Florida claims to be obsessed with data in education. That's a lie, of course. The Jeb model has never actually cared about data on its own terms and in good faith. It has always seen data as a manipulatable political weapon to use against teachers and the very idea of egalitarian public education. The behavior of our educrat leaders demonstrates that endlessly.
But Florida claims to care. Data. Data. Data. That's what it's all about.
Well, look at this data from a Stanford study of growth in test-based effectiveness measures between 3rd grade and 8th grade. Key fact: Purple is bad. And there are plums less purple than Florida. We literally look like a sore thumb. Click to embiggen.
Here's a link to a description of the study, which contains a link to the study itself. One caveat: I should say clearly that I don't trust that this particular data: 1) Isn't gamed. 2) Is remotely relevant to kids' lives and futures 3) Should guide education policy.
After all, if there's one thing robot overlords will be able to do, it's excel on standardized tests. We humans will not compete with them there. It is odd that many of the same very serious people heralding the arrival of robot overlords think standardized testing holds the key to making us relevant as humans in their world. But that's a different post that will be written by an autonomous version of Billy.
Every DoE/BoE employee should resign in shame
This is indisputable: Jeb and his morally corrupt Florida educrats supposedly use this scoreboard to evaluate themselves. Everything about the Florida model aims to make us look good on those types of maps. How's that working out?
This study drills down to the county level. Not one Florida district gets out of purple. Basically every one in Tennessee does. That's a state model problem. That's a politician problem. That's a leader problem. That's a Kelli Stargel and Pam Stewart and Marva Johnson and Gary Chartrand problem. It's a Richard Corcoran and Adam Putnam problem (although, I think Adam at least knows there's a problem).
Twenty years of fraudulent school grades, bad tests, and crooked facsimiles of choice. And Tallahassee can't even get one Florida district into green on its own scoreboard. Not even elite St. Johns County. FAIL, Florida, FAIL. You own that purple, Tallahassee. You've made it clear for years that you're in charge.
The person writing about this study notices our benighted state immediately. "Florida is an almost insane basket case." I agree completely, other than using "almost."
But you also see a national failure. There is no real national coherence to results, other than the fact that the SEC states -- other than Tennessee -- are pretty terrible on this scoreboard. If the goal was to standardize American education around a test-based scoreboard model that lifts all boats, or something, that's failed, too.
And you see longstanding Polk failure. We are purpler than Florida as a whole, even though we've abjectly done the failed state's bidding for a generation. Nobody has more choice than Polk. Nobody has more stable conversion charter schools. And yet...
We all need something new.
So what follows is something new. It's Billy Townsend laying out his multi-level education agenda, as if he were running for president, Florida governor, and School Board member all at the same time. This will be a living document. I want to you to engage it, debate me, make suggestions.
Teachers are vital national infrastructure. But they work in a federalized, non-national system where states are real center of gravity for power and daily operations. The federal government should only confront the states on IDEA/ESE and civil rights violations. I want DoE out of the testing and "accountability" business completely. No more gravy train for useless educratic mercenaries afraid to get their hands dirty in a real classroom with real kids.
A Townsend administration would make the federal DoE's top mission growing and supporting the teaching profession -- including support staff. What does that look like?
A $20,000 federal raise for all teachers: The $64B federal DoE budget could give all 3.1 million active public school teachers a $20,000 raise if converted into a block grant. So let's do that. Spend the current federal budget, indexed to inflation over time, on teacher salary block grants to the states. We could change the trajectory of the teaching profession with that money. There would be no strings attached, except the money can only be used for teacher salaries. And states must show their salary structures publicly. That’s it. If we want quality at scale, we must drive people into the profession. A basic question of supply and demand that any conservative economist ought to agree with. And I want to reward the people committed to actual kids, not those playing around with distant spreadsheets so they can sit in false judgement.
Refocus other K-12 spending on support and enrichment -- not fake “accountability” and unnecessary administration: The DoE does some vital things around enrichment of Title 1 schools; ESE/IDEA support; Civil Rights enforcement; and consumer protection in higher education. That will continue. So if we convert $64B to teacher pay, we're going to have to increase federal spending on education. (The annual military budget is at least $600B by comparison. If Washington wasn't gutting the estate tax for our most entitled heirs of wealth, we could pay for half of this teacher salary grant through inheritance taxes.) How much can we save by purging fake "accountability"-related spending? I don't know. But I do know that we spend ridiculous amounts of federal grant money here in Polk County on pointless administrative requirements imposed by the federal DoE. I'm prepared to double federal education spending if necessary -- but only after we have scoured the federal DoE for counterproductive nonsense.
No more oversight welfare for educrats: I actually don't have any abstract, ideological problem with federal accountability. It could have worked, in theory. But I have endless problems with the brutal incompetence and harm it has done in practice since "No Child Left Behind." You had your chance, feds, Democrats and Republicans alike. You blew it. All you produced was a teacher shortage, an incomprehensible Common Core that people hate, and a jobs program for Ivy Leaguers too good to mix it up with real kids. We have entirely too many chiefs in education already. Your role, from now on, is support, infrastructure, some research and basic civil rights enforcement. You have failed as leaders. So you don't get to lead. If you want to be in education, get the keys to a classroom and engage 130 kids per day like real educators do.
The Florida Model and DoE/BoE
With the exception of the salary engine possibility for the federal DoE, this is most important for Floridians.
Your state government -- from Jeb Bush to Rick Scott, Richard Corcoran, and Kelli Stargel -- has imposed a punishment-based, fraudulent school-grade, teacher-shortage model of Florida education that is indifferent to human outcomes for most kids. All that has mattered -- and still matters -- to Tallahassee is fraudulent school grades. They are weapons of stigma and harm designed to market fake "choice" programs.
School grades take a 40-page technical paper to even begin to understand. And yet they are the weapons Kelli Stargel is using to threaten communities with closure of schools like Mulberry High and Kathleen Middle right now. Kelli Stargel's vision is a destructive and complete failure. Which means Jeb Bush's and Barack Obama's were, too, because they essentially agree with her on the merits of Test-and-Punish/Common Core.
My opposition to this model -- my pursuit of its destruction and humane reconstruction -- is non-negotiable.
If you want to double down on Kelli Stargel and Rick Scott, I can't stop you. I can only tell you the truth: it's a dead end. As long as I represent the voters of Polk County, I will relentlessly seek to bring life back to Florida's model. I will seek to improve the real experience of kids, grow the teaching profession, and meet the sheer scale of providing 14,000 employees to serve 102,000 kids. That can only happen by demolishing the corrupt, indecent, sexual harassment and abuse-ridden, dictatorial legislative power structure of today.
I want anybody's help who wants to offer it. But don't expect me to retreat or change direction an inch on this until you throw me out of office. The Florida model is corrupt and dead, for all the reasons mentioned above. Richard Corcoran and his little coterie of hanger-on vultures are feasting on our carcasses. Enough.
We need to get back to first things. At its heart, education is an adult taking an interest in a child's human and skill development. Start there and build.
Here are some key high-level reforms. But the state is where the execution devil is always in the detail. Making all of this practical will be hard legislative and administrative work. Our current state lawmakers and DoE officials are not remotely up to it. Their big ideas are bully vouchers. Get rid of them -- and start to apply real thinking and rigor to a new model.
Pivot toward Finland/Canada/North Dakota models: Prioritize human development and meaningful interactions. Teach kids rather than irrelevant and badly designed "standards," otherwise known as Common Core. Prioritize relevant and true competency development. Statistics is much more important for most people than Algebra, for instance. (Not to be confused with "competency-based" learning as a buzzword. Indeed, be wary of all education buzzwords. They are the pointy-end of the marketing spear.) Our new model should rest on honesty and human development, not pointless testing, punishment, and fraud. Recognize, as Ted Dintersmith says, that: "Our competencies are developed slowly through challenges that foster true mastery." Human implementation and execution matters more than ideas on paper.
End fraudulent, stigmatizing school grades
Evaluate by recognizing different types of schools: If we must evaluate schools as distinct entities, create different categories. Enrollment-curated magnet schools and charters that don’t take ESE kids should not play the same scoreboard game as neighborhood zoned schools. The insistence on grading publicly-funded private schools on the same scale as everybody else -- and then punishing everybody else -- is morally indefensible and systematically foolish.
Take least number of standardized tests allowed by federal law: Hopefully that becomes zero.
End mandatory third grade retention: End retention as much as possible. All research show that retention kills. Kids should stay with their age cohort. No one earns the right to age. And overage kids in middle school, particularly, are a huge problem.
Re-emphasize vocational/tactile learning. And liberal arts: The STEM buzzword focus -- to the exclusion of everything else -- has been deeply harmful. Recognize importance of emotional intelligence for success in the coming robot overlord world.
Surge ESE resources and focus: WE. NEED. HELP.
Provide segregation funding -- ESE, class, race, achievement level: If the public doesn't really want forced integration of schools, we should fund those that are segregated at higher, differentiated levels.
Completely re-think teacher evaluation: Bring back subjective teacher evaluation, based on real critiques. Not fake VAM or other measures. Prioritize development, not punishment. Peer review models are promising.
End the pointless general knowledge test for teachers which restricts entry to the field.
Make local state colleges the key engine of teacher training: State universities have failed miserably to produce teachers. Communities have to build our own teacher supply; and state colleges are the best option. Unfortunately, Senate President Joe Negron hates local state colleges and does not want them to "compete" with universities. That's odd, considering that Florida's entire education model sits on fake notions of competition.
Before I get into specific recommendations for the Polk District that I plan to pursue and advocate for, I want to spend a moment explaining how the bad faith incentives created by federal incompetence and the dead Florida model detonate on the ground at home.
Indeed, those incentives created what's truly unique and structurally problematic for Polk County. It's a challenge that few other counties have today at our scale. But they will have it under 7069, as I'll explain.
Polk's "Leadership Class" has created a stable, segregated, publicly-funded private school layer for itself.
Through district magnet schools and the conversion charter movement of roughly 1996-2005 (McKeel to Lake Wales), virtually Polk's entire "Leadership Class" essentially opted out of the traditional neighborhood public school system, with the partial exception of high schools. (At least the Leadership Class without ESE children did.) And the Leadership Class stopped paying any real attention to the experience of teachers and kids in the 75 percent of kids in traditional schools.
The exception to this is the occasional complaint that our "high wage" recruiters can't get "high wage" people from other communities to move into the schools our "high wage" populations abandoned years ago because they don't produce A-grades on the corrupt scoreboard. I wonder why that would be.
The Polk District's magnet schools, designed as desegregation tools, have become the opposite. That is true for most charter schools, too. And the segregation is multi-dimensional: class, race, achievement level, mobility, advocacy, behavior, and perhaps most important, special needs/ESE kids with learning disabilities and Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
Polk's Leadership Class School System does not do ESE, at least not at any scale.
That's probably completely illegal; but the mechanism of enforcing that illegality is impossibly difficult for most people to pursue. It also takes time; and the clock is always ticking for any kid's education. So rather than address the obvious ESE segregation, we foist ESE responsibilities on kids and teachers we don't see in neighborhood schools we ignore.
And then we punish them for our neglect.
Polk is the future under 7069 and the Florida model
Most charter schools you know in Polk County are known as conversion charters. Schools "convert" to choice/charter from zoned district school through parental and teacher votes.
This conversion happened repeatedly between 1996 and 2004 in Polk schools. It has stopped because teachers generally won't do it any more. And the bloom is off the charter rose as a popular brand. People have seen too much volatility and cynicism in charter enrollment curation.
But the conversion charter schools that were created are much more stable than start-up charters because they seized control of existing schools -- and their capital funding.
By contrast, until 7069, start-up charters did not get capital. If the law is held constitutional, you can expect Polk's Leadership Class private-school model to spread throughout Florida because capital funding will make it more stable. HB 7069 is kind of a back door path to what Polk already has because of conversions.
Under the Florida model, Polk is the future, believe it or not. Let me repeat that. Polk is the future.
The tiered system is a community challenge, not a school challenge
Our community, not our School District, chose this model. Our community will have to solve the problems it has created, if we want them solved.
I was a part of the inattentive opt-out Leadership Class for a long time; and I am trying to atone now. But I also think it is administratively impractical and politically impossible to dismantle the Leadership Class school layer and revert to simple zoning.
I'm much more focused on building connections between the layers; drastically easing the pointless, destabilizing pressure on neighborhood schools; and supporting the kids and teachers and staff in those neighborhood schools infinitely more meaningfully than we do now. I'm not the enemy of anybody's school. Again, I/we need allies.
And I believe, through many discussions, that the Leadership Class is ready to play a vital and constructive role in serving neighborhood, zoned schools. And we must, because no one can create a world class education system -- or even a fake scoreboard for business recruiting -- in our current structure and evaluation system.
Siphoning non-ESE kids from leadership families into publicly-funded private schools is not a viable model for comprehensive excellence. Nor is punishing with disruption and stress the teachers and kids who stay in neighborhood schools -- who actually do a pretty darn good job, despite that disruption and stress.
Demand that Kelli Stargel respect all choices
My son had a very good academic and social experience as an 8th grader at his zoned school, Crystal Lake Middle, which was a D when he transferred from A-rated Lakeland Montessori Middle Charter.
I am a high skill, high wage employee by any economic developer's definition. Didn't matter. The state did not respect my choice -- and still does not today. Florida does not respect the choice of any parent to attend any zoned school that does not throw off a B or higher.
When Kelli Stargel talks about closing or destroying Mulberry High and Kathleen Middle and on and on, she is spitting on my choice -- and the choice of people in those schools. We were all suspect in her eyes. Remember, she wanted to grade parents a few years back.
At Crystal Lake, the state inflicted all manner of "turnaround" nonsense that my son's excellent teachers had to navigate. That means he had to navigate them, too, along with his parents. And it was still the right choice for him, despite all of that, thanks to the adults and kids with whom he shared the school.
So I do not accept anyone else's judgement of my choice for him -- nor do I accept that judgment for the 75,000 kids who attend traditional zoned schools in this county. I will not beg legislators or DoE know-nothings or any out-of-county executive for validation.
But I will work every day to improve educational experiences for everyone in every setting, out-of-county executive's kids included. I believe the community as a whole is ready and willing to join that effort.
Build a culture of common purpose within our district
The pressures, punishments, and inequities of what I've just described are the engine of what is the Polk District's greatest problem: a longstanding crisis of common purpose and a disastrous human capital management system and culture.
I believe we are making progress on the common purpose front. The impasse process and deal is a huge blow for common purpose and working together productively. Management and labor cannot be enemies if education is to thrive systemically. Moreover, I'm proud, personally, of the work I've done to explain and engage and motivate people in the public at large around common purpose. I think, in many ways, it's the most important success of my first year in office. End of brag.
But we have much work to do on human capital management. That's a problem the district owns fully, even if state punishments and incentives feed it. I am working hard to change it. It dominates the list of reform ideas below. That's because I'm trying to focus here on ideas that do not depend on the federal and state reforms laid out above -- and that don’t take a ton of new money. What can we do if nothing else changes? Here is a list, in order of priority for me:
Human Capital Management reform
Work climate, work climate, work climate: It MUST improve. The impunity and capriciousness of career destruction and fear on display in the Tenoroc scandal is indicative of a wider institutional problem. It is our biggest and most fixable local problem.
Stakeholder management, stakeholder management, stakeholder management: We do not communicate well or explain our reasoning to our employees on tough issues. And that is a leadership, not PR department, issue.
Principals have the key leadership development role: We need to provide incentives for developing teachers and APs -- and pushing them forward. Today, principals have a negative incentive for developing leaders. If you're a principal with an effective AP, it is a career-harming move to advocate that they become a principal somewhere else. You put your own school grade performance at risk. Plenty of principals are broad-minded enough to do it; but they are acting altruistically. You can't rely on that. We should pay our people for building and advancing leaders, if we don't already, which I don't think we do. Professional Development should support the leadership development role, but principals and senior administrators are its practical engine. With that in mind, we must take school grade pressure off principals. If that means confrontations with the state, good.
Track teacher and AP turnover: If you, as a leader, are burning through APs and staff, you are not developing people or managing well. Part of leading is working with people collaboratively. And we are killing our young APs, eating our leadership seed corn.
Adopt the Publix “FUN” store climate survey for schools: This is a very useful heat map of morale someone showed me. I think it has very practical uses within schools. Indeed, I would like to consult Publix as a whole for leadership development. We have similar hub/spoke organizational models, with central offices that oversee schools/stores.
Collect student survey data for help in guiding professional development for teachers and staff
Provide clear expectations of sexual/romantic behavior in workplace. Take sexual harassment/power imbalance seriously.
Completely reform the broken HR complaint/investigation system: Provide thoughtful whistleblower protections -- and total reform of HR investigation process.
Here are some non-human capital ideas.
Make curriculum maps optional for any teacher rated effective or above (even though I hate the ratings).
Take a deep dive into curriculum map usefulness and relevance -- or lack thereof.
Move high school start times back by 2021.
Take time to address logistics. Phase-in if necessary. The crack-of-dawn starts are developmentally harmful and dangerous in places. More on that to come. It's not easy.
Refocus vocational education
Reinvest and expand offerings of Ridge/Traviss etc. The academies are fine, but they are essentially miniature magnet schools. They are not really serving the kids/adults that most need vocational options. Do not shortchange Ridge/Traviss etc. Engage business partners for skilled trades:
Create regional community segregation/busing/neighborhood school task forces, charged with fact-finding and realistic, innovative recommendations.
Create model athletics programs around core values that recognize: success comes through development.
Everyone competes for every team spot, every day.
Tryouts and preseason functions are open and publicized.
Transfers are welcome. But programs should prioritize developing players already in the program.
Varsity coaches should take interest in developing underclass players. Everybody gets better every day.
Reward a few model programs every year with $10,000 grants (funded by partnerships?)
Pilot and expand real foreign language programs in elementary schools. Focus on:
Let me know what else you would like to see.
Let's make the wobbly three-legged stool into something sturdier
To recap, public education in Polk County faces three great problems that feed each other.
One is a Washington/Florida Model incompetence problem. One is a Polk community, publicly-funded private school problem. And one is a Polk district culture problem, fed by the first two.
Together, they've had us on a treadmill for years, despite the best efforts of many, many talented and dedicated people on the ground. And we do have many talented people on the ground.
They must dance on this wobbly three-legged stool of dysfunction every day. And so many still manage to dance with vital grace. I believe this multi-dimensional, multi-government menu of real policy changes I support would help them -- and all of us.
(I am aware of the irony of asking people to debate/engage me when I have comments closed on this post. That's a technical issue with spam bots that I'm trying to fix. There are many other ways/places to engage, as cited above. And when I get the spam issue managed better, I'll reopen. It has nothing to do with comment content.)