excessive testing that is disconnected from the teaching process. All these were elements protested during Jeffrey Hernandez’s period as Chief Academic Officer. Teachers are treated like widget makers in a widget factory with students as widgets.

There has been some outrage and protests but nothing like the fall of 2009, perhaps because the state mandates have taken effect gradually. I am reminded of the frog in water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, he will immediately jump out, but if you heat the water gradually, he will eventually cook and die

At the recent school board workshop, which was a joint meeting with the state representatives, there were empty seats and no one outside holding signs for the legislators. The workshop was also very predictable. Everyone talked about how much they had done for education and listed a few personal concerns, but nothing that would grab more than a sidebar in the paper the following day or a few minutes on the evening news toward the end of the broadcast. Testing, EOCs and teacher evaluations were mentioned but only one of many concerns.

Our school board has raised objections about excessive testing, but the board knows that the state is going to exert any pressure it can to bring the board back in line.

That’s what happened in Lee County, which voted to opt out and then reversed itself after the state threatened consequences including loss of funding and students denied graduation.

We’re still waiting for the outrage statewide to have the effect it had in Palm Beach County five years ago.

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.