Tallahassee, we have a problem

A bruising, exhausting fight centered on the subject of evolution wrapped up Feb. 19 when the State Board of Education (BoE) finally approved Florida’s new science standards for the public school system. Shortly thereafter the fight reignited in the state legislature when deceptively-named “academic freedom” bills were introduced. But once again the science standards survived the dustup. There is a good chance the academic freedom bills will arise from the dead to haunt us once more, but other than that we can get down to business using our shiny new standards, right?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. During the last legislative session, a bill that affects all school subject standards was passed: Senate Bill 1908 – Education. The bill summary states:

Requires that the State Board of Education replace the Sunshine State Standards with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. Revises the type of assessment tests reported to the Governor and the Legislature relating to the deregulated public schools pilot program. Revises provisions governing application of testing requirements for high school graduation. Revises the exceptions for a school to receive a school grade, etc.

Among other things, the bill wants the state standards in all subjects to be replaced by “Next Generation” standards. What does that mean? To find out, read through Florida Statute 1003.41, which is the new law that came out of SB 1908. There’s a very ugly glitch in there.

It came to light recently when folks at the Department of Education (DoE) coordinated with the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (JAPC) concerning some in-house rules revision. The relationship between these two agencies is at least partly as follows: The DoE is a government agency that is governed by state law. When a law is passed affecting the DoE (or any other state department), the Department must then translate that law into specific governing instructions called rules. The DoE works hand-in-hand with JAPC. The DoE drafts a proposed rule, and folks at the JAPC provide guidance as to whether the rule fits in with the applicable Florida Statutes. (That explanation of mine is very simplified; the process is quite a bit more involved than that.)  In this particular case, the DoE had asked for an opinion on a rough draft of a revised rule concerning “student performance standards.” A representative of JAPC (a reviewing attorney) took a look at the draft and compared it to Florida Statute 1003.41. Part of the representative’s response opined that the standards that were revised and approved prior to the passage of SB 1908 are not “Next Generation” as required by the new law.

Keep in mind that this determination is the professional opinion of one person and is only advisory in nature. This JAPC representative doesn’t have the authority to give a definitive thumb up or thumb down. The DoE could reject the JAPC representative’s opinion if they wish. If the DoE does so, the JAPC representative can recommend that the full JAPC committee (composed of six state legislators) vote to object to the rule. The committee can agree with the representative’s opinion that the proposed rule doesn’t fit the law. Once again, though, this opinion is only advisory and can be rejected by the DoE. But rejecting it means sailing into choppy waters since the Department has been told that the rule is essentially illegal.

So, what do we have so far? The DoE asked the JAPC to look over a rough draft of a rule revision. A JAPC representative said that some recently approved standards aren’t “Next Generation” as required by the new state law. Why?

The science standards were approved before SB 1908 was passed and became law. So, technically the standards didn’t go through the process described in Florida Statute 1003.41. However, I’m told that when the science standards were in the revision process it was understood that they and the math standards would be good-to-go as far as Next Generation. This Power Point presentation from the DoE Office of Math and Science was given back in June and indicates that the standards were thought to be Next Generation at that time. However, the JAPC representative reviewed the new law and also looked at the Next Generation bill analysis to get a feel for the intent of the law. Based on this research, the representative advised that the standards revised and passed before the law’s implementation are not in compliance with the law.

It needs to be noted that the JAPC representative is not in any way passing judgment on the content of the already approved standards. The standards could be the best in the nation, but that’s not what the representative is concerned about. Here’s the problem that JAPC points out from Florida Statute 1003.41:

(2)  By December 31, 2008, the State Board of Education shall establish an expedited schedule for adoption of the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and shall establish by rule a schedule for the periodic review and revision of the standards. The state board shall adopt the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for each subject by December 31, 2011.

Broken down point by point, here is what that paragraph of the law requires:
— Create a schedule for adoption of Next Generation standards.
— Create another schedule that outlines the reviewing and revising of the adopted Next Generation standards.
— The deadline for adopting initial Next Generation standards is by the end of 2011.

This law took effect on July 1, 2008. And so if one sticks to the strict interpretation of the new law, as the JAPC representative did, then that means that all academic subjects’ standards need to be revised as Next Generation standards between July 2008 and Dec. 2011. It’s presumed that the legislature knew about the recent revision and adoption of the science, math and reading/language arts standards. Unfortunately, the legislators neglected to make any exceptions for them. According to the new law, all standards (including science, math and reading/language arts) need to go through the Next Generation revision process. Period. What is that process?

– The commissioner submits the proposed standards for review and comment by Florida educators, school administrators, community college and state university representatives, and leaders in business and industry.
— The commissioner submits the proposed standards, as revised based on any comments received, to the renowned curricular and content experts for a written evaluation.
— The commissioner finalizes the proposed standards and submits the standards and the experts’ written evaluations to the Governor and Legislature at least 21 days before the state board’s consideration of the standards.

In an effort to summarize all of the above, I’ll do a little question and answer thing here:

Do the science standards adopted by the State Board of Education in February 2008 comply with the new state law that requires Next Generation standards? Probably not. I need to emphasize here that there has not been any official proclamation saying the science standards are not in compliance with current law. On the other hand, the professional opinion of a JAPC representative says no, because the new law stipulates a new revision schedule that includes all subjects has to be created and all standards have to go through a specific review process. The JAPC representative doesn’t think that the new law allows the DoE or BoE to bless the new science standards as “Next Generation” simply because they’ve been adopted so recently. Right now DoE representatives are taking that professional opinion seriously.

Will the science standards have to be re-approved/re-adopted? If the JAPC representative’s professional opinion is accurate, then probably yes. Experts will have to provide written evaluations of the standards. The standards would have to be presented to the governor and legislature, and then brought before the BoE for re-adoption.

Are we going to have to endure all of that evolution drama again? I have no idea. There are way too many things we don’t know right now. If the standards do have to be re-adopted, then perhaps all the affected standards (science, math, and reading/language arts) will be presented in one package and the re-adoption will just be a formality. We can only hope!

What’s up with the governor and legislature needing see the standards before the State Board of Education; would the governor and legislature be able to make changes? Good question and one worth looking into some more. Right now I haven’t been able to find anything that explains the purpose or intent of this step in the standards approval process.

If the standards do need to be re-adopted, when will it happen? Not anytime soon. The DoE has until Dec. 31, 2011 to make all standards Next Generation. In the meantime, the good folks at the DoE are neck deep in the social studies and physical education standards revision process. They’ll figure out what to do with the science, math, and reading/language arts standards in due time.

If there are so many “I don’t knows” and “maybes” and “what ifs” right now, then what are you worried about? I’m not worried. I am, however, cautious. The long evolution fight that dominated the science standards revision process, and then all the showboating over the “academic freedom” bills taught me to be vigilant. I’m going to sum up this post with my guiding philosophy: hope for the best, but plan for the worst. I hope that all of the time and effort I spent researching this was much ado about nothing. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of what is going on and to keep an eye on things.

5 Responses to “Tallahassee, we have a problem”

  1. S.Scott Says:

    SHhhhh…

  2. Joe Says:

    Thanks Brandon, Good job.
    A heads up we all need to be aware of. And we still need to watch for the AF bills.

    Joe

  3. Eric Perlman Says:

    Very interesting Brandon – thanks for sleuthing this out.

    Over the last few months I’ve had a number of emails from and to NECSI, the contractor company overseeing the teacher accreditation process. What they’re doing is contacting scientists like me for the validation of questions, as well as the overall balance of material, represented in the accreditation tests. All well and good, except that the three times I was contacted, it was in such a way that there was almost no way I could participate.

    What they did each time was to tell me that I was invited to a 2-day meeting in Tampa to do the validation. The meeting was only a few days in the future — the first time, I was contacted late Thursday afternoon and the meeting was to begin Monday morning. The second time was the next week, after they could not find enough people to do the meeting, they did a similar thing except that the meeting was to be over both days of a weekend. The third time I was given a little more warning (still just 5-7 days) only to find that the meetings were scheduled over Yom Kippur (I’m Jewish).

    My point here is that each time the schedule was so short that many, if not most scientists could not participate. It’s very difficult to reschedule my teaching commitments on such short notice. That means colleagues have to substitute, which they usually want more lead-time for. Usually the only time you give such short notice is for a family emergency. Basically, they set it up in such a way so that only the committed activists who want something changed, would find the time to do it. Interesting, no?

  4. cope Says:

    Eric,

    I think I might be able to ease your concerns a bit. I am not sure what NECSI is (superficial googling takes me to the New England Complex Systems Institute) but I have been involved with the FDOE (through Pearson) in Tampa helping to write and validate the earth/space science Florida teacher certification exam (FTCE). I have gone to several of the meetings in Tampa during different phases of the process, missing only the question writing sessions. The final session will be taking place in late November for the final validation process. I will be attending.

    Yes, we have been given pretty short notice for some of the meetings. In fact, the last sessions were rescheduled due to lack of positive response. However, I can assure you that in the meetings I have attended, the level of scientific scrutiny has been very high. Several of us participating were also writers of the new standards and therefore feel particularly protective of our previous efforts.

    It is painful for me to take time out of my high school classroom but I am strongly committed to participating in the process. If nothing else, being involved absolves me of ever saying “who wrote these stupid standards, anyway” or, “what group of boneheads put together that pathetic certification exam”.

    I am confident that, at least for earth/space science, the certification exam is scientifically rigorous and integrates very well the new standards.

    I am just worried about possible legislative shenanigans in the coming months.

  5. Eric Perlman Says:

    Cope,

    Thanks for the information – I really appreciate it. You’re right, that does help ease my concerns somewhat. I still have some concerns, for example with the weighting of the material. I was just sent a survey about this issue, and filled it out. At the end it tells me that astronomy is only 10% of the E&SS curriculum material tested on, just equal with any one of plate tectonics, structure of the earth’s interior, etc. Basically, when you do the math, geological processes get over 40% weight, astronomical processes about 10%. And I’m sorry, but as an astrophysicist, I find that unacceptable and not justifiable. Especially when you consider how much the two are built on one another.