Jeb Bush is still Florida’s failed elected superintendent, part 1: The NAEP atonement speech Jeb should give

The governor is the elected superintendent of all Florida schools — and not much else.

Sure, he or she signs some Medicaid checks, pollutes some springs, and serves as a part-time figurehead emergency manager.

But nothing in Florida remotely compares to public education as a vehicle for projecting power and influence into the lives of a Florida governor’s constituents. Education is the largest portion of the state budget, the state’s largest employer, and the public function the government most directly controls. Other than taxation itself, compulsory education is the state law most inherently coercive of its citizens. Nothing else is close.

Jeb Bush understands this better than any Florida governor or politician in my lifetime. In fact, I think he understands it better than any American politician of my lifetime. 

That was the brilliant political insight of his 1998 campaign. No other candidate, win or lose, has understood it in the same way since. And that’s why Jeb Bush is still, in most ways, the governor and elected superintendent of Florida. Ron DeSantis is a minor TV personality who charges people money to golf with him; Jeb Bush remains the incumbent. Control education and you control everything else in this state. 

Any governor who wants the power to make change has to run against Jeb Bush. If you want to change the corrupt and failed test-and-punish, teacher-hating model he inflicted on your children and the adults working with them, you’re going to have to win an election against him. If you’re a Republican, you have to beat him in a primary; if you’re a Democrat or an NPA, you have beat him in a general. 

He’s really not hard to run against on the merits anymore. Donald Trump beat him to death politically with two education words he didn’t even understand: “Common Core.”

And I wrote a piece recently that laid out conclusively how Bush’s “data-driven” myth of success is transparent hogwash — and always has been. It rests on two utterly brutal collections of data from two different tests that Florida loves. Bottom line: Jeb’s Florida Model stunts the growth of children, academically and socially. The data is unsparing about this and easy to read. The bigger question is why the entire educrat industrial complex has contorted itself into self-parody to avoid acknowledging it.    

I’ve interviewed Jeb years in the past. He’s a smart guy. He can can read the same data I can. He knows. And I wonder what goes through his head as he travels to Michigan or some other place to share “the lessons of Florida,” as he did recently. I wonder if his conscience ever calls on him to give an honest speech. If so, it might go something like this:

[Note to readers, this is not a real Jeb Bush speech. I would call it a parody; but it’s not. It’s my projection of Jeb Bush’s conscience, if it’s out there.]


My fellow Floridians: 20 years ago, I told you to put your trust and faith in high stakes bubble tests and “data” — not teachers.

Since then, throughout my career as America’s most influential “education governor,” I’ve told you that destroying the teaching profession and destroying the individualized state-level educational experience of your child was worth it. The test scores your child generated though my scorched-humanity policies justified those policies.

My dear friends, I was wrong about that. I’ve been wrong about everything. The “data” and the tests say it clearly. And it’s time I told you — and started to try to fix the damage I’ve caused.

“Reading to learn” is an abject failure in Florida

I’ve sold you the classic education cliche: you learn to read so you can read to learn. When an educrat repeats that phrase, what they are actually saying is: strong early literacy enables lifetime achievement growth.

That’s just common sense.

And yet, the tests and data that I love say Florida has failed abysmally in actually “learning though reading.” Florida’s children do not grow in my system, whomever or wherever they are. They are not “reading to learn” compared to other states, if you believe the same data I do. My conscience won’t allow me to be dishonest about that anymore.

Here’s the bottom line: all the evidence from the NAEP and our own tests says that Florida’s education system — the one I built — makes our kids worse readers and students the older they get. It does today; and it did in 2003.

I wish this was not true.

It repudiates my entire political life’s work. It means I destroyed the teaching profession for absolutely nothing. But I can’t ignore the data anymore. I can’t let my state government lie about it anymore, like it did in the 2018 NAEP press release. I own this failure morally and intellectually; and I need to help fix it.

[Again, note to readers, from Billy Townsend: this is not a real Jeb Bush speech. I would call it a parody; but it’s not. It’s my projection of Jeb Bush’s conscience, if it’s out there.]

The “data” is a brutal, brutal mirror if you look at it

The “data” speaks to me clearly in two forms: individual growth and aggregate “proficiency.” [When I use the word “proficiency” here, I’m using its meaning in common language: how well a child does something. “Proficiency” also has a more specialized meaning built around statistical complexity and what defines someone as objectively “proficient” at something. For assessing relative state performance on “national report cards,” the words can be used interchangeably.]

Stanford University analyzed state test results from 2009-2015. It showed Florida has the worst year-to-year individual growth of any state. When this study came out recently, it took superhuman effort on my behalf to ignore it. As a man of conscience, and an influential former governor, I just can’t do it anymore.

If Florida was doing “learn to read so you can read to learn” — not mouthing a silly talking point — this map would be a photo negative. Florida’s kids would accelerate their growth in all subjects because of the great literacy foundation we built in early elementary. But the opposite of that happens. Our kids peak in 4th grade and collapse from there — on the very test model I put in place. And they always have. When I look at this crushing map, it’s like looking at an accusing mirror. I can’t look away.

Live by the NAEP…

It gets worse when I see that the NAEP confirms it.

The NAEP is not a growth test; it’s an aggregate proficiency test. It measures how well a sample of different kids in 4th grade and 8th grade perform every two years in Reading, Math, and Science. It has also measured 12th grade performance, but not since 2013.

So, if the Stanford study of individual growth is broadly correct, how would that show up in an aggregate proficiency test? If hordes of Florida students are not growing individually, how would the NAEP capture that in aggregate?

I would expect the later grades, 8th and 12th, to collapse in aggregate performance. And much to my shame, that’s exactly what the NAEP shows. In every subject. In every cycle. Since 2003. See the chart below that my good friend and spiritual mentor Billy Townsend created.

In truth, 2017 was one of Florida’s best years in Reading because we only collapsed to an average score in 8th grade from the fourth highest state score in 4th grade. When you look back at 2013 and 2009, you see that collapse continued through 12th grade, where our kids ended up reading worse than the national average after starting way ahead. That’s disgraceful. Our kids are performing at their “worst,” relative to national competitors, just when they’re applying for work, college, or trade programs.

It’s even more appalling for Math. In every NAEP cycle for Math, our kids have collapsed to to well below the national average in 8th grade. And the size of the collapse is increasing. It’s a true crisis that we are ignoring completely as a state.

I talk about the NAEP often and reverently, even using it to frame moral questions. Back in 2014, I said:

“NAEP results indicate that African American and Hispanic students are reading two grade levels behind their white peers. That gap is reflective of a socioeconomic divide when it comes to education, and it is intolerable on a number of levels: Morally. Socially. Economically.”

If all students collapse in aggregate after 4th grade, what does that suggest about African-American and Hispanic students, who suffer from a statistical achievement gap? What does it say about my morality that I’ve never spoken of this collapse? Asking myself that question eats at me.

…Die by third-grade retention

In truth, our 4th grade results on the NAEP, which are high, likely have little to do with actual systemic quality or performance.

Most likely they are high relative to other states because I made sure no students who score poorly on our 3rd grade state tests ever take the NAEP the next year. That’s why we have to retain them and destroy the lives of our most vulnerable 8-year-olds. If we just get them intensive reading help in 4th grade, in a loving environment surrounded by their age cohort, they would still have to take the NAEP in the spring. And the scores wouldn’t be as high.

By wrecking them as humans, we gain an extra year of time to game the 4th grade NAEP and artificially spike scores. It works that way for Math, too. That’s why I destroyed the social development of thousands and thousands of your 8-year-olds by making them repeat every inch of third grade, even though all education data says that hurts their life prospects.

But as you can see, even the fake data benefits start collapsing immediately. That’s a pretty tough thing to answer for morally. And I’m weary of it. It’s time to come clean. I can no longer abide the idea that gullible, self-dealing educrats and their corrupt rankings consider me some kind of visionary.

My record is one of ruined lives; destruction of the teaching profession; and de-humanization of education. All I have to show for it is a short-term, gamed spike on 4th grade NAEP results, which starts to collapse immediately. And nobody gets into college or trade school — or gets hired — from 4th grade.

The collapse matters much much more to life than the spike. Imagine that I convinced an entire state and much of the country of the opposite. Imagine that I got them to ignore their lying eyes for a generation. Amazing.

Please clap.

Again, as a final reminder to my [Billy Townsend’s] readers, this is not a real Jeb Bush speech. I would call it a parody; but it’s not. It’s my projection of Jeb Bush’s conscience, if it’s out there.

In part 2, I will create another another fictional speech: the one that I believe a governor candidate has to give to unseat Jeb as Florida’s elected superintendent and bring the generational change needed.