John O'Connor

John O’Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida, a project of WUSF, WLRN and NPR covering education. John writes for the StateImpact Florida blog and produces stories for air on Florida public radio stations.

John is a former political reporter for The (Columbia, S.C.) State and the Daily Record in Baltimore. He has a bachelor’s degree from Allegheny College and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. He was chosen as the South Carolina Press Association 2009 Journalist of the Year.

It’s game day in the eighth grade International Baccalaureate design class at Ada Merritt K-8 Center in Little Havana in Miami.

The games the students are playing are designed by their classmates. And they’re based on books the students read for class.

Four eighth graders prepare to set off on a board game based on the book “Everlost” – set in a fantasy world between life and death inhabited by “afterlights.”

Assignments like this are one reason International Baccalaureate programs are growing in popularity.

Recently, President Barack Obama admitted he’d made a mistake when it came to public schools.

Like most people with big news to share – he posted it on Facebook.

"I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing,” Obama said in a video posted to the White House's Facebook page.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said he would scrap the national health insurance law known as Obamacare.

Bush outlined his plan to replace it during a speech in New Hampshire Tuesday.

Bush wants a system that protects people from worst-case scenarios rather than comprehensive coverage that includes services they may not want. He said insurance shouldn’t cover everything.

In Brigette Kinney’s design class at Ada Merritt K-8 center in Miami, one of the key concepts is editing and revising ideas after getting feedback.

Her 8th graders create role-playing games based on books they read. Then they adjust the games  after watching their classmates play.

Kinney hopes Florida lawmakers will be as open to change as her students.

“I feel that legislators are out of touch with what it means to be a good teacher,” she said.

Miami teacher Brigette Kinney said she doesn’t always hear about school news when classes are out for the summer.

So Kinney missed the word that state legislators set aside $44 million for bonuses based on SAT and ACT scores during a special summer budget session. Teachers who scored in the top 20 percent the year they took the exam and earned a “highly effective” teacher evaluation are eligible.

Last week the international  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results of a global study looking at the effect of technology on 15-year-olds' test scores.

The group oversees one of the most important international exams, so its research matters.

Lots of schools promise to train students to be nurses, technicians or for other in-demand medical careers. But a new federal database shows that isn’t always the case.

At some schools,  only a small percentage of students who attend using federal grants or loans earn more than a high school graduate a decade after enrolling in college.

The data links students who received federal financial aid to what they reported earning on their tax forms a decade later.

The first pope from Latin America is visiting Cuba later this month. Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit the Communist dictatorship since Pope John Paul II visited the nation in 1998.

Accompanying Pope Francis on the trip will be Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Wenski spoke with WLRN about the church's relationship with Cubans. Here are five things we learned:

The church has done a lot of bridge-building since 1998.

Florida House members were so impressed by testimony about school uniforms earlier this year -- convenience, improved safety and better discipline -- that they offered up $10 million to districts requiring uniforms.

The Miami-Dade school board likes the idea too. They required uniforms for elementary and middle schools.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho says that’s easy money.

Florida's public-private tourism agency has signed a deal to sponsor a professional soccer club in England's second-highest league.

The Visit Florida logo will appear on Fulham Football Club jerseys. The logo will also be on the three roofs of its London stadium, known as Craven Cottage, which is along the flight path for Heathrow Airport.

Fulham is owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

Before Marco Rubio was debating Pacific trade deals or normalizing relations with Cuba in the U.S. Senate, he was arguing car wash rules and which trees to plant on the West Miami City Commission.

Tonight in Ohio, he'll debate nine other Republicans running for president. But Washington Post reporter -- and Miami Herald alum -- Robert Samuels thought it would be interesting to look at Rubio's time representing the town of about 6,000.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools plan to eliminate out-of-school suspensions this year, preferring to keep kids in class and address behavior problems.

At one point, the Schultz Center had state funding and a big, multi-million dollar contract with Duval County schools to help teachers improve their craft.

The Schultz Center has trained thousands of teachers since it was founded in Jacksonville in 1997. But when state revenues declined, the Schultz Center funding was cut.

Florida just completed the first year of one of the biggest experiments in U.S. education.

For the first time this year, every grade in every public school used new math and language arts standards that outline what students should know each year. The goal to have is high school graduates who are ready for college-level classes or the full-time work force.

School district and state leaders generally support the switch. Teacher and parent opinions differ about whether the new standards are an improvement.

The superintendents of Florida's two largest school districts say it is less likely they'll make students repeat third grade next year because of low state reading test scores.

State law requires that students earning the lowest score on the reading exam have to repeat third grade unless they are granted an exemption. About 16,000 students across the state were held back last year.

But Florida has switched to a new statewide test this year, the Florida Standards Assessments, and educators aren't sure they can trust the results.

Miami Herald reporter Michael Vasquez has spent a year digging into Florida's for-profit college industry for a series called Higher Ed Hustle.

About 300,000 Florida students attend for-profit colleges, which often specialize in training low-skill workers for a new career.

Three months ago, W. Kent Fuchs became president of the University of Florida, leaving New York’s Cornell University.

Fuchs says Florida universities are adding new faculty, but opposition to higher tuition means more pressure to find private donations.

The University of Florida is also expanding a new online program with a goal of eventually enrolling 24,000 students.

Fuchs sat down with WLRN’s StateImpact Florida reporter John O’Connor to talk about the issues in higher education.

Testing experts say so far Florida's problems with its new statewide exam, the Florida Standards Assessments, are likely not serious enough for the state to consider throwing out this year’s test scores.

This week, PBS is launching a new documentary series, "180 Days."

One of the films focuses on Hartsville, South Carolina, a rural and poor district which has managed to become one of the highest rated school districts, according to South Carolina's ranking.

At Miami's iPrep Academy, getting ready for the state's new standardized test includes rapping.

Two students are recording the daily announcements, telling classmates when and where they need to be starting today.

"Monday is ninth graders, with last name A to G," one student raps, in a rhyme that's no threat to Miami's Rick Ross.



"On Tuesday, it’s ninth graders with last name H through Z," his partner continues.

A proposal to limit students to 45 hours of testing a year is unlikely to reduce the amount of time spent on exams, according to a survey of Florida's largest school districts.

Districts say they don't currently track the time individual students spend on testing.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says students cannot skip state-required tests, and teachers and schools can be punished for refusing to administer required exams.

Stewart’s letter is a response to questions from senators as they prepare for the upcoming legislative session. Senators wanted to know if students could opt out of state-required exams and how doing so might affect their progress in school.

Lots of people think there’s too much testing going on in schools right now. It’s one of the most contentious issues in education.

Lawmakers want to scale back the amount of time Florida students spend taking tests.

But at the same time, Florida is rolling out a new test tied to new math and language arts standards -- known as Common Core.

NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz researched the history and use of standardized exams for her book, “The Test.”

Read an edited version of our interview with Kamenetz below.

When lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March for the annual legislative session, they have a lot of questions they need to answer about public school testing.

Senators laid out their concerns about the state testing system last week at a series of meetings.

They don’t know how many tests the state requires or how long it takes to complete those exams.

They don’t know how much the state and school districts spend on testing.

And they’re not convinced they can depend on all the results of those exams.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took a first step toward becoming a 2016 presidential candidate Tuesday.

And that has many asking how his position on education issues would affect both a Republican primary candidacy and, if Bush survives, a general election candidacy.

Students who are the first in their family to attend college often have a more difficult time finishing their degree.

Research shows those students know less about how to get into and pay for college. They're also less likely to take tough high school courses needed to prepare for college.

This spring, Florida students will take a brand new test tied to the state’s new math, reading and writing standards.

This is the test that replaces the FCAT. It's known as the Florida Standards Assessment, and it’ll be online.

What’s on the test won’t be the only thing different about the exam. Students will also find new types of questions.

Polls show Governor Rick Scott and former Governor Charlie Crist are polarizing. Voters are as likely to dislike the candidates as they are to approve of them.

So both candidates are talking about schools, colleges and scholarships -- to motivate their supporters.

“Education is an issue that is helping to appeal to the base," says Sean Foreman, a Barry University political science professor and chairman of the education committee for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

State university leaders want to add $45 million in needs-based financial aid to help make up for changes to the Bright Futures scholarship program. Those new, higher qualifications will eliminate more than $250 million a year in college aid by 2018.

Set a goal. Work hard. Then, take a short break to recharge.

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