On the heels of the Polk School Board’s cowardly — and borderline insulting — snap-hire of Jackie Byrd, those of us looking to improve the Polk classroom experience find ourselves confronted with a new act of bad faith.
This one came from Byrd’s administration itself. It’s an obtuse, bureaucratic, nearly useless response to testing concerns and discussion points offered in good faith by Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL). The transmittal e-mail we received was signed by associate superintendent Jacqueline Bowen, the district’s chief academic officer.
But I suspect that Heather Wright, the district’s senior director of Assessment, Accountability & Evaluation, compiled or wrote the content. It echoes the incomprehensible eduspeak gobbledygook that Wright employed at The Ledger‘s testing forum a few weeks back.
Here’s a link to the whole thing.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of bad faith in a moment. But first, some background.
A few weeks ago, Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (CBEL) established a testing and accountability reform committee. Under Wendy Bradshaw’s leadership, we gathered testing-related information from across the district and compiled it into an informal white paper. The idea was to create a foundation from which to discuss and implement short-term improvements to the testing environment in the Polk district.
Virtually every educator and administrator we’ve talked to described that environment as miserable and confusing. We hoped to disentangle the confusion and misery required by the state from the confusion and misery unnecessarily caused by district policy. This is much, much harder than you might think. Complexity is fraud, as a general rule; and there’s a reason “accountability” is such a fraudulent concept in education.
Our document came with a series of observations and recommendations — offered in good faith. Here’s what teachers and parents are telling us. Here are some steps to consider. Let’s talk about them and get down to action items.
This wasn’t an indictment or a legal brief. We didn’t even ask for a written response. We asked for engagement. What we got back was jargon-choked litigation, arguing that there are no problems. Everything is as it should be. Prove us wrong.
This is from the opening paragraph.
We are very interested in the concerns you have expressed in your email communication. We have addressed these holistically below and would welcome the opportunity to explore any specific instances where you would like to provide more detailed evidence.
That’s striking word usage, isn’t it? Show me your “evidence.”
This isn’t a trial, Heather Wright. We’re not lawyers. Your interests and ours should be the same. We pay you a lot of money to do this work — on our behalf — all day long, all week long. We’re telling you we’re dissatisfied with what we’re getting for the money we pay you. That should concern you.
Rather than argue to a judge who doesn’t exist that we’re wrong; rather than saying, “Prove it,” you ought to get the hell out of your highly paid cubicles and circulate in your schools and figure out for yourselves where your perception and teacher/parent perception of reality differs. Then you should start publicly and endlessly communicating how you plan to bring those perceptions into alignment. That’s what leaders do. We expect leaders in your positions, not bureaucratic check-chashers. If you can’t operate that way, you should leave now.
If you can’t operate that way, I promise you, speaking only for myself, I’m going to do everything I can to chase you out. You’ll have to decide for yourselves if there’s “evidence” that you should take me seriously when I say that.
Here’s example number 1 of litigation and BS disguised as an answer.
We cited an admittedly common complaint among teachers virtually everywhere, but which seems particularly acute here in Polk since the LeRoy administration came into power.
Excessive instructional time is lost due to testing across all levels, with common estimates of at least 1/3 of instructional time dedicated to testing or testing practice. [emphasis mine]
Here’s the answer, which I’ve heard before. It’s a common talking point.
The combined time to administer district, state, and national assessments accounts for 0.5 to 3 (0.5% – 3%) percent of instructional time. The district’s testing calendar has a detailed breakdown of the time spent testing, as well as the hours allocated by assessment type.
You’ll notice the answer makes no reference at all to “testing practice,” which, is, of course, perhaps the core issue of overtesting. The district just pretends like we didn’t say the word “practice.”
Let me ask you something, Heather, as an accountability professional: if the Florida Standards Assessment test asked a child to answer a question with two parts, and that child only answered one, how are they likely to score?
I have heard, repeatedly, from teachers and district personnel that the people who came with LeRoy to Polk developed a cute, little acronym for the word Polk. “People of Little Knowledge.” I have no idea if it’s true. And I have no idea if Wright and Bowen had any hand in it, if it is. Prior to receiving this document, I would have thought it unlikely on both counts. But then I also try to believe the best of people until proven otherwise.
When I look at that question — and that answer — I see “evidence” of people who think of the people they serve with that level of contempt. Or I see “evidence” of people who ought to look in the mirror before mocking someone else’s intelligence.
Here’s a far more substantive exchange.
Question: Fourth grade reading passages: Based on data from reading coaches, the only students who were able to pass the weekly reading assessments were those who began 4th grade reading above grade level (5th grade or higher). In the case of fourth grade classes, most of students in class across the district failed every weekly assessment and will likely fail the FSA, if it is written at the reading levels on which the district practice tests were designed.
Response: Historically, Polk County Schools has had approximately 1,100 students retained in 3rd grade based on state requirements. Because the state did not report achievement levels for the new 3rd grade Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) in Reading for the 2014-15 school year, less than 300 students were retained, resulting in more students being promoted to 4th grade that are reading below grade level.
Sara Drumm and The Ledger should take note of that. There’s a lot to explore there. Our question/observation here, like several others, touched on the perceived content/instructional level mismatch between district-level assessments and the FSA and other state-mandated tests. Wright’s office, in its answer, ignored that issue. Instead, it just asserted that more kids who don’t read well got promoted than usual, so the failure rate is higher. Next question.
Here’s one last example, just so you can feel the gelatinous jargon of this response. It’s like the Blob. If you get caught in it, it absorbs you and you die. So people run away from it. This is almost certainly by design:
Question: The district End-of-Year exam count for 20/30% of grades but have serious flaws and no information regarding validity or reliability.
Response: Over 170 Polk County teachers participated in a test item review session in summer 2015, to review all items either with reported errors (errors reported by teachers using the district form) or flagged by our district psychometrician for difficulty or discrimination values. For the 2014-15 school year, the test forms for EOYs were field test forms and were not counted as 20/30% of grades. Reliability is calculated for every EOY by the district. Teachers who served on the EOY review committee over the summer were provided with the reliability statistic for each EOY.
Content validity is established through processes embedded throughout EOY development. Test items were created by Florida’s teachers and were reviewed by two additional teachers (at a minimum) to ensure alignment to course standards. Items were then reviewed by the district curriculum team, to further ensure alignment to standards identified by state course descriptions. After field testing, items were flagged by the district based on difficulty and discrimination, and all flagged items were provided to a teacher review team (170 Polk teachers participated in summer 2015) for an additional review and, if necessary, revision or removal of item.
The only thing clear in that entire answer is “Over 170 Polk County teachers participated in a test item review session in summer 2015.”
If you were one of those teachers, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. I’d like to know what “participated in a test item review” means. I do not trust Heather Wright — or anyone associated with this document — to tell me in plain English.
Here’s one last olive branch to district leadership.
I suspect that the educational leadership/compliance racket that has built up over a generation across this country has conditioned you all to speak and behave this way. It’s not your fault that communicating and leading in this way is what allows you to move up the ladder. I think this document reflects long-held educational-leadership incentives. But we want to change those incentives in Polk County. If you want to be a part of that, we’re here to help you. If you don’t, we’re here to replace you.
Again, let me speak plainly, for myself: I see ample “evidence” — this document included — that the district’s accountability office is very, very poorly led. Like it or not, the accountability office director is the police chief of public education. You’re a public figure. People’s livelihoods depend on you. How well you do your job, how well you communicate is vital to people’s lives. Right now, I see no evidence Heather Wright is doing it well.
If I were you, Heather Wright, I would get Larry Giddens or even Grady Judd on the phone and ask them about their schedules. I would talk to Tom Phillips, who leads Polk County Transit, about how to engage the public and your employees in an important and highly technical public service. I would talk to Eileen Holden, Polk’s finest institutional leader. How many evenings do they sacrifice to communicating with the public? How many public groups do they address weekly? I think they are all working much harder than you. If that’s not the case, the burden is on you to prove otherwise. I know they’re working much harder to engage the public in what they do than you are.
If your teachers and students are miserable, you need to be making yourself miserable improving their quality of life.
Maybe our discussion points and recommendations were a bit too open-ended. So let me whittle it down a bit — again speaking for myself.
If I were you, Heather Wright, I would line up a school a day — or maybe two — to go meet with the principal and teachers with our document in hand and ask them where we’re right and wrong about how they experience your office’s mandates. I would not respond to questions with go look at the website, as you repeatedly did in your document. I would embed myself in this community and give a damn what its residents understand about the value and use of what you do. We who asked these questions and offered these observations are already embedded in this community. We’re not going anywhere.
It’s been a disappointing couple of weeks for Polk County education, punctuated by the horrible alleged abuse of special education students. Special education is an area of particular concern to many of the people inside and out of CBEL.
Again, the perception is that district leadership barely cares about the letter or intent of the law regarding treatment of special needs children. You can expect us to start talking about that, too. If you want us to help you fight false perceptions — which we would like to do — we’re going to need better cooperation in determining what’s real and what isn’t. We’re going to need more effort, because you all have terrible perception problems.
The School Board’s behavior in hiring Jackie Byrd without any public input looks like the behavior of people who are in the education business for nothing more than salary and health insurance — and maybe for the chance to employ a wayward child. It feels like the behavior of people unwilling to deal with a search. It was Strike 1.
The only saving grace of Strike 1 is that Lynn Wilson pushed for a 1-year time horizon, rather than a long-term contract. That gives the Polk County community a chance to assess the good faith and competence of our top staff leaders. Wright’s response to CBEL — and if it’s not Wright, who could it be — is Strike 2. If there’s a Strike 3; I feel certain there won’t be a Strike 4, as far as CBEL is concerned.
Y’all are free to think we reject your jargon because we’re People of Little Knowledge. But I think we’re smart enough to know that you would have been much, much better off not sending that piece of garbage back to us.
I’m not a teacher; but I still urge you to revise. Your second draft should use plain language. It should invite the public in to what you’re doing with our money. And it shouldn’t treat the Polk education experience as some petty courtroom.
Because the only jury that matters here is the voting public. That’s who we’ll be talking to, over a long period of time.