Welcome to Polk County: Finland on I-4, Part 1

On Monday night, 6:30 to 8:30, at the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) will hold our first public meeting since the ouster of Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy.

I believe we played a key role in forcing LeRoy’s departure. I expect us to play a key role in the hiring of new superintendent. And I expect us to play a key role in setting a forceful new direction that prioritizes quality of life and humanity for students and teachers.

We scheduled this meeting for 6:30 to 8:30 Monday night in Winter Haven to avoid church night; to avoid conflict with a teacher union meeting; and to show the county that although we started in Lakeland, we are not a Lakeland group. We hope the scheduling demonstrates our good faith.

Monday night’s meeting is about aspirations, not gripes. I suppose Wendy Bradshaw and I will be facilitating it. And I think I can speak for her in saying that we hope to use any unhappy personal experiences with the school system as constructive examples on which to base improvement and hopeful purpose. The essay that follows is part 1 of my version of an aspiration for a radically transformed traditional school experience in Polk County. We want to hear yours.

I am told the McKeel Empire is sending some teachers to Finland soon to study that country’s outstanding education system. In a past life, I might have made a pointed joke about the cost of the trip. Today, however, I find it as encouraging as I do ironic.

Why is this trip ironic?

Because, if the McKeel teachers actually listen to what Finnish educators tell them, they’ll come back recommending an end to the McKeel system. (And Lakeland Montessori and Lincoln and Harrison, etc.) Seriously. Elite, highly segregated charters and magnets are literally the opposite of Finnish education model. So is the wider model of American test-based “accountability” + choice + socioeconomic and achievement-based segregation.

Here’s an explainer from Business Insider. It has a breakdown of Finland’s unique qualities.

Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, Finland’s school system has consistently come at the top for the international rankings for education systems. So how do they do it?

It’s simple — by going against the evaluation-driven, centralized model that much of the Western world uses.

Here’s a quote from a story in The Atlantic:

Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.

Google “Finland model” and you’ll see hundreds of articles and explainers saying the same thing. Finland consistently places far ahead of the United States in PISA testing, despite having no significant internal high stakes testing program at all.

That’s most likely why McKeel is sending its people. Again, the irony is palpable. But I’m not going to dwell there. I think it’s quite unlikely that McKeel will choose to disband itself. And it doesn’t need to disband to help the traditional zoned schools that most Polk children attend. That’s why the trip is encouraging, as well as ironic.

If McKeel’s educators just come back speaking and acting honestly, it could be incredibly important and helpful for traditional schools. And in truth, some of the finest, most generous and community-minded people I know send their children to McKeel. As a group, the McKeel community (and the charter/magnet community at large) could for once play an incredibly constructive role in transforming how we educate and nurture children in Polk’s traditional zoned public schools.

That yearning for transformation, I believe, lay at the heart of the rebellion against Kathryn LeRoy’s administration. I know it lay at the heart of my role.

This was a fight over the traditional school experience. It was a fight over child and teacher quality of life at traditional zoned schools. The charter/magnet community largely sat it out. (Lakeland Montessori, where my son goes to middle school, is an exception to that. A number of us were vocal advocates for change. Just an observation.)

In any event, simply replacing LeRoy — and the despised core of Jacksonville administrators that came with her — won’t meaningfully alter Polk’s traditional school experience for students or teachers. To do that, we must meaningfully alter the model upon which that experience rests.

The model I want, as a parent and citizen and taxpayer, looks a lot like Finland’s. Don’t get hung up on checklists of what they do. We would obviously need to adapt the model to fit the realities of our society. I’m talking about the core mindset.

I talking about a model built on belief in constructive play, quality-of-life, and basic trust between the public and educators. It’s a model proven over time to at least correlate with both educational happiness and strong international test results.

Compare, contrast, and brand

Let’s look at how we market our evaluation models for a second.

Right now, on the Polk School District’s web site, you’ll see this:


The School District decided to market school grade changes as a digital billboard. Some person gave the directive to do this. And why not? That’s how we’ve always done it here in Florida, at least since 1998.

Here’s the reality, as The Ledger‘s Sara Drumm very usefully pointed out.

The grades are not directly comparable to 2013-14 because students took a new standardized state test in 2015, moving from FCAT to Florida Standards Assessment.

Many students took the FSA online, while the FCAT was on paper, and some students in districts throughout Florida experienced technical glitches while taking their exams.

Nothing before or after those paragraphs matters. The state itself declares that the grades will be used as a baseline for next year. They do not signal improvement — or regression. By the state’s own reckoning. Let me say that again. The Polk School District is marketing as historical improvement school grades that even the corrupt, ridiculous state model says you can’t use as a progress indicator.

And of course, next year it will change again. That will make this year useless as a baseline, even when they say otherwise. It’s always that way.

I have been writing about school grade gaming since 2000. Sixteen years ago I wrote a column in The Ledger about the school where my wife taught. It went from a D to a B in one year because the state simply factored out “mobility” kids, those who weren’t at the school for both FTE counts. It then received a reward for the “progress” represented by the state’s decision to factor out the mobility kids.

I wrote this in 2012, titled: “Don’t play the rigged high school grade game.”

I wrote this essay in 2014. Its subtitle is: “You have no idea what your school grade means.”

Anyway, you get the picture. I’m not going to waste any more time explaining the chemical compounds of bullshit to you. You can smell it the same as me. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of driving round and round in an educational cul-de-sac in which our community’s self-worth gets determined by the politics of cut scores in Tallahassee.

But it’s important to note one last time just how dishonest it is to market this — in this way — for our School District. It would be just as dishonest to hide our head in shame and hopelessness if it happened to go in the other direction.

Thus the single personal quality I most want in a new superintendent is intellectual honesty — not an instinct for cheap, easily reversible branding that we cannot control.

Let’s differentiate ourselves from the rest of Florida’s drudgery

If you’re an economic developer trying to recruit a business; or a hospital administrator trying to recruit a doctor; or a principal recruiting a teacher, what’s easier to sell?

1) “Yeah, we bounce around between 49 and 60, which is where our demographics would predict. We’re a poor county, and the state always changes the model. It’s an endless game. We’re really no worse than Hillsborough or Orange or Osceola. And anyway, we’ve got some heavily segregated and enrollment-curated charter and magnet schools your kids can attend. And there are always private schools. And pay no attention to massive teacher shortage.”

2) “Man, we just did the coolest thing ever. We lifted the state’s crushing testing regime and started to adopt the Finnish model of public education in our traditional schools. Teachers can teach; and we expect them to. Do you know about Finland? It’s generally regarded as one of the best and most humane systems in the world. But if you still want the state’s testing structure for your kids, we have magnets and charters that have decided to keep it. Literally, no other district in this state, or in this country, looks like us. We think of ourselves as the pointy end of the spear in reforming ‘education reform’.”

This is how you brand in the real world. That’s how you generate excitement, through change you can describe and feel. We need that desperately.

Right now, by my count, the non-charter Polk School District lists about 135 open teacher positions. One of them is at a magnet, by my count. That’s roughly 3,400 traditional school kids without a stable, consistent teacher doing the job assigned to him or her. That’s two big high schools worth of kids.

If intellectual honesty is my baseline priority for a superintendent, a stable teacher in every classroom is my baseline operational goal for the School District. Today, Polk County’s traditional public schools cannot, with any honesty, promise parents and children that every classroom will have a full-time teacher committed to them for the full school year. We can’t even start to talk about whether that teacher is good or not.

My aspiration is that a “body in every class” becomes a motivated, competent teacher in every class. A teacher who wants to be in that classroom with those kids. I know from long personal experience as a parent and observer that we don’t have that now. You know that, too, dear teachers. And you have to help us fix that, as general quality of life improves.

Knowing that the teacher shortage is our worst traditional school problem, let’s ask again: which model is more likely to excite and draw quality teachers?

1) The state’s no exit cul-de-sac of meaninglessness, absurdity, and segregation?

2) Finland on I4?

If the answer to that is as clear to you as it is to me, come back for part 2. And we’ll start to talk about about the political and community decisions required to opt out of the state’s broken model and create our own. We’ll talk waivers, resolutions, consequences, and the role of the so-called “choice” community, who ought to work with us in the spirit of real “choice.”

3 thoughts on “Welcome to Polk County: Finland on I-4, Part 1

  1. I have not spent much time researching the Finish model, but I did watch a PBS documentary about it. So, I feel equally qualified to say that I do not believe that Finland and America are similar enough to copy and paste their model and expect success. Finland seems very homogeneous to me, while my instincts tell me that American children are from radically variant socioeconomic backgrounds, distracted by diversity, and in many cases, unable to speak the language in which they are being taught.

    I’d also be interested to know how Finland handles the unruly and disinterested children? One way that the charter and private schools succeed is by student selection. I don’t blame them.

    The predominate educational philosophy in the United States seems to be ‘education for all students, whatever it takes.’ In fact, the motto of a prior Polk County superintendent was “Learning for all, whatever it takes.” I do not believe this philosophy is sustainable, nor even attainable. We could spend ourselves into a black hole copying education models from hither and yon, or spending dollars on the model we’ve currently got, but a much better approach would be some kind of utilitarian model.

    Simply put: make the most effective use of our tax dollars for those students within two standard deviations from the mean, and let the chips fall where they may for the others. I understand that this is probably unconstitutional in Florida, but I’m not suggesting it’s currently legal, just most practical. For example, if we could educate 90% students in Polk County for $500,000,000 per year, does it make sense to spend another $500,000,000 to educate the next 10% who may either be uninterested or incapable of achieving a 3 on the FCAT (or whatever measure of achievement we choose to use)?

    • “I do not believe that Finland and America are similar enough to copy and paste their model and expect success.”
      Very, very vague. What do you consider success? Also, I did not say “cut and paste” in any way. Go back and read again. And address what I actually say.
      Not sure why simply taking the PISA test each year and dismantling the accountability structure would cost us money. Perhaps you can explain.
      And in terms of unruly kids, we do a terrible job in this system. Indeed, I believe this system creates them. Hard to imagine a Finnish-style approach would be worse. It would certainly be more well-meaning.

  2. I am trying to get in touch with Billy Townsend to learn more about the place where my brother, Brooke Halsey, died July 21, 1969: Phu Cuong Bridge. My wife and I hope to travel there next week.
    Thank you in advance,
    Woody Halsey, retired educator

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