Eric J. Smith
Seven people remain in the hunt to become Florida's next education commissioner. Next week, the State Board of Education will trim the list further. Leading to that Sept. 18 meeting, the Gradebook will provide mini profiles, one each day, on the candidates. Today, meet Eric J. Smith.
He's known as an agent of change. In education policy circles, he's a superstar, sought after for the biggest of jobs. Eric J. Smith is the guy who led the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) school system to reductions in the achievement gap between white and minority students. (See Charlotte Observer article here). And when he took over the struggling Anne Arundel (Md.) district, he implemented major reforms that shook some of the lowest performing schools into academic improvement. (See this Education Week profile). Smith has high demands and expects people to meet them.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Smith is not beloved by all. Few who rattle the status quo are. Among his biggest critics have been the teachers of Anne Arundel County, who complained loudly that they were the true reform agents, putting in long hours to make his ideas work, only to be ignored when contract talks came around. (See this 2003 Washington Post article.) The complaints were similar to those of teachers in Charlotte (see comments at end of article here).
It was such tension, in fact, that led to Smith's departure in 2005. "The union was poised to vote on a no-confidence motion when he abruptly resigned," the Baltimore Sun wrote in an article announcing Smith's candidacy for the Florida job. The Washington Post described Smith this way: "The nationally renowned educator who ... brought three years of academic prosperity and political tumult" before resigning. (See full story here.) Is he a vision guy who doesn't see through his initiatives? Or a true visionary? A columnist for the "post-partisan" New America Foundation used Smith as its key example for an article called "The Superintendent As Scapegoat" (see piece here).
Now he's a senior vice president at The College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement exams and SAT tests, among other things. He served on the organization's board of directors before that. (See full resume here.) But he'd like to return to Florida, where he began his education career in 1972 as a teacher in Orange County.
"The singular issue that states, districts and the nation need to solve is how to move the achievement level of our kids to a much higher level," Smith says. "There's not a magic bullet. There are a number of things that are critically important. ... One is a cohesive commitment to achieve that outcome. ... Quite often, issues get caught up in adult issues and never allow this to occur."
He says his first task would be to build this shared commitment to higher standards. He also wants to evaluate how the state's education strategic plan fits with the desired outcome of improved achievement. And he wants to review the department's effectiveness and efficiency in getting there. If the state really needs to cut funding, Smith adds, the effort becomes all the more important: "Adjustments might be needed because of revenue (shortfalls), so we don't compromise the desired outcome."
Tomorrow: William J. Moloney