The Teacher Party, part 2: no more fraudulent school grades; an untested year; and Pasi Sahlberg for Education Commissioner

The key to ending the fraudulent #JebamaBetsyCore model of Florida education lies in the 2018 governor’s race. I believe the Teacher Party needs a candidate who will run on these foundational issues.

  • End any policy that depends on an incomprehensible equation. That means we end VAM. (We may even end VAM this year.) And we end the fraudulent, destructive, stigmatizing school grades.
  • Have an untested year to overhaul the fraudulent “accountability” system. Maybe we’ll even like the untested year so much, we’ll keep it.
  • Replace Education Commissioner Pam Stewart with a commissioner who rejects the Florida model. Pick someone who has a vision for something Finlandish. I recommend Pasi Sahlberg or someone from the Tony Wagner/Ted Dintersmith orbit. Trust me, in education circles, the chance to remake the Florida model into something exciting and humane would attract much interest from high-powered people. And those names would signal a change as profound as the fraudulent school grade era that Jeb brought in 1999.

There are many, many other individual changes and reforms a Teacher Party candidate could and would make. (Ending third grade retention is huge for me.) But those three would effectively break the Florida model. They would help us begin to rebuild it around motivated teachers. It would send a massive signal to would-be teachers and the country as a whole. After all, #JebamaBetsyCore has tried to inflict the Florida model on the rest of the country over the years.

You’ll notice I haven’t said a word about unions, vouchers, poverty, or choice. Give me those three reforms, and I won’t need to.

In that model, as you’re just starting to see in Polk County, the different choices can work together collaboratively and productively. In this model, ALL SCHOOL CHOICES are honored, not just those that Pam Stewart and Gary Chartrand and Betsy DeVos market as “escape” from the zoned schools that most kids attend.

Let’s take a closer look at how these three points deliver much-needed relief and offer new hope.

Take away the power of fraud

The fraudulent Florida education model lags the country as a whole in graduation rate and exceeds it in teacher shortage. School grades are the cornerstone of the fraud. In fact, you will never hear me say the phrase “school grade” again without the word “fraudulent” in front of it.

Fraudulent school grades exist to stigmatize the children, parents, and teachers of traditional zoned schools. They exist to justify the choice to segregate. They are malignant marketing material. Maybe they had some kind of good intention years ago. That day is long past.

But even in the old days, they were fraudulent. I once wrote an op/ed as a young reporter about how Jesse Keen Elementary’s grade jumped from a D to a B, simply because the state DoE factored out a bunch of kids not present for both FTE counts. The state wagged its finger at the school one year and then gave it an award the next. That was in 2000, I think.

Anyway, the fraudulent school grade inputs and equations change every year. The current fraud (2015-16) is laid out in a 31-page DoE explanation document. 31. Pages.

The screen grab that follows is just one tiny passage from that absurd document. It’s addressing how English Language Learners (ELLs) fit into the fraudulent school grade framework. Check it out.

Almost uniformly, the fraudulent grades reflect nothing more than a tortured reproduction of the aggregate testing patterns a school’s population is likely to throw off.

Now, let’s look at the power of this fraud in action.  This is from Pam Stewart, current leader of Florida’s awful state Department of Education. She’s talking about how, way back in the late 90s, she became a fan of fraudulent school grades.

“There is power in the F. There is power because it got our attention. It also provided me with the power to say, when I was asked ‘Can we watch a movie today?’, ‘No. Are all of your students performing on grade level? Come to me about a movie when your students are performing on grade level. We’ve got work to do here.’ And so it gave me power to say “these are the things we are going to do because it is the right thing for our students” that I didn’t have before.”

What actually happens, 20 years later? In the real world?

Pam Stewart’s DoE guts the 2016-17 teaching staff at Kathleen Middle and replaces it with subs. After the school year started. Because, with a teacher shortage, that’s all we have to replace them. Kathleen Middle was on the cusp of a C. It had been steadily “improving” on Pam Stewart’s corrupt scoreboard. This all happened in a year that Stewart’s DoE and state government engineered school grades to go down.

So here you see the power of the fraudulent almost-C.

That power leads to this bit of 20-year-old boilerplate recently written by Ledger editorial writer Bill Thompson. In fairness, Bill’s been pretty reasonable about the failures of the Florida model. But he can’t quite take the next logical step; I think his political inflexibility traps him.

So you’ll see a fundamental and disastrous flaw in his assumptions. And you’ll see him trapped in a rhetorical time warp.

Meanwhile, in terms of grades, while the performance of individual schools has ebbed and flowed across much of Polk over the last few years, as could be expected as schools’ leadership, teachers, students and achievement requirements shift, the district as a whole remains stuck in neutral. In 2010, Polk received a B grade, according to the Education Department. Every year since, it’s gotten a C…

…We must value our teachers. They do important, worthwhile work under sometimes-difficult conditions. They deserve respect, and the impasse undermined that. And if their contract calls for raises within the steps of their pay grades, the School Board should honor that. But the unions should recognize that parents, taxpayers and the School Board are justified in wanting answers and results before simply forking over more dough.

See what he did there?

The most recent school grades generally went down across the state because the equation and cut score meddlers made them do it. That’s fraud. Paying or not paying individual teachers based on fraudulent manipulation of school-wide measures is not simply unfair. It’s stupid and destructive.

Understand this, the state is going to rig the school grades again, like it always does, to make them go up this year. It wants to say, “Look all those teacher transfers worked. See we’re awesome.” (Also, the enrollments of at least some of those schools have changed significantly. A different issue for a different time.) School grades are always, always, always political and marketing tools only. We need to be rid of them. Don’t celebrate them when they go up. Don’t play their corrupt game.

The fraud doesn’t just stigmatize and harm the Kathleen Middles of the world. It harms the Highlands Grove Elementaries, too. If you’re a teacher at Highlands Grove, Bill Thompson wants your pittance of a raise dependent on how the subs at Kathleen Middle — imposed by Pam Stewart’s DoE — performed in the early months of this year, as defined by dubious tests. Bill should explain in greater detail why believes that.

But that’s not even the core problem with this passage. Here’s the core: Bill somehow thinks we in society are doing teachers a favor by employing them at all. No. They are doing us the favor. And the supply and demand curve shows it. We are killing public education on the supply side, not the demand.

The demand for public education services will long outlive the demand for Ledger editorial page services. If there’s one thing the public has shown it’s not willing to pay for, it’s some guy speaking on its behalf. By contrast, people will pay for education services, both directly and through taxes. In reality, the handful of teachers who probably subscribe to The Ledger are much more important to Bill Thompson’s dying profession than Bill Thompson is to theirs.

Teachers themselves have the power to make everyone understand this. They need to.

Let’s have an untested year to build a new Florida model

A Teacher Party gubernatorial candidate should run on an un-tested year. Trust me, the state will survive the one year that we don’t spend February-May taking stupid tests. Give everybody a break.

We can use this time to figure out a non-stigmatizing, honest way to assess school performance in relation to enrollment characteristics. We should all insist upon ending the months-long testing window. You want to test us, state of Florida? Confine it to the next-to-last week of school. All of it. Any testing should have an easily described purpose. And it must be designed to help kids — not punish their teachers.

And for those of you who want a rigid, test-based approach for assessing what your kids learn, I’m prepared to offer that as a track. We can discuss how to implement it. Some kids thrive in that kind of atmosphere. I honor all choices.

Pasi Sahlberg for Florida Education Commissioner

If we spend the untested year building a new accountability model, I think we’ll need someone whose very presence represents a core rejection of the Florida model.

Here’s Pasi Sahlberg’s bio.

I saw him speak not long ago at an event sponsored by All Saints Academy. Sahlberg has great experience architecting and implementing the education model in Finland. But he also understands, through studying the less centralized American model, that no country’s model will work as a lift-and-shift to another.

Rather, he offers basic tenets and concepts to build around. The two that I consider most vital for Florida are:

  1. Collaboration, not competition. Competition has been the watchword in Florida for 20 years. It has failed. No one wants to compete on a rigged scoreboard under pain of firing. Fraudulent school grades are the core of the failure.
  2. Implementation before innovation. “Innovation” and “disruption” sound super-cool at conferences. On the ground, no American innovation of the last 20 years has scaled except the teacher shortage, segregation, and consultant fraud. Let’s get back to basics. Kids, teachers, relationships. The whiz-bang stuff has to work. For the most part in Florida, it doesn’t. Indeed, most “innovation” in the Florida model is just graft in waiting. We have lots and lots of people eager to be highly paid visionaries. We have precious few people willing to execute the vision with real kids.

Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith have a similar message to Sahlberg. It’s spelled out in their book and film “Most Likely to Succeed.” You can read all about that vision in this post I wrote during the campaign. Key passage:

What the film and discussion really portray/advocate is the radical idea of unshackling public schools from their stupid, soul-killing, industrial-era metrics of fact-retention. It advocates putting the classroom experience first. That’s exactly what I’ve campaigned on for six months. It’s what I’ve written about for years.

It’s extremely encouraging that some of the strongest Polk advocates for moving toward a Finlandish model of public education are charter and private schools. All Saints, McKeel, and the Lake Wales Charter System are all openly engaging with the possibilities of a new Florida model. The traditional Polk School District should join them. And we should push the state, together, to reform itself. We would all benefit.

A political choice

People often like to say that education shouldn’t be political. It’s too important, or something.

But everything important is political. Especially education. The great popular dissatisfaction building with the Florida model of education reflects longstanding bipartisan political choices. The teacher shortage is a bipartisan political choice.

The entire leadership class of both political parties has decided to compound the lousy pay we’ve always provided teachers by making their professional lives as hard and unrewarding and unfair as possible. Confronted with that reality, current and would-be teachers are making the rational political choice to say: we’re not going to do that on those terms. That hurts vulnerable populations of kids more than anyone else. Because those are the first hit by the shortage.

How will the public respond? It has not stopped demanding publicly-funded education services. So what political choices will it make to provide them?

Everything I’ve suggested here is achievable through the acquisition of political power. We can make a political choice to reinvigorate the teaching profession. The Teacher Party, if it votes together and organizes its friends and family networks, is extremely powerful. We showed that in Polk County. We can show it in Florida and deliver ourselves a new model that is rooted in humanity.

Indeed, there really is no other choice. If the Teacher Party does not assert itself soon, we won’t have a universal publicly-funded education system in 20 or 25 years.

2 comments

  1. Sarah Fortney

    Bravo♡ loving the kids,teachers and relationships

  2. AMEN! Everything you write leaves me speechless and in awe. Great job Billy!

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