HomeEducationAlachua County School Board admits incompetence in discussion about measuring progress
Alachua County School Board admits incompetence in discussion about measuring progress
October 11, 2023
BY LEN CABRERA
Given the empty room and the fact that the Alachua County School Board wasted a good chunk of their October 3 meeting talking about a proclamation for LGBTQ+ History Month, most parents probably are not aware that the school board members openly admitted their own incompetence several times.
Finally, something on which we can all agree.
You can watch the nearly three-hour meeting on YouTube, but it’ll likely take longer if you keep backing up to make sure they actually said the self-incriminating words you thought you heard.
It took almost two hours for the Board to get to the second action item. Board Chair Tina Certain got the second and third agenda items mixed up and first took up the third agenda item, a list of purchases to be approved. The agenda item had been pulled from the consent agenda because board members questioned an expenditure of $20,879.10 for a Power BI subscription and asked why the district was moving away from Tableau. After the discussion about the subscription, Certain started to move on to the next agenda item when staff told her she forgot to hold a vote on the purchase. Apparently, the board meetings are run as effectively as our children are being educated.
The fourth agenda item was approval of the School Board’s priorities. The priorities were set at the September 5 meeting:
Completion of a strategic plan
Reading scores and student achievement
Discipline and student behavior
At this point, the meeting turned surreal, with a lot of talking and very little being said. It was like watching students working on a group project, but every student is the one who never wants to do the work.
Superintendent Shane Andrew had his trusty Dilbert jargon generator for this line regarding transportation: “Looking at cost-saving measures and then measuring those measures, just the optimization of bus utilization, so looking at daily runs… analyzing daily runs, things of that nature” (time stamp 2:01:01).
After 20 minutes of this type of gibberish, Certain practically scolded the Superintendent for not having developed any metrics and wasting the board’s time discussing metrics that don’t exist. She said, “I thought our Superintendent would come with a vision and with priorities that he’s going to share with the board; the board should not always be leading this conversation of where we need to be… We have a leader who should have had some type of goals and objectives for himself… I didn’t want us to be here trying to hash out goals and metrics. I expected it to be in the binder when we got here” (time stamp 2:24:40).
One thing parents should be concerned about is that student safety was not mentioned during the brief discussion about discipline and student behavior (but it was discussed when talking about transportation). The main issue of concern was “disproportionality” in referrals–until Board Member Kay Abbitt tried to inject some sanity: “I don’t think we should set goals and say ‘we cannot have more than this percentage of students getting referrals if you’re African American or ESE or whatever.’ I think we have to address the behavior issue because there’s going to be a lot of behavior that won’t even be recognized. That’s not how we’re going to solve that problem, by setting goals. I think we need to have more consistent implementation of rules and consequences from school to school” (time stamp 2:07:32).
Board Member Sarah Rockwell then admitted that when the district sets goals to decrease disproportionality, “what ends up happening is inadvertently… there becomes a pressure on faculty and staff members to not write referrals, even when the behavior warrants it.” That explains the discipline problem Alachua Chronicle covered in July 2022.
When the discussion moved to comprehensive rezoning, Superintendent Andrew gave up on developing metrics and tried to pass the buck to contractors: “Maybe even when we meet with DRMP they can provide us with insight from their end of what we can use that’s measurable… I do think we need to ask DRMP–it’s the same with the strategic plan and working with Cognia. As we roll out the first phase, we need to look at our goals and the implementation of the first phases there, and as we get our plan developed, we’ll be able to identify what are the first phases that we’re going to implement and, using Cognia’s resources and their tools, I think we can set some real measurable goals there” (time stamp 2:13:30).
Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) is paying one contractor to develop a strategic plan and another contractor to do comprehensive rezoning, but ACPS and the School Board have no way of knowing whether the resulting products will be beneficial because they don’t know what they want to measure or why. Certain said, “We tasked our Superintendent with writing those goals up, those priorities up, in some measurable way. And they don’t have to be concrete, as we can’t measure strategic plan, but we need to have it done… We’ve needed one for a while, and we need to get it done. I don’t have to have a metric as to say ‘x, y, and z,’ but that does need to get done. (time stamp 2:25:56).
Board Member Leanetta McNealy realized the metric discussion was going nowhere “because it seems as if communication has been faltered in some manner, and we don’t have a good understanding among ourselves. That’s the key. Before the team of folk can do any further work, we must have a clear understanding, and I don’t think it’s there tonight… I’m not happy with where our conversation is at this point” (time stamp 2:35:25).
Certain followed that up with, “What we’re trying to figure out is how we measure success” (time stamp 2:36:28).
The fact that School Board members are floundering while trying to identify metrics suggests that they don’t know how to evaluate what they’re doing now, and they will therefore not be able to compare the effects of their policies with the current state of the district. If something is not already being measured, there’s no way to tell if a change in policy is an improvement or not.
You would think an army of “trained” educators working for ACPS would already know how to evaluate education policy and would not have to reinvent the wheel each time a new school board is elected. The State of Florida has been involved in public education since the state was founded in 1868. The first elected Commissioner of Education took office in 1969. The current iteration of the State Board of Education has been around since 2003. What excuse does the current School Board have for not having a way to measure success?
Of course, the mention of “demographic subgroups” points to a possible reason for the confusion about metrics: traditional goals regarding the percentages of students who can perform at grade level academically or follow rules in the classroom are no longer adequate. Now we need metrics for all the “demographic subgroups” and every possible combination; the table below from May 2023 shows just some of the groups that are now monitored – All Students, [School Improvement] schools, Black/African-American, Students with Disabilities, English Language Learners.
It’s not surprising that there was not much public comment at the end of this marathon of incompetence. Any parent with a child in the ACPS system owes many thanks to Armando Grundy-Gomes, the lone voice willing to call out the incompetence at the end of the meeting. He pointed out that the Superintendent has been here for over a year, so there’s no excuse to not know how to evaluate progress. To the board members, he said, “You all have hired people that can’t read data. You all have gotten rid of all your data people. That’s not on anyone else. That’s on you. The dysfunction is up there” (time stamp 2:43:53).
Prior to that, Rockwell inadvertently indicted the School Board and the ACPS administration when she admitted, “It makes sense for our focus as a Board and what we’re going to evaluate–the success of the Superintendent has to be those SI [School Improvement] schools because if we don’t get those kids reading, we’re failing. We’re failing–when we have a school that has low teens percentage of students passing the FAST assessments, we’re failing. We just are” (time stamp 2:18:29).
The staff promised an update on data trends at the October 17 meeting. (You can read about the previous ABC report here.) There’s no need to wait for that meeting because the failure of ACPS over the last five years is clear.
Scores have declined since Board’s 2018 equity plan
Some of these Board Members were around when ACPS announced an equity plan in August 2018. The primary goal was to narrow the performance gap between white and black students by 2028. My immediate response was, “The focus of the plan and the equity office itself are misguided and are guaranteed to produce bad policy.”
It was no surprise that overall student performance dropped and the black-white performance gap widened in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. In a 2019 column, I concluded, “Our education system is broken. Equity is the least of our worries.”
In the 2022-23 school year, the Florida Department of Education did every school board a favor by transitioning from the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) to the new Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (FAST) so boards can’t be held accountable for poor performance compared to previous years. Using the new system, however, we can compare the incompetence of ACPS to the other 66 county-wide school districts in the state. (The data is available here.)
For mathematics, grades 3-8, ACPS ended the 2022-23 school year with only 51% of students on grade level or above, lower than the performance of 45 other counties. The state average was 56%. Since the FAST exam is given three times a year to measure progress, we can see just how ineffective ACPS schools were during the year. From PM1 to PM3, Alachua County scores improved by 35 percentage points (16% to 51% at grade level). There were 56 counties that showed more improvement over the year. The state average was a 42 percentage point improvement.
For English Language Arts, grades 3-10, the story is similar. ACPS ended the year with only 50% of students on grade level or above. The improvement from PM1 to PM3 was only 14 percentage points; 62 counties outperformed Alachua County. The state average was a 17 percentage point improvement.
During the meeting, Certain said, “I am really disappointed that we are here because it is so apparent when I am with my colleagues from other districts, the reason why our district is…” She laughed uncomfortably and continued, “… where our students of color and the children that you and all of us are so concerned about are not doing well, because we really have not set goals and priorities and held ourselves, as an organization, as leaders and the staff, held ourselves accountable” (time stamp 2:29:39).
Given the last five years of educational decline and the 2022-23 FAST scores in Alachua County, the best way for these Board Members to hold themselves accountable would be to resign if the district’s scores don’t improve in the 2023-24 school year.
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