Avossa: PBC’s supposed spike in teacher happiness was just bad math

Three months ago, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa presented school board members with promising results from his efforts to reform the county’s public schools: a record number of happy teachers.

The rate at which teachers and other school employees gave their schools high marks on anonymous surveys had jumped five percentage points in one year, he said, and four points since he took office two years earlier.

“These are the highest numbers we’ve ever had since we started this,” Avossa said during the May presentation.

In some categories, the alleged improvements were even more eye-popping: a 14-point jump in teachers’ opinions of student behavior and a 13-point jump in teachers’ feelings about their role in school decision-making.

But after The Palm Beach Post discovered discrepancies this month in the survey results, administrators conceded Wednesday that the reported spike in school morale was largely an illusion.

After recalculating the results, administrators now say that overall teacher and employee satisfaction rose just slightly this year – by less than a percentage point — and remains slightly lower than when Avossa took office in 2015.

RELATED: How happy are teachers at your school? See for yourself

The new numbers show that teachers’ positive opinions of student conduct and their input in decision-making did not jump by double-digits. Instead, the rates in both categories fell, district officials now say.

Administrators blamed a programming error and a change in how they calculated satisfaction rates for the inflated numbers that Avossa unveiled in May.

“It’s embarrassing when data come out that aren’t right,” Avossa said in an interview Wednesday, “but we own it and we apologize and move forward.”

Post reporters discovered anomalies in the school district’s reported results earlier this month while conducting their own analysis of teacher survey results obtained through a public records request.

The reporters notified district officials of the discrepancies and asked for an explanation of the school district’s methodology. The Post has also asked the school district to provide the raw survey data without any formatting or merging of categories.

In the ensuing weeks, district administrators canceled two interviews scheduled to discuss the discrepancies. In the meantime, they say they conducted their own review and discovered two main problems with their calculations.

They explained the errors in an interview with The Post Wednesday and also issued an apology to the school district’s teachers and other employees via email and a recorded video.

VIDEO: Avossa apologizes to teachers for the error

First, administrators say, they discovered that district researchers made a significant change this year to how they calculate teacher-satisfaction rates: Non-answers would no longer be counted as negative answers.

Doing so, they argued, gives the school district a more accurate measure of how many teachers say they approve of their schools. But the change, which hadn’t been previously disclosed, made valid comparisons to previous years impossible.

“You can’t change methodologies mid-stream without noting it,” Avossa said. “That’s problematic.”

At the same time, administrators say a computer program built to compile survey results tallied the results incorrectly, falsely inflating the teacher satisfaction rates.

“The programmer who did the analysis had an error in his code,” said Mark Howard, the school district’s chief of performance accountability.

Avossa apologized on Wednesday to the school district’s employees via a video message, saying that it was important that the district be transparent about its mistakes and learn from them.

When the survey results were publicly released in May, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen told the Sun Sentinel that the results would be used to determine where principals were assigned.

But on Wednesday, Avossa reframed the surveys as an informal “snapshot” of morale among the school district’s roughly 12,000 teachers and thousands of other school-based employees. He denied that the results had been used in any evaluations or formal assessments of schools or administrators.

RELATED: This is Palm Beach County’s happiest public school

Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union, applauded Avossa for acknowledging the error and apologizing publicly. He said he was troubled, but not surprised, by the drop in teachers’ optimism about their role in decision-making, considering the increase in mandates and restrictions imposed by state lawmakers and district staff.

“Red tape and various micromanaging mandates have long been choking the life out of educators,” Katz said. “It’s definitely a contributing factor to the high attrition levels in the profession.”

To instill more confidence in the survey process, Avossa announced that future surveys would be conducted and analyzed by a private outside firm.

Not only will that give the public more confidence in the numerical results, it will reduce some teachers’ fears that their anonymous responses could be traced back to them.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to work with an outside group,” Avossa said. “That way everybody can rest assured that their voices can be heard and that no administrator or principal or the central office will know who gave what feedback.”

He said he would formally notify school board members of the recalculated survey results during an upcoming public meeting. He called the errors “an anomaly” but said he hoped his administration could learn from it.

“The data’s clean now,” he said. “It is what it is. Next year we’ll move forward.”

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