POLK COUNTY – On Friday, Aug. 9, the last weekday before the start of the school year, Florida Department of Education staff sent notification to Polk County Public Schools officials that dozens of teachers would have to either change the classes they taught or, in some cases, even change schools or else risk the district losing millions of dollars in state funding.

According to Polk County School Board member Sarah Fortney, FDOE staff have given local officials similarly last minute notifications for the past five years. She further explained that this problem is part of the reason why she stopped teaching to try and get elected to the school board.

State law requires that public school teachers for grades four through 10 who teach English or mathematics be graded on job performance. State legislators enacted law mandating Florida Department of Education staff to use a complex math formula, called a “value-added model” — or a “VAM” score — to grade these teachers.

Teachers receiving a low VAM score who teach English or math in grades four through 10, and who are doing so at schools that are defined as “low performing schools,” are required either to teach other classes or grades at the same school, or to teach English or math at a school that is not defined as low performing.

According to a Polk County Public Schools press release, 12 teachers from three county schools were forced to transfer to other schools late last week.

Teachers from McLaughlin Middle in Lake Wales and Griffin Elementary and Phillip O’Brien Elementary in Lakeland were affected. PCPS staff did not say how many teachers were affected who did not have to change schools.

Recent Polk County School Board candidate Jennifer Sabin and Fortney said they know of at least a dozen teachers who were forced to teach something else, without having to relocate schools, at the last minute as a result of a low VAM score.

Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend publishes an education blog online where he has posed for a picture as a “VAM-pire” to express his opposition to the state mandate. Townsend said the complex math formula is not something the average person can understand and that it would be easy for somebody to manipulate a VAM score without being detected. On the weekend of Aug. 9, Townsend volunteered to help one of the teachers relocate to a different classroom as a result of the VAM mandate.

In 2017, three Stambaugh Middle School students spoke in tears to the Polk County School Board about how replacing teachers with low VAM scores with substitute teachers can have unintended consequences. The students pointed out that a VAM score does not measure how much a teacher cares about students and that some of the teachers removed in 2017 were beloved by students.

Supporters of the policy maintain that grading teachers makes sense to make sure quality teachers are in place where they are needed the most.

Townsend and Fortney counter that such logic is flawed, because the way schools are graded is just as complex as a VAM score.

Florida state legislator Kelli Stargel and FDOE staff have defended using VAM and school grading methodology. Requests for comment by Stargel and FDOE staff were not returned.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.

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