The right medicine for education

Published: Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.

Visiting Gainesville High School last week, I didn't expect to find myself lying on a cot as wires were stuck on my chest.

I was serving as a guinea pig for students in the school's Academy of Health Professions. The magnet program prepares students for health care fields with training in jobs such as nursing assistants, physical therapy aides and EKG technicians -- the last one being the reason behind the wires.

In recent months, the academy has seemed like the epicenter of state changes in education. Gov. Rick Scott visited there in January to tout his plan to provide raises for teachers -- they checked his blood pressure while he was there, sparing him the embarrassment of having to bare his chest.

The academy's director, Janine Plavac, made the news last month as part of a federal lawsuit filed by teachers and their unions over the state basing teacher evaluations on the FCAT standardized test. She's the perfect example of flaws in that system.

Teachers have been evaluated based in part on FCAT reading and math scores. Yet only a small portion of teachers — 25 percent in Alachua County — teach those subjects.

Forty percent of Plavac's evaluation last year was based on FCAT reading scores for her ninth-grade class. That dropped her from being rated "highly effective" to "effective."

She rightly argues that she should be evaluated on the national certifications that her students take in health fields, which they regularly pass with flying colors. Those students also do clinical work — the next time you're at Shands, a GHS student might be doing your EKG — that could also be part of her evaluation.

The state has taken steps lately to free schools to do more career and technical training. A sweeping education measure, signed into law by Scott last month, creates different diplomas including one that students earn through achieving industry certifications.

County magnet programs at Loften High School, with its professional programs in fields such as automotive technician, should benefit. Students shouldn't be set up for failure in a rigidly college prep curriculum when they could get training for good-paying, blue-collar jobs.

The health professions academy doesn't really fit that argument. The students I talked with there were planning to attend college and in some cases seek advanced degrees. Being a pharmacy technician or physical therapy aide helps pay for college, distinguishes them on an applications and prepares them for further study.

So what could the state do for such programs? Part of it comes down to money. Plavac worked as a nurse for nearly 30 years before coming to the academy and could have made more staying in the field.

She doesn't expect to get rich and she isn't against evaluating teachers. She just wants to be evaluated and compensated based on actual results.

"Please evaluate me on the success of my students," she said.

It doesn't take an EKG to find the flaws in the state's system. If the governor and lawmakers don't recognize that, maybe the lawsuit is the right medicine.

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