Our breakfast with Shan: a study in contrast between me and my opponent
What follows in the block quote below is a recreation of an exchange I had with longtime Florida educrat Shan Goff about the Stigmatized 5 schools. We were at a Lakeland Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting Friday morning. I didn’t have a tape recorder or take handwritten notes. It’s reconstructed from memory. But it’s accurate in meaning and context. If Ms. Goff wants to refine it, I’m happy to listen.
Goff: I think we can all agree that having a school be a D for several years is bad. I know that parents may be happy with their teachers, but at some point you have to make a change.
Townsend: Well, that might be true if the meaning of “D” did not change every year. But it does.
Goff: Yes, it does change every year.
Townsend: [Turns to crowd of business folks] You all sitting here need to understand that there is much more going on below the surface of everything you hear from these people.
That one little exchange reveals so much of the rot at the core of Florida’s experience. So much dishonesty. So much comfort with cruelty and contempt for everyone actually involved with a traditional school. I really wish everyone could have attended this meeting to hear it.
My incumbent opponent was also there. He had very, very little to ask or say. He offered one strange question about federal testing that Goff didn’t really understand. To be fair, I didn’t either. No other words escaped his lips.
A look at my approach
This little gathering provided a very useful glimpse into the stark difference between what you can expect from me and from my incumbent opponent in open policy discussions and relations with the wider public.
I get asked fairly regularly how I will build consensus on the School Board around my ideas and positions. This meeting demonstrated my approach.
Preparation, command of facts, and the will to ask critical questions shapes conversations and public perception. And this was a great conversation. It informed the business people sitting around me. And it only happened because I made it happen.
I’m going to touch on some of the highlights. Anyone I name here, including Ms. Goff and Mr. Berryman, is more than welcome to offer their disagreements or perceptions in response. But I get to respond, too.
Who is Shan Goff?
Today she works for the Foundation in Excellence in Education, one of those “education reform” foundations that form and re-form themselves as virtually indistinguishable arms of Florida’s Department of Education. Indeed, Goff has been a very important figure within the DoE itself. She owns the broken Florida education experience as much as anyone.
From our fraudulent school letter grades (more on that in a second) to mindless over-testing to thoroughly botching Common Core to a graduation rate that can’t sniff Alabama’s, Shan Goff has a hand in all of it. And she’s derived a very nice living for a very long time from everyone else’s misery, especially the people of traditional zoned schools.
To my knowledge, there’s never been a moment of personal accountability for her. Accountability is always for teachers and kids first, principals second, and educrats never.
So you can imagine my joy at realizing the format and attendance of this event allowed me a clean shot to talk about the reality of Florida’s approach to education. And make Shan Goff answer for it in front of an audience. I’ve never before had such open access to an important DoE educrat. I took advantage; and it was awesome.
Here are a few subjects and key exchanges. It’s worth noting that all of this was civil and calm. But it was very direct and informative. I believe the audience got a lot out of it. I know that several people told me afterward how much they enjoyed it — and how much they learned.
On the morally insane forced turnover at the Stigmatized 5 schools
The stated purpose of the forum was a very dull and abstract discussion of the changes coming from the successor federal law to the disastrous, bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Goff and her co-presenter encouraged questions as they showed their PowerPoint. And I had some.
First, I asked both women to take the discussion out of the realm of the abstract. I asked them to talk about changes in federal law as they might relate to “accountability” and the real-world experience for the Stigmatized 5 schools — and the schools that are on the state’s kill-list behind them.
That’s where the meeting turned.
Interestingly, Goff seemed quite aware of what’s happening in Polk. She wasn’t surprised by the question. I’d wager she’s read some of my stuff. So we went back and forth for a while. Finally, I spelled out to the audience that many of the kids at these schools will have at least four teachers this year: 1) a teacher forced out by VAM 2) a Kelly Services sub 3) an administrator forced to fill in 4) a permanent teacher who may or may not be coerced into taking the job.
I also stipulated that Polk had a horrible superintendent for four years that I helped get rid of when Hunt Berryman couldn’t or wouldn’t. I stipulated that Kathryn LeRoy and Hunt Berryman and Tony Bellamy had brutally mismanaged the leadership of these schools for four years by chasing DoE’s edicts and endlessly changing principals.
But then I also pointed out to Goff and the crowd of business folks that DoE has chosen to punish only the kids and teachers at those schools. And I suggested that her organization might actually be helpful to us for once in dealing with DoE and telling it to stop.
Goff responded by agreeing that “they” should have handled all the teacher turnover over the summer, before school. But she didn’t quite cop to the identity of “they.” Nor would she offer any help.
So I tried to clarify for the audience. “They” is DoE. Her DoE. There is plenty of blame to go around for the educrats of all stripes who created this human disaster. But for better or worse, the Polk district did not intend to gut these schools in real-time as the school year began. DoE made them do it. DoE is “they.” Not anybody else.
Goff went on to try to claim DoE somehow has the best interest of student well-being and achievement at heart. That, of course, is laughable. I pointed that out by noting:
“No, that’s not true. In fact, a state Board of Education member [Gary Chartrand] talked recently about how much ‘fun’ this is for him.”
At that, I believe, Goff changed the subject by saying something about me being welcome to my opinion. But I had not offered any opinions. I had offered conclusions based on close observation. And she had no answer for any of them. Had I not been there to raise these questions, the audience would not have learned anything substantive from Goff.
That’s how it’s been in this state since Goff’s way came to political power in 1998.
Amusingly, Goff offered a very concerned discussion of standardized testing. We’ve reached a “tipping point,” she said, meaning that it’s time to seriously reduce testing. And she pretended like Florida has actually started to do that. Not really. We are still way, way, way beyond anything contemplated before 1998.
Moreover, Goff said all of this while posing as some sort of neutral observer. As if she somehow isn’t one of the great national leaders of the test-punish-turnover-segregate model of education. Some other mystical “they” inflicted all that mindless testing on us, I guess.
It does show how DoE’s test-punish-turnover-segregate model is finally on the political defensive. Goff and most high-ranking educrats are generally political — not educational — animals. And she’s skilled at it. She never once lost her composure with me. A true technocrat probably would have gotten more flustered. Goff is very good in that setting. But so am I.
And because I was there, she was forced to acknowledge things most people at chamber meetings never think to ask her — and that she doesn’t want them to know.
On the Legislature’s contempt for people’s experiences in education
The theme of dissatisfaction with DoE, which I was pushing, and the theme of great changes in federal law that will give states much more flexibility sort of merged into a single conversation.
And at one point, Goff encouraged the various business folks to speak up to their legislators because, “They don’t like to hear from educators or School Board members.”
I found that fascinating and revealing. It’s also obvious. But to hear her say it so directly was bracing.
Let’s consider what that really means: your legislators do not want to hear from you if you are communicating a real experience from your life at a school — whether you are a teacher, parent, or student. Your experience doesn’t matter. Only your test score.
And that’s a key difference between me and Hunt Berryman. He has shown over and over again that he trusts Shan Goff over the experiences of his fellow Polk County citizens. Indeed, the teachers who criticize Shan Goff’s way are nothing more than “disgruntled,” Mr. Berryman believes and has said.
Only a few choices matter
And that loops back to what Goff said in the exchange I noted at the start. Goff is a passionate believer in choice — for a small handful of people.
Remember, she said this, without acknowledging that there is no consistency in the rigged school grade system:
I think we can all agree that having a school be a D for several years is bad. I know that parents may be happy with their teachers, but at some point you have to make a change.
Look at the disrespect for parents in those words. She has nothing but contempt for the choices that the vast majority of parents make — for endlessly different reasons — to send their children to traditional schools. Like Gary Chartrand and DoE, she does not care about their experience. Harming those experiences and harming real kids and teachers is “fun.” Chartrand said it. Goff would not condemn it. She changed the subject. That’s cowardly.
Shan Goff does not trust principals or any local control. She trusts Florida’s discredited VAM, a thing no self-respecting private school would get caught dead using. She trusts a rigged grading system that changes every year, a fact I made her acknowledge in front of a crowd when Hunt Berryman would not.
As I’ve noted before, I am now one of the parents Shan Goff doesn’t trust. Last year she trusted me. Our son was in a charter school. This year we’re bad parents, despite the fact that my son is happy; and we’re happy. At a traditional D-school.
Shan Goff believes that happiness reflects my ignorance or negligence. At least in the abstract. She does not respect my choice or judgement. She doesn’t respect my wife’s choice or judgement. She doesn’t respect your choice or judgement. Rather than help us build on what’s good at the school as a partner, she and DoE believe in executing it.
That is how much contempt our own Department of Education has for us.
On segregation and her record
Finally, when it was all over, Goff came up to me and we had a more private exchange. She said something like “there are things you can do to help those schools”. I wish I’d been quick enough to say, “I am. Confronting you helps those schools.” Alas, I wasn’t quick enough.
But I did point out to her that no county in Florida has more thoroughly embraced her model of choice and segregation and punishment than Polk County. And here we still are. I told her that DoE would likely rig the school grades again this year to push them generally upward the same way it rigged them to push them generally downward last year. That will help cover the ongoing carnage at the five schools a little bit.
“They don’t rig the school grades,” she said. Yes they do, I told her. Any unfixed evaluation system that uses year-to-year comparisons for punishment is rigged, political, and deeply immoral.
And I told her that her entire record as an educator boils down to creating segregation and a teacher shortage. “I think you’re smart enough to know it,” I said. But there’s a big difference between intelligence and morality.