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Race to the Top and Common Core taking Florida where it wants to go with education, commissioner Smith says

EricJSmith It's been a busy week for Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith. He submitted the state's Race to the Top application on Tuesday, and attended the public release of a national Common Core State Standards on Wednesday. Not every state's leaders have been so gung-ho to participate in these endeavors as Florida. So we asked Smith to explain why he's leading Florida down this path. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek on Thursday.

My first question is dealing with Race to the Top. You got the application in, but a lot of other states decided not to go that way. Why did you decide to keep in on this?

I think at least for us in the department there is a a lot of commitment to the reform agenda that is embodied in Race to the Top. The application that we originally submitted and have since modified slightly but essentially resubmitted in RTTT 2 are the things we think are important for the next steps in Florida. Obviously the amount of money has been scaled back from the amount we originally requested to $700 million. But it's a significant amount of resources we think will be helpful to our districts and our teachers to move forward on some of these important issues. So we think it's an important opportunity for us.

You're talking about $700 million over four years and a lot of additional requirements. Couldn't it be done in a way that Florida is satisfied with and yet not have to go with those additional requirements, sort of like what the Texas governor said -- we don't need them to tell us what to do?

Well, I don't see it that way. I don't see them telling us what to do in this application. I really see it as an opportunity for us to design what we want to do. There are the assurances with the four large areas ... but these are areas of work that we've been engaged with in Florida anyway. They are consistent with what we have been trying to get accomplished. So Race to the Top is not taking us anyplace we would not go anyway. All it does is it gives us some resources to make the trip a little easier.

Some people have questioned whether RTTT is simply doing what Senate Bill 6 would have done. Is there a difference between the two?

I think that both SB 6 and Race to the Top really reflect the importance that our state and our nation put into recognizing high quality teaching. And so in that respect there are a lot of similarities. The recognition that our schools are going to get better, our children are going to become more successful, as long as we tend to continue to focus on the quality of our teaching staff and the support of our teachers. So basically it does embody and reflect some of the same principles we had discussed in SB 6. Issues in connecting the way we evaluate our educators vs. the work of the students. That's kind of fundamental. So there are strong connections.

There was a a requirement, I believe, to adopt the Common Core of Standards as a part of Race to the Top. Is that right?

You get extra points in your scoring in your evaluation if you have the common core adopted, or if you intend to. And if you're part of a consortium of states that is working on the assessments to go with it. We have also been very much involved in the development of the Common Core of Standards. We have not been passive in this work. We have been active in the writing of the standards and in the evaluation of the standards. So we are very excited about that work as well.

Would the common core require Florida to make major changes in the standards that it already has?

Our Legislature directed us to develop what we call the next generation Sunshine State Standards. Those have been implemented here in the state and developing assessments around that. What we have seen is the common core, while it is going to be even a further ratcheting up, even more rigorous, it's not a dramatic step from where we are now. We believe, again, it moves Florida in the direction that we have wanted to go with our standards. So we feel like it's a step in the right direction.

So it's a more difficult set of standards?

We would not have signed on if we felt it was a step back. ... They are more rigorous in a way that we have been working to implement standards. There are fewer standards. They are much deeper. They have examples of the kind of work students need to do that is much more higher order in what is expected. Much more application and synthesis. Again, at least our review of the common core of standards are a step forward and a good step for Florida.

Will it cost a lot to implement them?

This is work we've also been engaged in under some of this federal spending for Race to the Top. They did carve out $350 million to develop assessments to go with the common core. Florida has been very actively engaged in pulling together a consortium of states to develop these assessments. The application for that is actually going to be due at the end of this month. ... We are part of a 27 state consortium. We are one of the leadership states in that consortium that would develop the assessment for the common core. So we would be able to defray the cost of the development by using these federal funds.

All this move to state and federal standards ... how does that leave local school districts? What are they supposed to do now?

... With the common core, it does a great deal for our local districts and schools. ... Miami participated in the NAEP. They are very proud of the fact that they did that in that they had a gauge of how well they are doing compared to other cities in the country. The common core will give our districts the same kind of metric. It will give them the ability to measure their performance against other states and other localities. The intent is to be able to be benchmarked against international measures. So we can know how are kids are doing in Pasco County, or Hillsborough, against students in Finland or Singapore or elsewhere around the globe. ... Since we generally assume that Algebra I is the same whether you're in Florida or Michigan, we'd like to know whether our students in Algebra I are doing as well as students in other states and are as well prepared. Or whether we're missing the mark. I think this should be a distinct advantage to states and localities in terms of evaluating their work. It would be more informative to parents ... and from a financial standpoint it should help us defray some of the costs in test development and administration. ... We would hopefully be able to develop more sophisticated methods of assessment at a better cost and do the work in a more successful fashion.

What happens if we don't get any of this? ... Do you still feel that you're committed to accomplishing the same goals?

The answer is, yes. I think our objectives with, again, reform efforts that are embodied in Race to the Top, are the same type of reform efforts we would go forward with whether we get Race to the Top funds or not. Not getting Race to the Top would just make it more difficult and would put the burden financially back on the state of Florida rather than recapturing the dollars we have already sent to D.C. With the common core, we are in a globally competitive market. It is simply not good enough to know how how we have done on the FCAT, one district vs. another or one school vs. another. We really need to know whether our kids are being prepared for college and workforce, and we need to know whether or not our educational system is preparing then at a level that is competitive both nationally and internationally. So without that kind of standard and measure, all we can do is guess at it. I don't think that is going to be adequate for the state or nation, and definitely not adequate for our children as the economy continues to evolve over the next decade.

Will there be more done to help teachers to get there? It's not just a punitive thing, right?

I think it is definitely not punitive. ... In my view, all this discussion moves away from the focus that we have had for so long on just simply assessments and assessment results, and moves it more into the area of teaching and learning, and how do we support teachers to develop better lessons and how do we give them more time to collaborate in a school. ... It really reinforces and supports teachers int he great work that they've been doing all along.

[Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 10:07am]


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