What’s next for personalized learning in Florida after legislation dies

A bill’s death in the waning days of Florida’s legislative session could slow the progress several public schools are making to help students learn at their own pace.

The legislation would have allowed districts leading Florida’s foray into “mastery-based” learning to start replacing conventional A-F grades with a new grading system based on students’ mastery of standards.

However, an influential Senate committee chair slowed the bill’s progress, and dealt it a death blow during the session’s final week.

At the same time, supporters say misunderstandings about the bill and its intent caused the measure to lose support.

P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School is leading Florida’s foray into personalized learning. It’s developing a “mastery-based” grading system. The goal is to define where a student is in their learning process, rather than simply give them a letter grade tied to a percentage score.

Right now, the law requires schools to award course credit to students who receive 135 hours of bona fide instruction and earn a passing grade. It also defines letter grades for all public middle and high school students.

Competency-based learning efforts at P.K. Yonge and school districts participating in a state pilot program, including Seminole County, would have benefitted from changes to those parts of the law.

The bill’s failure means some lawmakers are hoping for help from the Department of Education, while some school officials are holding out hope for next year.“It may stymie some of the innovation that both Seminole and P.K. Yonge had planned for next fall,” said Shan Goff, policy director for the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a reform advocacy group studying personalized learning.

Dead in the Senate

The personalized learning proposal passed easily in the House, winning bipartisan support on the floor.

However, in the Senate, sponsor Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg faced an uphill climb. The Education Committee did not hear the measure until its last meeting of the session. That day, the response to the Parkland shooting and another wide-ranging education measure overshadowed the rest of the agenda.

Time expired without the bill getting heard — all but a death sentence in the second-to-last week of the session.

Brandes pointed to opposition from the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.

“What happened? Sen. Hukill happened,” Brandes said. “The Senate generally liked it, and Sen. Hukill did not, and out of deference to her, they killed it off.”

Brandes kept trying in the session’s final days. He proposed an amendment to the wide-ranging HB 7055, but withdrew it amid tensions going into a tight vote on the floor. He also hoped to amend it onto a homeschooling bill, but withdrew it amid concerns about a “train bill” forming.

In a last-ditch effort, Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, attached a version of the personalized learning proposal to SB 88, a bill creating a high school financial literacy course. The amendment also would have made the financial literacy course optional, watering down one of Hukill’s longtime priorities. The Senate voted to reject the amendment and send it back to the House, where it died.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, who sponsored  HB 1035, the House version, said Hukill “single-handedly killed this legislation.”

Hukill did not return multiple calls to her office seeking comment.

Goff said there were misconceptions about the bill.

For example, she said, some lawmakers mistakenly believed its changes to A-F grading meant some students would not wind up with grade point averages, which they might need when they apply to college.

Others were concerned it would expand the competency-based pilot program to all 67 counties. While it would have given every district the option to participate, it would not have created a mandate.

Flexibility to personalize

A 2016 law created a competency-based learning pilot program for the Pinellas, Palm BeachSeminole County and Lake County school districts, as well as the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Development Research School. Under new leadership, Lake County decided to back out of the program last year.

Goff said other districts outside the existing pilot, such as Hillsborough County, had expressed interest in joining.

The pilot program allows public schools to experiment with competency-based learning, in which students advance to new material based on whether they have mastered the standards, rather than the amount of time the spend in class.

P.K. Yonge breaks down each course into individual learning expectations. For example, a world cultures course might include standards related to understanding culture, global interconnectedness and civic ideals. On report cards, students receive ratings of their progress on each.

Lynda Fender Hayes, director of P.K. Yonge, said the new system helps parents understand specific areas where their children need help, and where they’re already advanced and could use enrichment. The school combines its mastery-based grading system with more traditional grading methods, in part because that’s what the law requires.

Schools participating in the pilot program can apply to the Florida Department of Education for waivers from state regulations that might stand in their way.

Hayes said P.K. Yonge previously sought a waiver to change its grading system. But they were denied because state officials didn’t have the authority to waive statutory requirements.

“If that bill were to pass, it would shape the culture in how children were graded,” Hayes said. “We would have let go of the A-F culture and transitioned parents into that mastery-based culture.”

Brandes has called competency-based learning the next evolution in education. He said he hoped to work with the department to create more flexibility for schools.

“I have to believe the [department] has some flexibility within its existing authority to do many of the things that we are trying to do statutorily,” he said.

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BY Livi Stanford

Livi Stanford is former associate editor of redefinED. She spent her earlier professional career working at newspapers in Kansas, Massachusetts and Florida. Prior to her work at Step Up For Students, she covered the Lake County School Board, County Commission and local legislative delegation for the Daily Commercial in Leesburg. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.