FSA practice tests — and the difference between your elected School Board and unelected district leadership

State law is maddeningly contradictory on whether school boards can approve FSA practice tests.

It literally says in section 1008.22 of Florida Statutes that “district school boards shall prohibit” schools from “suspending” regular curriculum to give “practice” FSA tests — unless they are “practice” FSA tests. I’m not kidding. In that case, if a practice test is a practice test, “a district school board may authorize” such a test. (Seriously, I’ll highlight the whole thing at the bottom of the article so you get the full glory.)

But this incoherent law written by your very dumb Legislature is clear on one point: “a district school board” is what does the prohibiting or the approving of practice tests.

And yet, 56 Polk County schools are suspending regular curriculum to give practice FSA tests this week, much to the chagrin of some parents. The reasonable counterargument is that last year a number of kids struggled to finish the FSA. Familiarizing them with the pace and structure could literally help save their educational lives, especially if they are third graders subjected to Florida’s abusive FSA retention law for 8-year-olds. Also, teachers professional lives are on the line; and they tell me the actual FSA practice content is much more predictive of FSA scoring than district’s STAR assessment.

Whatever side you choose, Polk County’s elected “district school board” has not, to my knowledge, been consulted by unelected staff on the use of these tests — despite the clear direction of an otherwise incoherent state law. I don’t believe these tests ever came before the elected School Board so that we could exercise our statutory obligation and authority to approve or prohibit them. Sometimes I might miss something buried on consent; but I don’t think so here.

We, as an elected board, have not hashed out these practice test arguments and counterarguments on behalf of the public.

School District staff and elected School Board are not synonyms

This illustrates nicely why I often try to caution people who say, in a general sense, the “Polk School Board did X, Y, or Z,” when they actually mean “the Polk School District did X, Y, or Z.”

The locally-elected School Board and the unelected School District staff ARE NOT the same thing. Not in Polk County. Not anymore. And I’m going to prove it to you with data.

But here’s the bottom line, based on a thorough leadership culture survey: the elected School Board, representing the public, has an “extremely high” desire for cultural change in the district’s approach to leadership. (Kay Fields is a self-declared exception to this. The overall board scores on the survey “are not reflective” of her scoring, she said at our last work session. )

The unelected leadership — and especially school principals — does not have a strong desire for change. See image below, although it may be hard to read. Click to enlarge.

(Fair point update from a reader: this conclusion may not be fair to principals, who are probably the most vulnerable people in this survey population. I think you have to take their response as an overall indicator of culture. Either they don’t want change: or they’re afraid to say they do. That’s a distinction without a difference for the culture; but not for them as people. I do not intend to single them out. I thank the reader for their input and allowing my to clarify.)

But for now, this practice test issue provides a good example of how that “change” tension plays out. An FSA practice test may be necessary to avoid greater harm for the kids deliberately injured by the Jeb Bush model of Florida education. But there is nothing more Florida status quo than another educationally useless practice test for another educationally useless FSA. A mass FSA practice test is the opposite of cultural or educational change in this school district — or in Florida.

It is more of the same. THE JEB BUSH STATUS QUO. The “standardized practice test” is perhaps the number one emblem of the Jeb Bush era of broken Florida education and has been for almost 25 years. It certainly helps account for why Florida has the worst test score growth in America as kids age. Chasing test scores instead of education kills test scores, as explained here and shown in graphics below.

Big business and its advocates in Florida have been shockingly slow to perceive what a retrograde and stale educational model this is — how bad this is for state branding compared the rest of the country.

But the public gets it. It’s demanding change through your elected School Board. And your elected School Board, acting behalf of the public, is fighting to change that status quo. Many of us openly ran on changing it. Had these tests come before us for approval as the admittedly incoherent law seems to require, I don’t know if there would have been four votes to approve them. And I feel certain we could have clarified that they are optional, which is not a message people got in the schools, from all that I understand.

The crucial tension: humanity vs. fraudulent numbers; what the public demands vs. what power imposes

This test issue emerges from the incentive-based tension I discussed at our recent great mass School Board meeting.

Key point:

Everybody [on our unelected district staff] wants to serve the humanity of kids; but that’s not how they’re evaluated. That is not how their jobs are determined. Every time we talk about B grade, we endorse the evaluation of leaders by numbers. We don’t have humanity walls; we have data walls…

…What’s a little bit different in Polk County is that starting in 2016, and then again in 2018, you had a public that demanded that our children and teachers and staff be treated like human beings that can be developed, not like pieces of data to sell. That’s what the newer board members have been fighting for.

That runs into the reality of our superintendent and regional superintendents and all the folks whose livelihoods and pressures are built around creating numbers — no matter what those numbers actually say. That’s going to be a tension forever.  There’s no way around it. That’s fundamental. There’s never going to come a day when I’m not going to tell you that school grades are fraud. School grades are fraud designed to stigmatize your kids and outsource them to grifters and criminals.

That’s going to be a conflict. I also recognize that our leadership has to work in that. The challenge we face is how to accommodate what the public wants, because I didn’t trick the public into voting for me. Sarah didn’t trick the public into voting for her. Lisa didn’t trick the public.  We didn’t snap our fingers and appear here, magically. The public demanded it. The public is demanding humanity for their kids.

The leadership culture survey also clearly quantifies this elected board v. unelected staff tension. It is gratifying to see it quantified. I like to be proven right. And I believe identifying this divide clearly is crucial to reconciling the differing points-of-view and pressures of elected and unelected leaders in your school system.

It is crucial to bringing cultural change that our people and stakeholders can feel in their daily lives in a sustained way. But it won’t be easy; and I cannot promise anyone success. The counter-pressure to align around a state model that hurts and defrauds your kids is incredibly powerful. I can only promise effort on my part.

The “Deep State” lives everywhere; but it’s not mysterious or particularly  sinister

This elected official/unelected staff distinction exists in all governments.

Unelected staff is what people actually mean when they talk about the federal “Deep State.” Locally, the “Deep State” might be your city’s long-time Parks and Recreation director or top Sewer and Water executive. It can also mean important unelected advocacy organizations, like the Lakeland Economic Development Council or Chamber of Commerce.

Governments and communities need this unelected staff and institutional leadership class for professional stability and technical understanding and historical knowledge. This “Deep State” can sustain good policy and practice when the gusting winds of popular politics become destructive.

But that healthy professional ballast counterbalancing the wind can get too heavy. An unelected political and institutional body heavy enough to survive unhealthy bursts of popular will can also resist healthy bursts. See the staying power of Jeb Bush’s Foundation, for which there are no term limits and no damage limits.

This is much of the appeal of Donald Trump, putting aside whatever one thinks about him as a person or the reality of his approach to power. And it’s not a coincidence that he won the Republican primary by pummeling Jeb to death with the justly unpopular educational Deep State words “Common Core,” of which he has no understanding whatsoever.

Florida’s education Deep State is particularly sinister

The distinction between elected board and unelected staff is particularly dramatic and destructive for Florida school districts and local school boards.

That’s because the state of Florida has no Florida Department of City/County Government, with a giant bureaucracy housed in a downtown Tallahassee skyscraper. It has no unelected Commissioner of City/County Government with fever dreams of dismantling city and county governments.

But Florida does have both of those things dictating to local public education providers — and local elected officials. As a result, unelected school district staff actually work more directly for the governor, the Florida Department of Education, and the Florida Legislature than they do for me or you, the local voter and member of the public.

Those three state entities have far more power over the superintendent and her staff and your kids than your School Board does. This is a practical and legal reality, as the activist DeSantis courts have made clear. See the linked article. Indeed, that power is precisely why no one bothered to run the FSA practice tests by the elected board, even though state law says it should. 

The state’s educational Deep State is completely uninterested in the what the local public is saying through its local elected officials. So it imposes its will in moments of decision directly upon the unelected local leadership staff, as it did on the night of the Red Weekend. It cuts out your local elected officials almost entirely. DoE people never come to School Board meetings to discuss mandates. Ever.

And when elected board members aggressively insert ourselves into the decision-making mix on your behalf, weak legislators start protecting the educational Deep State by calling for the governor to remove us because we “disrupt” the natural order of things that has existed for 25 years.

Credit to the superintendent for a brave organizational act. Now she has to follow through.

Thus, it was a political and organizational risk for the superintendent to propose — and the School Board to approve — that we dive into this complex elected vs. unelected divided with a leadership culture assessment and development process among our top leaders. I suspect we are far ahead of other districts in beginning to confront it for our public. I like it when we lead.

And I am pleased with the results of the first phase. Consultant Emily Rogers has produced has sophisticated survey that clearly quantifies the massive divide between what Polk’s elected and unelected education leaders see; and what Polk’s elected and unelected education leaders want.

The survey presented Tuesday was limited to the Polk District’s leadership class, from principals upward. We had 60-plus percent response rate. All seven board members responded.

Rogers broke down the responses into six subgroups, which are as follows:

  • Cabinet (top 10 leaders) — 100%
  • Regional superintendents (5) — 100%
  • Directors (46 Senior directors and Directors) — 87%
  • Reports (a 333-person sample of mid-level leadership positions) — 51%
  • Principals and principals on assignment (118) — 69%
  • School Board and attorney (8) —  I confirmed with School Board Attorney Wes Bridges that he did not take the survey; so the 7-person response reflects the board members only at a 100% response rate.

A big gap in perception between the board and staff

Respondents from the different groups were asked to characterize the leadership culture of the district through many dimensions, which were bucketed both “Creative competencies” and “Reactive tendencies.” Specific leadership dimensions included:

  • Purposeful and Visionary
  • Courageous authenticity
  • Customer focus
  • Integrity
  • Autocratic
  • Arrogance
  • Drive

There is a ton of detail in the report, which I don’t think is available electronically. But I have a copy if you want to see it. And Rogers presented it her findings at our most recent work session.

But the bottom line finding, for me, is that the elected School Board sees much, much more room for improvement in district leadership culture than the unelected staff leadership does. And it’s not just Billy, Lisa, and Sarah talking.

Here’s just one example in the “fosters team play” dimension. The measurement is a little complex to describe; it’s not just a straight percentage. But to shorthand it, the elected School Board gives “fosters team play” a score of 13. That’s a very low score on Rogers’ scale. By contrast, the regional superintendents give “fosters team play” a 67, which is a high score.

I think the FSA practice test issue illustrates quite neatly why this differential in score exists. There was no “team play” with the elected board — and the public it represents — despite the requirements of statute. And that provides a view of the challenges we face as an organization, especially as we’re faced  with new state level efforts to disrupt more schools through the fraudulent “turnaround” process and yet another school grade formula change.

Again, I credit the superintendent with taking the risk to identify this disconnect, which has long existed in public education in both Polk County and Florida.

Now it’s time for us to begin fixing it, as the public demands. And that responsibility falls largely on her shoulders; because the board and public are unlikely to stop wanting change in how Florida’s corrupt and anti-human education governance model plays out at the local level.

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Here is the practice test law. Note the parts in bold.

(f) Prohibited activities.A district school board shall prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice assessments or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities for a statewide, standardized assessment. However, a district school board may authorize a public school to engage in the following assessment-preparation activities:

1. Distributing to students sample assessment books and answer keys published by the Department of Education.
2. Providing individualized instruction in assessment-taking strategies, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment.
3. Providing individualized instruction in the content knowledge and skills assessed, without suspending the school’s regular program of curricula, for a student who scores Level 1 or Level 2 on a prior administration of an assessment or a student who, through a diagnostic assessment administered by the school district, is identified as having a deficiency in the content knowledge and skills assessed.
4. Administering a practice assessment or engaging in other assessment-preparation activities that are determined necessary to familiarize students with the organization of the assessment, the format of assessment items, and the assessment directions or that are otherwise necessary for the valid and reliable administration of the assessment, as set forth in rules adopted by the State Board of Education with specific reference to this paragraph.

One comment

  1. However badly written that law it, I suspect that what it meant to communicate was, “Taking a day off of instruction to do a practice FSA test is prohibited unless the school board expressly permits it.” Obviously, that reading was not what transpired (in that it was not expressly permitted).