Do we really need a superintendent?
No - if you only care about the district grade scoreboard. Yes - if you care about the future of human experience in your district and system. It's important to understand the difference.
This is a bit longer than I intended. But each of its component parts feed each other.
In coming weeks, I will likely publish some of these subhead sections by themselves to make it easier to digest for readers in short bites. But I think it’s also useful to have this in one place; and it’s a good read. It’s not any longer than most of what I write. LOL. And by the way,
Take a look at the chart below for a moment.
It follows three counties, including Polk, ranked (1-67) and tracked on Florida’s district grade scoreboard for a decade.
In Florida’s fraudulent school and district school grade system, a school or district gets an overall score on a state scoreboard; that score represents a percentage of its possible score; the school or district is then graded based on that percentage. 62 gets an “A”.
What does this little, three-county chart tell you about the importance of educational leadership and the need for a superintendent position? How does it bear on the Polk County schools superintendent search, which is cranking up now?
First do no harm
“Do we need a superintendent” is a particularly crucial question in Polk County right now because we’re in a superintendent search; and the early applications are, well, go look for yourself…EEEEEEK.
Perhaps the candidate pool will grow and improve in weeks to come. That’s the prediction I’ve heard. Let’s hope so. Because superintendent does matter, just not for any of the reasons most powerful people think it does — or pretend to think it does.
In my experience, in general, institutional and economic interests openly care about only two educational data points in their local communities: 1) the fraudulent school and district grades tied to the underlying fraudulent scoreboard; they actually ignore or don’t understand the scoreboard itself 2) and who is the superintendent for the local education system, so they can invite them to "Leadership [Whatever].” They want to know who they’re welcoming to the club.
I contend that those two priorities are irrelevant to each other. And that can lead to very bad hiring decisions. And understand this: in the Florida Model, a bad superintendent can do far more harm than a strong superintendent can do good.
The first duty of any Florida superintendent hiring process is to do no harm. Let’s hold that thought there; we’ll come back to it.
The optimism of first things
First, I want to say that I’m strangely optimistic about the future of public education — in Polk County and elsewhere — even in this moment of its greatest trial and strain, when a generation of educators who have given their lives to it are leaving behind its organizational abuse.
Why am I optimistic? Demand and scale. First things.
At its heart, the act of education is simply an adult with something to teach taking a human interest in a child with something to learn — or an emotional need to fill. The public demand for that is insatiable, as is the demand for free child care that allows the contorted American version of “capitalism” to function. It will only grow.
Every child I have ever met, even the most difficult, craves adult approval and praise for their performance. When adults can give it honestly, it is transforming. Organizing the massive demand for that human exchange, development, and experience within a building is called “school.”
Putting together a bunch of schools under a leader is a system.
Thus, public education is just millions and millions of individual human relationships housed in common physical or jurisdictional structures. Education is a very decentralized, individualized service that we centralize organizationally because the scale of delivery requires some centralized organization; and humans demand contact with other humans.
For a generation, American power has used this practical organizational structure to vastly overcomplicate the experience of education into misery and labor shortage. At the same time, it has oversimplified educational “measurement” into meaninglessness.
That’s a very modern American elite approach to humanity. Indeed, I can think of no greater overall failure by the American ruling class than Jeb Bush-style “education reform.” It shares a common DNA with so many other American ruling class failures — from Iraq to the Great Recession to the COVID-19 response. All share a lazy reduction of human behavior to shallow abstract data and bad measures that drive bad judgments. Or outright lies.
COVID-19 has drawn blood on “reform,” which was already bleeding, by reaffirming the overwhelming demand for developmental human relationships and access to peer relationships. It has underscored how little the public cares about school data compared to school experience and availability. And it has demonstrated the experiential inferiority of the virtual versions.
All of that will matter greatly in years to come.
Pay no attention to those zombies; just take this test
Thus, I see the pandemic raggedly, painfully returning American education supply and demand structure back to first things — and dragging the bipartisan clueless Ivy League think tankers and shameless grifters who run public education from on high along with it. Indeed, if every goateed, Chardonnay-sipping education “policy” think tanker and consultant were forced to actually engage children every day — rather than party at conferences and Tweet about data — there would be no teacher shortage.
The useless “NAEP” test, which won’t even tell anybody that Florida performs horribly on it, has been cancelled for 2021. States like Texas are scrapping their 2021 school grades, the key engine of grifting for every state that has them.
Florida’s education griftercrats are hanging on to test industry welfare and fraudulent school grades with gnarled little gremlin fingers. We’ll be the last to let it go, as a state. But the underlying forces at work are pretty powerful — at least as powerful as those that led to a democratically-imposed minimum wage hike on capital during a Republican-dominated election in Florida.
We’re in the zombie phase of the Florida Model’s American moment. Infected with an absurdity, it’s lurching around, pretending it’s still alive, moaning at everybody about the importance of fake data and then trying to eat our brains.
True educational leadership should recognize this radically transitional period and focus on how to develop the human capacity needed to rebuild and fill the demand for humane, meaningful education. How do we get from here to the Humanity Wall approach to education I described back in the spring?
Building human capacity at scale, not manipulating fake data, is the future for education — if there is one.
What is the relevance of Polk’s superintendent search?
It is probably too much to ask for Polk County’s superintendent search to consider these massive structural issues, even though they represent the core challenge of all education at scale.
Superintendent, as a position, has largely become a compliance pass-through for the Florida state system. Superintendents work for the unelected Department of Education far more than for the elected board members and the communities they represent.
Thus, the actual leadership imperative of local superintendents everywhere in Florida is tissue thin: what does the school grade scoreboard say? How do we comply/make the griftercrats happy enough that they somehow stop doing all the stuff they will never stop doing?
In that sense, who runs the Polk School district matters very little. And our little chart from the beginning of this essay rams home that point.
To refresh: here are three counties ranked (1-67) and tracked on Florida’s district grade scale scoreboard for a decade. St. Johns, which is very rich, very white, and very devoid of “choice” ranked number 1 on the scoreboard every single year. Jefferson, which is very non-white, very poor, and with nothing today but “choice,” has ranked 67th (dead last) every year, except one, when it ranked 66th. (The “choice” remark is a little unfair to Jefferson, which has only been a chartered ward of DoE for a few years.)
Behold the statistical rigidity of mass demography in a fraudulent accountability system — a system built entirely to inflame and exploit that same statistical rigidity. Behold a fraudulent system designed to stigmatize Florida kids who lack capital and outsource them to mercenary grifters. Behold a scoreboard that spits on the individual human beings contained within its numbers.
Did any “leader” make those chart lines twitch?
Do you think any organizational leader had any effect on the scoreboard performance of St. Johns and Jefferson in the last decade. Any? At all? Did some policy or some magic curriculum lock them into the top and bottom spots for a decade?
You could have paid Baby Yoda the big bucks and gotten the same results in St. Johns and Jefferson.
Compared to the iron rigidity of St. Johns and Jefferson, Polk looks like the stock market in a volatile week. But don’t let that fool you. We started at 55th in 2009 and ended at 53rd in 2019. We peaked at 49th and slipped to 60th at our worst. That’s an 11-spot swing between outliers. We had five superintendents during that time. Some of the superintendents overlapped each other, which created seven total leadership combinations in 10 years. Did any of it matter, at all, statistically? Do you see any data patterns?
Nope. With maybe one exception, which we’ll look at in a second.
And ask yourself, “if we just left the Polk superintendent position vacant and spent the $200K-plus per year on field trips and enrichment for low capital kids, would those scoreboard numbers have changed?”
Be honest when you answer.
On autopilot to oblivion
To underscore the statistical rigidity of the Florida Model, check out the image below. It has the 2009-2019 district grade scoreboard sorted by rank, worst to first, in 2014.
That was Kathryn LeRoy’s first full year as Polk superintendent. Polk dropped five spots to 60th of 67 counties — our worst district ranking of the decade. The yellow outline is where Polk sits in 2019, for comparison. We’ll come back to that in a second.
More importantly, note the overall color patterns. Green means a district scored higher on the scoreboard than the year before; red means it scored lower. 2009 is the baseline in my graphic. As you can tell, the districts overwhelmingly move in the same direction in the same years. That means you’re looking at state-level engineering of the scoreboard and grade. The state makes grades go in the direction it wants for its political benefit. Anti-human fraud on autopilot.
Indeed, in only one year, 2011, did you get the sort of mixed year-to-year performance that a serious scoreboard would actually produce if it wasn’t rigged each year. I mean look at 2015, compared to 2014. Every single district dropped. LOL.
Such a fraud-based scoreboard provides only one conceivable benefit: exposing outliers, if you look very, very closely.
In 2014, Kathryn LeRoy and the Jacksonville-exile crew’s first full year, Polk was a big outlier. We were one of the very few districts to lose ground on the scoreboard; and we dropped to 60th, our worst “performance” of the decade.
LeRoy was so bad that she may have even negatively affected scoreboard numbers in 2014, which we’ve established is quite hard for one superintendent to do.
What a superintendent can do
A talented, humane superintendent has some power to mitigate the hideous human experience of the failed test-chasing Florida Model, which has produced America’s worst state scoreboard and America’s worst state-level public education experience. A talented, humane superintendent has some power to create a collegial creative organization, rather than a hidebound, paramilitary, “chain-of command” organization. Some power. Some.
Polk’s citizen’s selection committee and School Board should be looking for superintendent candidate who can transcend the powerful personal and professional incentives imposed by the Florida Model, while creatively complying where unavoidable. If you can get a superintendent willing and able to use power like that, it’s worth paying for it. But there are not many. It’s very hard for human beings to transcend professional and personal incentives. (Ground-level educators and nurses do it more than any profession, I know, by the way.) Most superintendents get where they are through careerism, not transcendence.
Meanwhile, a superintendent has great power — virtually unlimited power — to make the experience of the Florida Model worse at the district level. He or she has almost unlimited power to inflict misery with impunity where he or she chooses in the name of the scoreboard chasing. And you’re much better off in that case just going without a superintendent altogether.
Kelli Stargel and the state scoreboard will win either way.
Don’t hire another LeRoy
Kathryn LeRoy was the quintessential example of the second type of superintendent — the one that takes every horrible thing the state does and makes it worse at the local experience level — all in the name of chasing scoreboard numbers.
This county would be far, far better off today if the 2013 School Board, including Lori Cunningham, Kay Fields, Tim Harris, Hazel Sellers, and Hunt Berryman, never hired LeRoy. The harm of that decision lingers.
Wendy Bradshaw and I organized and led the people who actually care about education in this county to get rid of LeRoy after she humiliated herself and everybody else with her behavior — on top of being an abysmal education leader. We got zero help from anyone in power in doing this hard work. It was a grassroots, public push — entirely.
And then I spent my entire School Board term helping dig out of the consequences of LeRoy’s tenure and dealing with her personnel holdovers. It’s hardly surprising some of those holdovers and some of my fellow board members and past board members — like Frank O’Reilly and Brenda Reddout — resented my efforts to fix their failure.
But you’re welcome all the same.
Discourage “Dear Leader-ism”
Superintendent Byrd is a lot more complex than LeRoy, even though LeRoy brought her here. In her best moments, when she embraced her best instincts, her experience mitigation and public bonding skills were quite good. She had the longest tenure of anyone in the last 10 years, which was only cut short by her own personal dynamics. She effectively built public support from Ruling Class Club, at least in terms of lip service. And that’s valuable to the well-being of a district.
Overall, I would say the superintendent did no harm, which is success for a Florida district, particularly Polk. She was miles better than Kathryn LeRoy. But she definitely didn’t transcend her professional and personal incentives, either.
Compliance with DoE drove Superintendent Byrd above all things. After that, in my view, she prized personal loyalty over professional and public merit whenever the two came into conflict. People with the right personal connections to the superintendent could get away with just about anything. Full accounting here. But I saw many capable and caring people isolated or punished for a lack of perceived loyalty. And I know from direct experience that she often resorted to dishonesty or silence under the strain of hard things.
That’s not great leadership. It has a chilling effect on any organization, which limited the full upside of what she could bring.
The superintendent, in my view, demands adoration. That’s her greatest weakness. I think it explains why so many people in so many meetings feel the need to praise her to the point of self-debasement. I cringed quite often for otherwise dignified men and women who found themselves giving Dear Leader speeches in public. But that’s just my perception. Maybe she is/was just loved that intensely by the people over whom she has direct power. I could be wrong; and I lost an election. So you’ll have to decide — and perhaps for more than just academic study.
If the Polk applicant pool doesn’t improve, you can expect some of the more genuflective board members to start begging her to stay — like I kind of predicted when the search time period was extended a few months ago.
The ancient is new again; but not really
In any event, the School Board has returned to deja vu all over again. Lori Cunningham is chair; Kay Fields is vice chair. Between them, they have 10 terms, 32-plus years, and more than $1 million in total taxpayer-funded salary, not to mention premium-free health insurance for themselves.
I think it’s fascinating that the for-profit charter industry invested enormously in Kay and Lori in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns. Kay and Lori are the ultimate embodiment of the Polk status quo and always doing things at the Polk district the way they’ve always been done. Thus, the for-profit charter industry reveals with its money how much it truly values the political status quo in driving economic return on its political investments.
In any event, this is the Cunningham/Fields status quo record on the state scoreboard, if that’s what you care about.
I should be clear that I don’t care about the scoreboard. I am not like the state of Florida. I don’t think there’s anything uniquely wrong with kids and adults in Jefferson County; nor do I think there’s anything uniquely awesome about kids and adults in St. Johns County.
Everyone deserves the humane and enriching education experiences that best suit what they need to getter better each day and become the best possible version of themselves. That does not seem so hard, does it?
These rankings reflect nothing more than a community’s overall capital, relative to others, and how that community has structurally segregated its capital. In Polk, our community has segregated our kids with capital away from those without it — or those with learning difficulties. We did this entirely through “choice” — magnet and conversion charter schools — not “trapping” kids in their zoned schools. Capital segregation and ESE segregation — more than racial segregation — is a direct result of the Polk community’s approach to “choice.” And we pay the price for it on the scoreboard, if that’s what you care about.
My unscientific guess is that Polk’s capital and ESE segregation model, arguably the state’s most dramatic, costs us about 10 county ranking spots on the scoreboard. We should probably be playing in the 40s, if that’s what you care about. But we won’t play there because of the segregation, which is quite popular amongst people with capital — and even some without it — and thus very difficult to change.
Indeed, the only idea Ruling Class Club has related to education is turn a profit off of Polk’s capital and ESE segregation through for-profit, high dropout rate charter chains. That’s why they won’t let you see their “white paper.”
Twilight of the scoreboard?
This is the full scoreboard, including letter grades, of the last 10 years. Polk is outlined in yellow. This is also the Cunningham/Fields record. You can see that Polk is the second lowest-scoring “B” in a state with few Cs and zero Ds. And yet it’s all we talk about — and put on electronic billboards and wrap around buses.
Again, I don’t think any superintendent or board member, myself included, has any meaningful effect on this rigged scoreboard. But it was this same rigged scoreboard that led Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC) president Steve Scruggs to suggest before I was elected in 2016 that Lakeland consider “going charter.” And it’s this scoreboard that Lakeland Leads’ Kate Wallace used in calling her home county district “bottom-feeding” when she spoke to the state Board of Education.
Given that reality, it seems rather curious how eager the Big Fish/Little Pond powerful economic development folks were so eager to return to the Polk’s educational and political status quo of the last 20 years.
But that doesn’t mean nothing’s changed.
For the first time in their very, very long careers, Lori and Kay may get to pick a superintendent that outlasts the test-driven scoreboard, the importance of which I see beginning to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity in the COVID era.
Call me, anytime
Last I saw, David Hallock was going to represent the LEDC on the public search committee. David is also the driving force behind Kate Wallace and Lakeland Leads and that ever-hidden “white paper” she’s been outsourcing to somebody else to write with David and Wesley Beck and Jeff Chamberlain’s money since early 2019.
David always seemed quite reasonable in the discussions about education that he and I had early in my term. In fact, we both agreed that Harrison’s Daryl Ward had a skillset that would translate well into what the superintendent role demands. Back then, I thought Daryl might make a good successor to Superintendent Byrd if he could work under her and develop for a few years. That ship obviously sailed.
And as I recall, David was also the lawyer for Academy Prep and found me nothing but supportive and helpful in establishing it. Indeed, if “voucher” people were serious about vouchers, Academy Prep would typify the providers, not Kingdom Prep. And there would be no real fights over them.
Anyway, it’s not like David and I were in different universes of thought.
And then Kate Wallace Mowgli-eyed him somehow and he abruptly cut off contact, along with the rest of the LEDC universe, Steve Scruggs excluded. Steve was always an honest broker, in my view. There just wasn’t much to broker once Kate got indulged.
The irony of this is that Kate reverse Mowgli-eyed literally every other education stakeholder she’s interacted with, according to every single conversation I’ve had with someone who met with her — which is quite a few.
Put all that aside.
This is a weird time to try to hire a superintendent. A bad choice is worse than no choice; and I care about this district and community. I think I have better insight into what would make for a solid superintendent hire in this period of powerful disruption and uncertainty than anybody in this county.
I say that as humbly as possible; and I’m well aware that people reading this may say: Billy’s just being sore loser and pulling a Trump and trying to stay in the spotlight, etc. Nobody cares what he says. How pathetic.
That may well be true. Who knows?
But I can’t do anything about what people think; and I really don’t care what anybody says. So I’m just offering myself as a resource to David Hallock, or anyone else on the committee, or the board, including William Allen, should he have interest. Call me. 863-209-4037. I won’t tell anybody if you want it kept quiet. It’s not about me.
I know the contours of education policy battles and euphemisms extremely well. I am fluent in educrat; and I can help translate for anybody bewildered by what the buzzwords and experiences outlined on resumes actually mean. I can tell you what to ask and where candidates are coming from, ideologically and otherwise. I can be helpful.
And as for applicants worried about some rogue board member-in-exile trying to control the district from beyond the grave; don’t be. I’m probably unimportant; and I’m quite easy to please.
Focus on the humanity of the Polk educational experience and developing the capacity to deliver it in an ever more engaging way. That’s all I’ll ever ask. I won’t say a peep about the scoreboard, which is very different from most rogue ex-school board members, I suspect. Hell, any of you can call me, too.
The future of public education is less certain today than in any time period in my lifetime. The role of the superintendent should reflect that; and anyone with the capability to help forge a new and better path should try to help.
I’m absolutely committed to that.