in , , ,

The Naked Ambition of Hollis Milton West Feliciana's Superintendent Takes Aim at Accountability & John White

There’s a difference, of course, between ambition and naked ambition. The former is a quality we admire in an individual who is willing to push themselves to the heights that their talents can take them. The latter is much less flattering; it denotes a gracelessness in pursuit of those ends, a willingness to jettison principles and to trample others in their climb, and perhaps implies that an individual’s aspirations outstrip their abilities.

Graceless and unprincipled are certainly two words that come to mind when considering the recent behavior of Hollis Milton, who serves as the Superintendent of West Feliciana Parish Schools and was recently named as president of Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASS). Since becoming the head of the superintendents’ group this summer, Milton has launched an effort to undermine State Superintendent John White around the issue of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – in particular, the state’s rollout of the standards and the scheduled release of PARCC test scores in November.

Milton Takes Aim at John White

Milton fired his first shot back in July in an interview with the The Advocate, in which he took the opportunity to complain that Common Core was forced upon districts, saying: “[T]hey’ve given us a lot of mandates like implementing Common Core — we didn’t choose Common Core, it was chosen for us — and it cost a million dollars in a local district.”

The attacks continued when Milton was invited to speak to the Baton Rouge Press Club on August 3rd. While repeatedly emphasizing his commitment to higher standards, Milton nevertheless took several jabs at both White and the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) for what he portrayed as their mishandling of the rollout of CCSS. At one point during the press conference [starts at 12:25 in the video below], Milton told the assembled reporters:

“I think the mistake with the implementation was that we didn’t communicate the change enough…And the other problem was that implementation was uneven…I know in many places, the support wasn’t there for every district to be able to do what they needed to do.”

Milton then made a not-so-subtle allusion to White and LDOE, insisting, “I’m not here to point blame, I’m just telling you the implementation was uneven, and that can probably be provided by others, who could give you why.”

Furthermore, he went on to claim that LDOE officials told West Feliciana to “figure it our yourself” when his district sought guidance in choosing a CCSS-aligned mathematics curriculum, while conveniently omitting the fact that the department conducted an in-depth review of several curricula and published the results online to help districts choose the best options.

The Latest Line of Attack: PARCC Test Results

However, in the past two weeks, things have come to a head, with Milton trying stir up an unnecessary controversy aimed at putting White and LDOE in a bad light. It all started on September 17th at a meeting of the Superintendent’s Advisory Council, when Milton – joined by a handful of superintendents and Louisiana School Board Association (LSBA) Executive Director, Scott Richard – ambushed White on the November release of this spring’s PARCC test results and demanded LDOE release the raw score data to districts immediately.

Traditionally, LDOE releases initial test results in May with the full release of data in October, after the department and its test vendors have scored the 320,000+ state standardized tests taken each year by Louisiana public school students and then used those scores to calculate School Performance Scores, District Performance Scores, and school and district letter grades. However, with the state’s shift to Common Core-aligned PARCC tests this year, LDOE decided to push back the release of test results to November to give the department time to produce new, in-depth score reports for each child that will include meaningful information for parents and teachers. [See a mockup of the new ELA test score report below.]

Superintendent White first announced the change at a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) all the way back in December 2013 and it’s literally been communicated to district leaders dozens of times in the intervening 21 months, as shown in the table below.

DateCommunication of November Test Release Timeline
December 2013BESE Meeting
June 2014Accountability Commission
August 2014 BESE Meeting
October 2014District Assessment Update Webinar
November 2014Superintendent’s Advisory Council
November 2014Educator Assessment Update Webinar
November 2014Special Populations Assessment Update Webinar
November 2014Weekly LDOE Newsletter
November 2014Assessment and Accountability Monthly Call
November 2014PARCC FAQ
Nov. 2014 - May 2015PARCC office hours (twice weekly webinars; 46 total)
December 2014Assessment and Accountability Monthly Call
January 2015Assessment Planning Meeting
January 2015Weekly LDOE Newsletter
March 2015BESE Meeting
April 2015District Planning Call
April 2015Superintendents Monthly Call
May 2015District Planning Call
May 2015Superintendents Monthly Call
June 2015Teacher Leader Conference
July 2015Assessment Planning Meeting
August 2015Superintendents Monthly Call
August 2015Assessment and Accountability Monthly Call
August 2015District Planning Call
August 2015Weekly LDOE Newsletter
September 2015Superintendents Monthly Call
September 2015Assessment and Accountability Monthly Call
September 2015District Planning Call
September 2015Regional Sup. & Teacher Leader Collab. Meetings

Although LDOE has been communicating the revised date for well over a year, no one – including Milton – has raised an objection to the plan until now. Is it possible that Milton, Richard, and the others raising a stink somehow missed the innumerable memos about the revised test score release? Perhaps that could be the case, but behind-the-scenes communications from Milton make clear the fracas over test scores is purely political, aimed at damaging the credibility of John White and LDOE, as well as undermining the state’s accountability system.

Some Background on the Political Dynamics

But before we get to Milton’s scheming, it’s important to understand the political dynamics at work between the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, the Louisiana School Board Association, and LDOE. Over the past four years, LASS has pushed back against the reform policies embraced by BESE and White – specifically, the accountability measures promulgated in Act 1 of 2012 and the state’s adoption of Common Core. For example, as I reported last year, LASS’ leadership (which, at the time, included Hollis Milton) attempted to cut a backroom deal with Tea Party-aligned lawmakers trying to kill CCSS, until their efforts were exposed by The Advocate.

Likewise, LSBA is so enmeshed with the state’s two main teachers unions – the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) – that it might as well be an auxiliary wing of those organizations. That became abundantly evident last year, when LSBA announced it was joining forces with LFT and LAE to push back against the state’s education reform policies during the 2014 legislative session. In a LFT press release on the agreement, LSBA Executive Director Scott Richard was quoted as saying:

“We are experiencing unprecedented times during this era of ‘education reform’ in our state. It is of the utmost importance that we strive to work collaboratively as stakeholders in order to facilitate practical initiatives that truly work to improve student achievement.”

Thick as thieves: LFT President Steve Monaghan (2nd from left), former LAE President Debbie Meaux (3rd from left), former Louisiana Association of School Superintendents President Patrice Pujol (4th from left), LSBA Executive Director Scott Richard (2nd from right) and anti-CCSS legislator J. Rogers Pope (right).
Thick as thieves: LFT President Steve Monaghan (2nd from left), former LAE President Debbie Meaux (3rd from left), former Louisiana Association of School Superintendents President Patrice Pujol (4th from left), LSBA Executive Director Scott Richard (2nd from right) and anti-CCSS legislator J. Rogers Pope (right).

Thus, the current dustup over the release of the PARCC test score data is, in one sense, simply the latest salvo from reform opponents in their fight against White and LDOE. But the current situation has added significance with the upcoming gubernatorial elections on October 24th. White has indicated that he would like to remain State Superintendent when Louisiana’s new governor takes office next year. But Democratic candidate John Bel Edwards, who is backed by the teachers unions and will almost certainly make it to the runoff election in late November, has stated emphatically that White needs to be replaced.

An Edwards victory would be a big win for education reform opponents, and should that happen, observers in Baton Rouge say Milton has made it known he’s interested in John White’s job – in fact, he basically said as much during his appearance before the Baton Rouge Press Club. During the question-and-answer session, Will Sentell of The Advocate asked Milton whether superintendents would be in favor of keeping John White as State Superintendent. Milton responded, “I am qualified to be a middle school principal, just saying.” The remark, which elicited uncomfortable laughter from the audience, was an allusion to Edwards’ earlier rebuke of White, in which he stated: “I have no intention of allowing John White, who isn’t qualified to be a middle school principal, to remain as Superintendent when I am governor.”

Milton made clear he was interested in John White's Job at the Baton Rouge Press Club in August.
Milton made clear he was interested in John White’s Job at the Baton Rouge Press Club in August.

Milton’s Behind-the-scenes Machinations

With this context, we can now turn to Milton’s behind-the-scenes effort to stir up controversy over the release of the PARCC test scores. On September 18th, the day after the contentious Superintendent’s Advisory Council meeting, Milton sent out two emails to district superintendents across the state. In the first, Milton announced he was formally going to request raw test score data from White and encouraged others to do the same. It also included a link to a story in The Advocate on the controversy.

The first email on September 18th announcing Milton's plan to request raw test score data.
The first email on September 18th announcing Milton’s plan to request raw test score data.

The second email included what Milton claimed were results from LASS’ Fall Survey of superintendents, which was obviously an attempt at creating an impression of widespread dissatisfaction and distrust of the state’s accountability system among district leaders.

Milton's second email to superintendents with selected results from LASS' Fall Survey.
Milton’s second email to superintendents with selected results from LASS’ Fall Survey.

Milton states that he wants the raw test scores now so instructional leaders will have “more time to make sound decisions based on the data.” Moreover, he repeated that claim in an article in The Advocate this morning, saying: “To wait until November is going to push me back from making instructional decisions until January. That is not a good place to be.” But an email Milton sent to superintendents last Monday makes clear he actually wants to use the data to call into question LDOE’s accountability metrics for districts, schools, and educators.

In that email from September 21st, Milton writes, “My belief is that data could be helpful in the short term for instructional decisions and long term as far as us understanding the process from raw data to the refined, cooked data we receive in November.” He goes on to say:

“[R]eceiving the raw data could help us deepen our understanding of a process that evaluates our students, our employees, our schools, and ultimately our job performance…The raw data could be provided unidentified to researchers that could help us understand the reliability and validity issues. In Oklahoma, a researcher recognized the deep flaws in their accountability system and the department of education changed course in how they graded schools.”

Milton's email to superintendents on Monday, September 21st.
Milton’s email to superintendents on Monday, September 21st.

In short, Milton is proposing that they surreptitiously provide the raw score data they receive from State Superintendent White to unnamed “researchers” (one might assume he means “researchers” like former LAE executive director, Michael Deshotels), without the knowledge or approval of LDOE officials – and, by the way, possibly in violation of the state’s student data privacy laws.

It’s outrageous that Milton, the head of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and someone who aspires to be the state’s top education official, would even float the idea of providing raw student test score data to researchers outside of the protections and oversight provided by the Louisiana Department of Education. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous of Milton to pretend that his campaign for the early release of testing data is driven by a desire to improve instruction for students. Clearly, this has nothing to do with kids; this is an effort to undermine the state’s public education accountability policies, along with John White.

As BESE President Chas Roemer said in this morning’s piece in The Advocate: “They [LASS] have fought accountability the whole time. This group is kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He’s right and the Big Bad Wolf leading the pack is Hollis Milton, who’s abusing his position to further the aims of anti-reformers and to install himself in John White’s job.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can encrypt your comment so that only Peter Cook can read it.

Quick Take: No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse

Election 2015: BESE District 1 – Garvey vs. Barrios