Strengthen the strategic plan. It’s the most powerful instrument of comprehensive and lasting cultural change

This coming Tuesday, your Polk School Board will be holding our first strategic planning retreat of the new year and new board. I plan to advocate strongly for my vision for a strengthened strategic plan and superintendent evaluation criteria.

My plan would reduce 67 evaluation areas into 20. And it would make those fewer evaluation areas far more relevant to the overall health of our organization than they are today. That streamlined, enhanced efficiency makes it a better structure and plan than we have today. Click the image below to zoom in on a high level view of my proposal

But there’s a much deeper reason that I’m focused so strongly on this.

The superintendent is the proxy for the organization

I have learned as a School Board member that if I want to formally evaluate the overall health of your School District as an organization, and facilitate positive systemic change and development, I have to do it through evaluation of the superintendent.

That’s because senior system leaders — like virtually all district employees — answer to the superintendent, not to the School Board. We do not employ them; and we cannot reward or counsel them on our own. The Florida education world never ceases to remind us of this.

Thus, the superintendent position must function as a proxy for the health of the organization as a whole.

Yet today, the structure of the Polk superintendent’s evaluation guarantees that that vast majority of what our organization does and how it functions goes formally unevaluated by your elected School Board.

An inadequate structure

The Polk School Board’s 2018 superintendent evaluation criteria form is divided into two parts. These parts are not of equal value.

Here is the first page of “Part 1: Behavioral Indicators.” (Please forgive my brainstorm scribbling. I used this sheet to do some thinking.)

There are seven sections in Part 1. They are:

  • Board Relationships
  • General Leadership
  • Staff Leadership
  • Curriculum Leadership
  • Relationships with Stakeholders
  • Fiscal Responsibilities
  • Professional Growth

Together, they contain a total of 62 points of evaluation, in which board members assess the superintendent’s behavior — not organizational performance — on a scale of 1-4. I don’t find most of these points of evaluation very precise or particularly relevant to assessing the health of the organization. And those that are relevant don’t matter much to the evaluation.

That’s because we also evaluate the superintendent on five basic numerical goals. See the page below.

These goals are essentially pass/fail: increase graduation rate by X amount. Narrow the gap in school grade points between our district and other “benchmark” districts by X amount. Etc.

But rather than pass/fail, these are graded on a scale of 1 to 5. Five means “goal was fully met or exceeded.” In other words, “pass” gets you a 5, which makes little sense to me.

But if you hit all these numerical goals, as a superintendent, you get an overall rating of 5 for the section. And because the “behavioral indicators” section is governed by a 1 to 4 scale — and are more subjective — the “performance measures” section is inherently weighted.

Five “fives” on our “performance measures” will swamp any behavioral or organizational deficiencies in scoring the evaluation. So there really is no incentive to act to improve them. All that really matters for evaluation and compensation are the five very narrow and gameable numeric measures.

I’m proposing that this change.

How my proposal evolves from the current structure

I would essentially mash together the “Behavioral” part of our current evaluation with the “Performance Measures” part. There would be no distinction between them. They would be part of the same, seamless whole, which is captured in the spreadsheet image below. But I would also add multiple areas that board members are not currently asked to address, such as transportation.

You can click to zoom in and review.

Here a few key differences in my proposed structure and the current structure.

From 67 evaluation areas to 20: simpler, more relevant, direction and oversight

The structure I’m proposing has five fixed strategic “pillars” that 20 evaluation dimensions roll up into. Specific yearly goals can serve as performance indicators for the 20 dimensions in any given year.

Under my specific plan, these five ongoing “pillars” of the organization would be:

  • Best individualized academic experience
  • Best Florida school district to work for
  • Best operations
  • Most transparency and best stakeholder management
  • Safest and most humane environment

By comparison, today’s Polk District strategic long-term goals are:

  1. By 2020-21, Polk County will be designated an “A” district.
  2. Polk County will increase the graduation rate (close the achievement gap) to 83.5% based on benchmark districts.
  3. Polk County will have a dropout rate at least as low as the average for the benchmark districts.
  4. Polk County will have a five year Teacher Retention Rate at least five percentage points higher than the average for benchmark districts.
  5. Polk County Public Schools will improve public perception of the School District according to a target set after completion and analysis of public opinion survey.

There are “short-term” goals underneath these current long-term goals, which is how the superintendent is evaluated year-to-year. You will see some conceptual overlap with our current “long-term goals” and my proposed “pillars;” but they are not a complete match.

Eliminate the fraudulent district “grade” as a goal

For instance, I will not vote for any strategic plan that uses a fraudulent school-grade designation as one of its strategic goals. We cannot control whether we are an “A” district. Tallahassee controls that. Kelli Stargel controls that.

I do not trust Kelli Stargel’s good faith or budget, especially when she’s working hard to take your tax money away from your kids and your public schools and give it to any grifter private school that wants it, with zero oversight. (Yes, that’s what you and DeSantis are doing, Kelli. Feel free to stop anytime. I’ll praise you for it. But for now, you are what your record and your press conferences say you are.)

I do not trust the honesty of any test-based system in which school grades go up statewide in an election year, as they did for 2018, at the same time that the all-important 3rd grade Reading test scores go down statewide, as they did in 2018.

I do not trust the honesty of any system that considers 54 percent of kids proficient in Language Arts but 71 percent of kids proficient in Civics. We don’t test Civics with pictures; we test it with reading. The Civics test is a Language Arts exercise. I talked about this in my last essay, with charts.

The Florida governance model and evaluation system is rife with these absurdities. It is an open, ridiculous fraud. I won’t indulge it in our strategic plan while we wait for it to collapse under its own rotting weight.

However, in an effort to compromise, I have included “highest possible numeric score on school grade calculation consistent with strong educational experience” as one indicator under the Best Individualized Academic Experience” pillar.

Combine, expand, and simplify what gets evaluated internally

Each pillar in my proposal has four dimensions of evaluation, for a total of 20. For instance, “best operations” includes:

  • Financial health
  • Operational consistency with policy
  • Implementation of programs
  • Transportation and logistics

Board members would provide a 1-5 or 1-4 rating for each dimension. So we would have to know something about the quality of the operational experience within the district. And we can set specific short-term goals that roll up into those dimensions.

For instance, under “transportation and logistics,” developing a safe, effective transition plan for the special needs charter schools and an overall multi-year plan for reducing the funding/service gap could be a criteria of evaluation for the next year. You do that; and you get a good rating in that area. This approach puts the onus of staff to make a case for why it deserves a strong rating in these dimensions.

By contrast, staff made no case last year, whatsoever, for the “Behavioral” evaluation components of the current evaluation.

For instance, under “Staff Leadership,” board member are asked to evaluate if the superintendent “Maintains high District Office staff morale.” However, the superintendent essentially forbids board members from reaching out directly to staff to ask frankly about how she maintains District Office staff morale. To evaluate her, we have to violate her wishes in interacting with “her” employees. This is a paradox that needs resolving. There are many like it.

Best place to work

I am open to negotiation on the essential framing of all my proposed pillars except “Best Florida School District to work for.” I will not vote for any strategic plan that does not strongly prioritize work environment. We are a $1.4 billion knowledge organization. There are exactly zero people-driven, $1.4 billion knowledge organizations in the real business world that do not strive to broadcast that they are a “great place to work.” See how Publix, which isn’t even a knowledge organization, per se, celebrates its own rating as a “great place to work.” This type of earned reputation is vital to attracting and retaining good people.

School districts in Florida are generally difficult places to work because the state of Florida is a horrible, horrible employer. “Great Place to Work” is absolutely not a priority at the state level. That is a reality that affects the work environment for every local district, including ours. So I do not expect Nirvana here.

My goal is to be known as the Best Florida District for which to work. I do not believe we are that today. Nor do I think we place enough emphasis on valuing our people and creating an environment and culture that lifts them up, supports them, and protects them from bad leadership.

This matters deeply in a people-driven, knowledge organization. Kids benefit enormously from the morale and genuine enthusiasm of adults. If you want people to go the extra mile for you, you better make them feel valued for it. If you expect people to de-escalate situations, you better give them the training and support and motivation they need to do it.

Happy teachers are better teachers than unhappy teachers, generally. Same for all staff, from paras to principals to shop workers.

What to do about ESE?

I’m looking forward to consulting with staff and my fellow board member about how to prioritize and evaluate the large, painful bundle of interlocking challenges that we generally label “ESE.”

For now, I have those challenges addressed by several dimensions spread across more than one pillar. But I think a strong case could be made for adding a sixth pillar focused specifically on ESE. On the other hand, that could also serve to isolate ESE as a single issue, rather than the complex matrix of issues that it actually is.

So I will be asking for board opinions on this. I ask it of the public, too. What do you think? About ESE, and really all of this. I want to know.

Holding board members as accountable as the superintendent

And speaking of the public…

I started off talking about thinking of the superintendent’s evaluation as a proxy for the health of the organization. But there’s another great advantage of this model for the public: it puts board members on record for their perceptions of the health of the entire organization.

For instance, it forces board members to give a numerical rating for “employee relations.” Employees and the public can see the different perceptions and assess who is being most honest. It makes board member responsible for the entire organization in a way that we are not today. That can then be enforced through elections.

It is easy and tempting for politicians, myself included, to hide behind the vague personal behavior questions and pass/fail numerical goals to avoid looking organizational challenges and problems square in the face. I am trying to remove that crutch.

Similarly, it’s comparatively easy to game school grade numbers and graduation rate. I’ve already noted that above. And I’ve written about the complex question of graduation rate before. See this article.

When I say “game,” I don’t mean cheat or behave dishonestly. The Florida Model demands some amount of number-gaming for districts to survive. Until we make the political choice to change that fraudulent statewide model, you can expect all districts to manipulate numbers within the confines of the law to make themselves look good on the statewide scoreboard and avoid punishment.

I am not naive about this. And one can make the case that the approach taken in the last few years was necessary to get the inquisitors of the state’s fraudulent accountability model off your kids’ and teachers’ backs a bit.

But I believe that the public that elected me and the new board — as well as approved 21-of-21 statewide local tax referenda — wants an authentic, humane, individualized, healthy system. To do that takes hard work; it has to start with what we prioritize and evaluate.

One comment

  1. Have you considered an instrument like, or similar to, a 360 Degree Evaluation of the superintendent? I know this will only be one part of your plan, but with over 12,000 employees, half of which are teachers, a skewed sample would be unlikely and you could get valuable information.