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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Floridians offer advice at Jeb Bush's annual education conference



WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A little bit of Florida came to the nation's capitol today to attend the third annual conference by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Commissioner of Education Eric Smith was on the first panel, with Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia applauding from a table at the front. Nearby was Sen. John Thrasher, chairman of the state Republican Party, and former commissioner John Winn.

But it was Bush who got the first standing ovation. He lauded the states that have followed Florida's lead in setting up data-driven accountability systems.

"Arizona, Indiana and Louisiana have all adopted the A through F letter scale to grade their schools," he told the crowd. "It sounds very simple, but I promise you, the A through F scale is a big part of any success because it is so clear and so transparent.

"You can hide away when you get an incomplete or a satisfactory," he added. "But an F is an F, and an A is an A. And people strive for improvement."

Bush didn't say anything about teachers' unions in his opening remarks, but some of the chief state education officers on the opening panel offered tough words. Indiana superintendent Tony Bennett said his state's approach has earned him few friends among the rank and file.

"My strong suggestion is go right to the belly of the beast," he said. "You have to go out in your communities, look teachers in the eye, and say this is what we’re for. Do you have a better idea?"

Smith, Florida's commissioner, said he had worked to redefine the state's role in education reform by focusing on underperforming schools and offering more freedom to the rest.

"We want to be as hands-off as possible," he said. "What we find in our efforts is that when the adults come together and agree on what appears to perhaps be a lofty goal, the children every time will rise to the expectations. It’s low expectations that will be the death sentence for this country."

Elia, too, offered a more conciliatory note, saying few of her district's far-reaching reforms with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would have been possible without union support.

"This entire plan was developed with our teachers union," Elia said, noting that it was the union that first suggested the peer evaluation system now being rolled out across the district. "I can tell you that we work very hard and very collaboratively with our teachers."

Her message might have been a rare one at a conference that tends to draw a conservative, reform-minded crowd. 

But they'll likely hear it again tomorrow when federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives a keynote address. He has been repeatedly telling the story of districts that have found common ground with their teachers unions.

And what is Duncan doing earlier that day? He's scheduled to tour a low-performing Maryland middle school with Dennis Van Roekel, president of the nation's largest teachers union.

Will Duncan stick to his talking points when he speaks to the reformers? Stay tuned.

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 1:20pm]


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