Make us your home page


Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...



Ericjsmith ... Eric J. Smith, Florida's new education commissioner. Smith took over the job on Dec. 3, and spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the tasks he sees ahead.

I wanted to talk with you about your time being here as commissioner already and what you've seen and your plans. ...

I actually got here a little bit early on Friday and got some briefings on some of the issues and so forth that are before us and got ready. I had a busy weekend and certainly had a pretty rapid pace this week. I started with the charter school conference in Orlando with Chairman Fair and have moved through a series of meetings and a pretty aggressive schedule this week. But it's been very positive. I sincerely appreciate the way I've been received by legislators, by other elected officials, by organizations and so forth in the state and look forward to beginning to work as commissioner.

Certainly my first week impression, we have a lot of issues, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us with budget and other things. What I ask people to keep focus on also is we have a lot to be proud of in Florida and we have a lot of dedicated educators and parents and business leaders and elected officials who are really focused on the needs of kids. I continue to remind myself that it's paying off. So I feel really good about my first week. (Friday Dec. 7) I'll be in Tampa meeting with some of the superintendents and school board members, then I'll be back up here for some more meetings....

Did you have anything come immediately across your desk? I know the State Board is meeting real soon. Are there things you feel like you have to take care of immediately?

There certainly is work that is urgent, and we're moving on those things, like budget and issues related to some of the legislative issues that are coming up and so forth. But there's nothing at a crisis point. I don't want to be misunderstood on that. There are issues that are urgent, but we are going to be thoughtful and deliberative on our approach to issues. So you won't see me making rapid-fire decisions unless required. And we're going to be very careful to listen and to communicate issues with those that are involved, our constituents, so we make thoughtful and deliberative decisions. ...

One of the things that sort of popped up, I don't want to say out of nowhere because it's been there for a while, but it's all of a sudden gotten hot, is the science standards. Have you had a chance to look at that and give your thoughts about it?

Well, the science standards have been worked on for quite a while. It's gotten a lot of media attention recently, and a lot of e-mail traffic recently. I think that is to be expected ... whenever you develop standards. I would hope that the math standards, although they probably didn't generate as much e-mail traffic, I certainly hope people looked at them as much, and language arts and so forth. They're important for us. They're what will drive the work of classroom teachers across the state. ... I think we're going to come to a close with some good recommendations as we enter the new calendar year. The board will certainly be very deliberative as they evaluate the input. ... I really don't have any comment in terms of some of the issues that have been raised recently. We're still working through that. I think it's too early for me to make any comment. We're listening and I think we'll have a good recommendation to the board when that time comes, probably in the January-February time frame.

I know that when a leader comes in, sometimes they want to bring some of their key people with them or just make some changes in the structure of the way things are run. Have you thought about that at all? Or are you satisfied with the department the way it is right now?

In general I am always evaluating the structure of an organization and how we do our work. This is a big operation here. It is a critical operation. We have obligations to be responsive to the Legislature, and to the governor. But most important, we have obligations to be responsive to districts and charter schools and community colleges and technical schools and the list goes on, that really are dependent on our interpretation of regulations and development of rule and our support. And so it is my obligation to take a real good look at how we are organized and how we conduct our work and how responsive we are. And so I don't have any foregone conclusions. I have a lot of respect for the people here in the department. As anyone that has watched education in Florida in last decade knows, there has been a lot of change. I think this department is to be commended for its past leadership - Jeanine Blomberg, John Winn and other leaders that have gone before - and the leadership within the department that I really feel fortunate to have around me as I prepare to do the work. But saying all that, it doesn't foreclose any decisions I might make in the future about needs to reorganize and so forth and restructure. We're in the middle of a tough financial time and we have to operate efficiently and effectively. ...

Are there any things the department is doing right now - I know the FCAT review is something that people were pretty excited about, for instance - that you want to continue with? Or that you want to immediately cease as unimportant?

No. I think the FCAT advisory committee and the evaluation that has gone on with that has been very, very healthy. I hope that people will find I am a person who believes in transparency and involvement of the people that are going to be affected by decisions. And so I think that process certainly will continue. We need to find ways to continue to be interactive with people like that.

Sometimes it leads to some issues that are uncomfortable. But that's OK. That's what it is all about. It makes us stronger. When you talk specifically about the FCAT advisory committee, I think the issues raised by that group have been beneficial and will end up making a stronger accountability program for the state and assuring it is fair but also assuring it leads to transparency for parents that are concerned about the quality of work that their children are doing and the performance of their schools.

Are there any things that you are going to be recommending that the Legislature tackle? ...

I have consistently said through the interview process and will continue to speak to what I think is a major area of future growth in Florida. That is the connection between secondary education and what happens to a young person when they graduate, whether it's four-year university, community college, technical school or work force. We need to scrutinize our successfulness in preparing kids for marching and beyond.

What I hear a lot, I hear a lot of issues around the test - FCAT this and FCAT that. I think those are important and I don't want to minimize those. But what is more important is the kids that are taking those tests and whether they are adequately prepared to march and go into our community colleges and not turn around and sit in remediation classes for mathematics and reading. That they leave our high schools ready to engage in community college work, or technical college work, or four-year university work and that the representation of those numbers - you know, the kids that are moving on - are reflective of our demographics of our general population.

I certainly have that as a priority. And what I will be looking for is others in the state that share components that we can build on and help to really focus on that piece, the connectivity.

There's a Florida Go Higher Task Force that was initiated prior to my arrival, and I think their work is phenomenal. They're going to bring some recommendations forward. That is another task force I would hope I can encourage them not to disband but continue to look at that exit process. It's not really an exit but a beginning for young people as they leave our high schools.

That's one area. I think the standards piece is another one. I'm very concerned about early childhood. Are kids getting prepared to come into our K-12 program? Is the voluntary Pre-k program effective in helping children get ready for the kindergarten program? I'm very interested in supporting our teachers and school leaders. Those that are currently in our classrooms, both community colleges and charter schools, whatever. Also very focused on the pipeline? How well are we doing in bringing strong, well prepared educators into our classrooms and school administration, that can take the place of some of our senior veterans that are leaving into retirement or moving on. I am very interested in that whole human capacity issue.

Speaking of excellent teachers, I was at an event the other day with two lawmakers, and they were very concerned that with the next step of the class size amendment we will be getting less good teachers, rather than more, because there's going to be a requirement for so many more teachers. Do you have any concerns or thoughts about that issue?

I think that's an issue that needs to be analyzed. Every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. I think the class-size initiative mandates we bring an even larger number of highly qualified teachers into our classrooms. And we've got to study that issue and determine whether or not it's a problem for us that needs to be solved, or if it's not a real issue....

Am I missing something? I want to make sure I leave you an open-ended question if you want to say something I haven't asked you.

I appreciate that and I appreciate this opportunity. I just close the way I opened. I am thrilled to be here in Florida. I look forward to providing service as best I can and working with the citizens and some really great educators in the state, and elected officials, to make what happens for children in our state even better tomorrow than it is today. That's my objective.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:29am]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours