April 1, 2010

Hilda Turner and why teachers are skeptical of John Thrasher's motives

In Tampa, there is a five-year-old elementary school named after the late Hilda Turner. The students attending Turner Elementary may not know why it's named after her, or who she was. Most legislators in the capitol probably don't know about her case against the all-white Hillsborough school board in the early 1940s and why the long history of politicized teacher evaluations give Florida teachers reasons to believe that Senator John Thrasher's bill is an attack on them.

But my friend and colleague Barbara Shircliffe knows, and she reminded me of the case today. She published a history of Tampa's desegregation case a few years ago (The Best of That World), and she's currently researching the history of teacher desegregation in the South. In the early 1940s, teachers across the South faced a split between what the federal courts had decreed and what the reality on the ground was. In 1940, Melvin Alston had won a lawsuit against the Norfolk, Virginia, schools for having separate salary schedules for white and black teachers, because the (federal 4th Circuit) court had ruled that unequal salaries were wrong. (In the decision linked above is the salary schedule that shows high school teachers were paid more than elementary teachers, men in high schools were paid more than women teaching in high school, and white teachers were paid more than black teachers.)

But most school systems didn't change anything until they were sued, and it took quite a spine for a teacher to take on her or his employer. Maybe the teaching shortage of WW2 made a difference. Certainly the fact that black soldiers were bleeding for their country played a role in growing militance (including the "Double V" campaign of the Pittsburgh Courier). Or maybe this sham of an evaluation for Hilda Turner in 1942 kicked her into action (Turner v. Board of Public Instruction, reference exhibit 3). The case quickly became messy and ugly, and I'm going to leave the story of that for my colleague's next book. But this wasn't isolated. Black teachers in Florida were treated unfairly and unequally for decades, often by their white colleagues. It probably wasn't until the mid- and late-1960s that teachers of all races in Florida started working together to address teaching conditions in the schools.

Nor were the types of spurious judgments in that evaluation uncommon. The fact that an annual evaluation was one of the lawsuit exhibits may be a legal quirk (since it was damning evidence of how the system treated black educators). But it also illustrates the controlling way that systems treated all teachers, and that continued for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were subject to attacks by the state's anticommunist legislative committee, run by Horace Johns, which eventually turned to outing gay teachers. (If I remember correctly, current U.S. Rep. Bill Young was a member of that committee when he was a state legislator starting out in politics.) Teachers in general were attacked in 1968 for striking, but gay teachers were the target of another attack in the 1970s by Anita Bryant. In the following decade the state imposed a generic evaluation instrument (the Florida Performance Measurement System), designed before the recognition that there was subject-specific expertise in teaching. And all of that came before the Sunshine State Standards in the mid-1990s, Jeb Bush's A+ accountability program, vouchers, No Child Left Behind, the Bush Recession of 2008, and finally John Thrasher's bill. I can point to a number of events or policies that supported teachers, but the background has always been a recent history of blaming and judging teachers.

Because there has never been a sufficiently well-grounded system of teacher evaluation, the experience of teachers on the ground has been ineffective, useless evaluations... or worse. And what teachers see in Senator Thrasher's bill is the "worse" category. Combined with the elimination of tenure (a topic for another entry), the mandate of a formulaic approach to teacher evaluation is too much for many teachers to swallow. This is not the result of hyperbole on the part of the Florida Education Association. This is the result of Florida's history of education.

(For more on the local context of Turner's actions, see Doris Weatherford's history of women in Tampa, pp. 287-288.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on April 1, 2010 8:29 PM |