Tony Bennett's Florida education priorities: Common Core and teacher evaluations
Incoming Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett is well known for his strong views on education policy, including his strong support of school choice and vouchers, as well as his backing of the national Common Core standards that some say contributed to his election defeat in Indiana. Those views won him his new Florida job. And he's been given instructions to make proper implementation a priority once he takes over.
Bennett explained his goals in an interview with the Gradebook, portions of which were published in a heavily edited version over the weekend. Here are some of his extended comments on priorities.
What do you plan to do once you get to Florida? Do you have marching orders from the board, or from the governor?
There were three issues, one of them I have already done. That is, get very acclimated with the governor's education agenda and be thinking about how I help advance that agenda. Specifically within that, the governor asked me to really focus on two things immediately. The first of those is implementation of the Common Core. That is of paramount importance.
Why is the Common Core so important? And why are so many people either strongly for it or strongly against it?
It's a great question. First of all, I think the Common Core is important, and I want to use the context of Florida as a great example — I think Gov. Scott has been very insightful as he has really focused strongly on the connection between education and jobs. If we remember, the Common Core was really developed with the end result being college and career readiness. So the governor's vision, and the vision that Common Core had ... really run hand in glove. And so the Common Core is very important because, one, it really is a set of standards that is internationally benchmarked. It is going to transform the way students learn, teachers teach, we assess, and what the results mean. It does provide us a framework to make sure our students have deep understanding of content.
How does it do that?
I am going to use math standards as an example. ... And I am not going to pick on Florida. I am going to pick on Indiana. Because if you do your research, Indiana has really good math standards. And our state, our education roundtable, our state board, agreed to change those standards to the Common Core. You asked how it does that. First, math standards in Indiana ... are standards that are taught in separate logarithmic activities. ... I think historically we have done a very poor job of making sure what we teach in Algebra 2, trigonometry, calculus builds seamlessly on what the students learned in their primary grades about the number line. We are historically taught, learn this skill, here are the indicators for this skill, you will be tested on this skill, and we're going to move to the next activity. If you look at our international competitors and how they teach math, they teach it in an interrelated, scaffolded manner where students have to have a very deep understanding and mastery of the content in order to build the skills one on top of the other. So they're not just saying, I've mastered Unit A. I've taken the assessment on Unit A. I'm ready for Unit B. ...
I think that is the real beauty, especially in math, about the Common Core. Secondly, it's fewer, clearer and deeper. There are fewer standards, they are much clearer and they go much deeper.
That should be better for students and teachers. So why do people hate it?
Well, you know, I think many people oppose the Common Core not because of the standards but because of what happened with the standards. We have to go back. This whole concept of standards that states could voluntarily adopt dates back to around 2006. We've got to remember who was in office in 2006. And it started with the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers. And so over time these standards, and the concepts for these standards came about. What happened was in 2009 the current administration kind of adopted this concept as theirs. They attached Race to the Top to them, they attached other federal education programs to them. And so the opposition has seen this as the nationalization of education when education is constitutionally a state responsibility. So I submit to you the standards — and we had states that adopted them without seeing them for purposes of being considered for Race to the Top — there were things that happened that kind of cast doubt on were these really a state initiative when there was no question that they were.
You said there was a second thing you want to do. I don't want to lose track of the second thing.
The second thing is to address teacher evaluations.
How? Do you need to rewrite them? Do you need to redo this?
We have to ask ourselves where the problems are. ... I don't know if you went with me and the governor to the school event. There were a lot of questions about that. I left there more convinced than I was before I started that there isn't a single issue pertaining to the teacher evaluation initiative, or the educator effectiveness, is what we should call it. ... That is, is there a problem that the department hasn't been able to facilitate implementation from the department end? Is there a problem a lack of capacity at the local level to get these things implemented? Or are the problems with the actual piece of legislation? ... There appears to be some of all.
And so I made the comment at that session that nothing is off the table for me. I intend to over the holidays spend a lot of time looking at the legislation, trying to learn as much as we can about implementation, and try to find ways to help us get there.
There's been some talk already about changing the legislation. Some people don't like the value-added part. Some people think maybe we should reduce the 50 percent to 40 percent and add something else in there. ... Are there are ideas that are good ones that are out there?
I think we have to investigate all the ideas. If you look at all of the 21 states that adopted educator effectiveness legislation in the last 2-1/2 to 3 years, and there have been a number of approaches. Are you prescriptive in terms of your percentages? Are you more flexible and drive more to the local level? I think the first thing we have to say is, What are really the purposes of an educator effectiveness initiative like this? That is the most important thing we have to say first and foremost. I always come back to, what are the big ideas? And the big ideas around this are, one, teachers want to and should be evaluated annually as professionals. Two, the evaluation should be multifaceted and should include student performance data. ... And three, it should provide meaningful annual feedback so teachers get better. It should recognize and reward the best teachers. It should help those who want to get better, get better. And it should also inform HR and salary decisions. So let's start there. ... I think what we have seen in many places was, because of RTTT, we jumped over the big ideas and maybe got very granular and very prescriptive.
So does the state need to take a step back?
I don't ever want to say take a step back, because to me that implies that you are stepping away from accountability. There are great state teacher effectiveness initiatives and policies that aren't prescriptive. ... So what I am saying is what we have to ask ourselves is what is the right way to approach the attainment of those big ideas...
Who needs to be in the conversation?
Everyone. The nice thing is, I have not met a soul who disagrees with the big ideas.