Strike 2: Polk Schools’ “accountability” office gives Polk County the finger

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.

Polk County Assessment Concerns and Suggestions_responses 04112016

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.

What?

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 bitown1@gmail.com 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.

18 thoughts on “Strike 2: Polk Schools’ “accountability” office gives Polk County the finger

  1. One sentence from the district’s reply: “Item writers are certified teachers that are selected based on a rigorous selection process and are provided an extensive training on item development and revision to ensure alignment to research-based instructional strategies and standards identified in the state-approved course descriptions. ”
    1. This should read “…certified teachers wh0….” Teachers are people, and thus, take “who”; things take “that”.
    2. “are selected…” This passive construction obscures who does the selecting, probably intentionally.
    This use of language is damning. I am not a teacher, but I am a volunteer tutor at least ten hours a week. Tests do not align to instructional strategies (research-based or not). The pre-existing needs and abilities of students are independent of the curriculum and the standards. Tests should align with the curriculum content. Curriculum content should align with standards. Instructional strategies should align with the needs and abilities of the learner.

  2. From what we hear out in the trenches is that Ms. Wright is too busy traveling all around the country going to conferences to help her with her dissertation. That is one of the reasons she cannot get out to meet with the people. That seems like a Strike 4!

    • If such is true and it SHOULD BE INVESTIGATED, she should be FIRED for stealing from the citizens of Polk County on school time IF she has not taken vacation time. This should be thoroughly investigated including past records while ensuring that no cover-up has occurred.

  3. I think, for one, that Heather Wright should produce a signed sheet documenting the names of EVERY teacher (all 170) that participated in the review of EOY questions. Let her show her evidence! I honestly do not believe that to be true. Secondly, as an individual close to school board employees, what I hear is more lies and deception. I believe that both Bowen and Wright need to go and go sooner rather than later. The responses were nothing more than wording that I cannot use here.

    At least People of Little Knowledge (P.O.L.K.) do know that when they come across a question asking about George Washington crossing the Delaware, it was during the Revolutionary War and not the French and Indian War as one of the tests allegedly reported as an answer according to a High School teacher. How is that for Assessment and Accountability, Ms. Wright? How did you adjust those students grades over the summer AFTER they were already reported??

    I would also like to add one other thing. WHERE ARE THESE SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS? Why aren’t they in the schools in which they represent talking to the teachers? Why aren’t they actively seeking input? They are not holding these individuals accountable nor listening to the masses. Instead, they are collecting checks and doing what they want while talking out of the other side of their mouths. The next thing you hear from them is “We didn’t know???” You didn’t know because you weren’t actively participating, listening and involved!!! No one is following through (on their end) with what they said they would do regarding seeking input and listening to the community.

    The best thing the community can do is VOTE EVERY ONE UP FOR RE-ELECTION OUT and send a clear message to the others that we are coming for them. They’ve become to complacent in their positions.

    • Regarding the 170 teachers that reviewed EOY questions, does this refer to the CTE teachers that volunteered to participate in creating the EOYs at the last minute before the EOYs were administered or the teachers that volunteered during their summer break to review the EOYs after they were administered? I hear that a large number of EOYs for various CTE subject areas were thrown out and that many of these teachers walked out of this review process during the summer.

      • I would want to see the signatures on BOTH.. Make her verify, verify, verify! Further, I would like to hear why those teachers WALKED OUT!

        • It was reported to me that they left when they heard their test was tossed. I guess they didn’t see a reason to be there anymore.

  4. Let’s add a few more talking points while we are discussing Heather Wright and Jacque Bowen. First, did you know that when Heather Wright arrived in Polk, she brought a 4.3 million dollar grant from Osecola County. Yes, Osecola County, signed off and released this grant to Polk. Now, I am not sure why a district would be willing to release that kind of money unless they were happy to sign it over as that meant they got rid of Heather Wright. (It was a Race To The Top federal grant). Secondly, she has never been a traditional classroom teacher nor has she been a school based administrator. In order to effectly make decisions shouldn’t one have walked in those shoes? She has zero experience to draw from and has zero respect from those in the trenches. Finally, she is making decisions about changing how grades will be calculated to include the 30%. The concern is not so much of the exam (I think that has been covered) but rather HOW she & Jacque Bowen have decided to calculate the 30% for the state EOC’s. The state did not provide guidelines and the way the district calculated it has been calculated in the past worked just fine. However, secondary parents who think their students have a rock solid GPA will be in for a rude awakening when they see A’s drop to B’s and GPA’s fall drastically. So, know Polk students will be less competitive then those in other Florida counties. Finally, since Heather has come on board the entire testing for End Of Year (EOY-district exams) has been a complete and other mess. Errors in exams, poorly printed with various font sizes, poor quality images. The paper scan sheets bring their own issues with SS# still being printed on and the school is expected to black it out. When the answer sheet is scanned by someone at the school, if there is an error on the scan sheet (blank answer, double bubble, stary marks, etc) It is up to the person scanning to review the error and make a decision. I wonder if that is how DOE would expect it to be done? So much for reliability. Something must be done before our students fall victim to these very poor decisions!

    • That explains a lot to me. I wondered how someone with her background and degrees received such a position? Especially since she just started taking the psychometrician courses. Now I see according to your comments that she bought her way into the county. In my opinion , I wonder if that wouldn’t be construed as fraud? There is a process that teachers and other staff have to go through and they must verify why they have selected a candidate. My question is why did they select Heather? I would think that this would be one for the state to investigate.

  5. Thems some purty werds Billy. Feels like change is rolling into town. Pay attention and register to vote already Polk. Time to bubble some new names on that election scantron.

  6. The testing percentages/statistics she quotes are LIES! I can tell you our school did our own independent survey regarding the number of HOURS spent in a testing situation. When you count FAIR, writing practice, FSA, EOY/EOC training, preparation, administration, and evaluation, we totaled nearly 51 DAYS of instructional time wasted on testing. That truly is approximately 1/3 of the school year. These people need to get off their ass, get their ass in the class, and do their damn jobs! BTW – don’t forget that 3 school board members are up for re-election this year: Berryman, Cunningham, and Mullenax. It’s time for change – vote them out!

    • I agree the board members need to be voted out, but haven’t seen much in the way of outstanding candidates.

      One thinks we need to promote from “within”, which apparently includes Carpetbaggers from Jacksonville. One thinks we should elect the superintendent, a sure way to bring even more politics into day-to-day education. Another, bless her heart, just finished college. Where are the great candidates?

  7. In this morning’s Ledger Ms Bowen is quoted as saying, “We need to find a better way of being in direct communication.” That is an interesting comment from someone who took over 5 months to respond to a proposal from a Polk County citizens group interested in volunteering in the schools!

  8. OUTSTANDING job CBEL/Billy Townsend! For fear of retaliation, my name is not indicated. The disrespectful, bullying, dismissive attitude displayed by the two main characters in this newest debacle is the same attitude the thankfully gone K. LeRoy displayed – the person ultimately responsible for the hiring of H. Wright and J. Bowen… There are leftovers from the LeRoy administration WHO (not ‘which’) are negatively affecting impact on our students’ learning and lives in a major way. I won’t give specifics because that would likely give away my identity. Transparency and open-communication are needed in any institution, but particularly in one which so directly affects the future. We should all be about the students, not paychecks and pumping up resumes… These two need to go – NOW – before any more damage and mistrust is generated.

  9. I’m not sure what the overall goal is in the article. Are you upset because the reply from the district was a letter, or upset by what they said? The school districts in Florida are mandated to administer assessment and create evaluations by state statute. Instead of attacking people, I would suggest starting at the FLDOE website and doing research on state statutes and business rules. I understand that is will not lead to such insightful articles as the one you wrote, but you might have a clearer understanding of the facts.

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