A weekend interview with ...
... Cheri Yecke, Florida's outgoing K-12 education chancellor. Yecke spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her accomplishments, her views on Florida's education reforms, and her plans for the future.
I was surprised to get this press release in the middle of an afternoon while you're gone saying that you're gone.
(Laughs) Well, this has been in the works for some time. It was like late summer when I started to work on Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was I would apply for commissioner, do the interviews, etc. Plan B was, if that didn't happen, then what would I do?
I've got two universities, and I can't give you their names ... Two universities are interested in me. I am very interested in moving into a university position. They are both out of state. There are people who know this is going on. In fact, when I sent my Christmas letter out to my family and friends, I told them everything and that this would be happening. So it's just a matter of waiting until the middle of the month (January) and once I make my decision we'll see if DOE will put out another press release with the details. But I'm excited. This has been my goal, that once I finished in Florida I would go on to a university.
I think you know, my husband was in the Marine Corps. For the first 20 years of our marriage I followed him around the country. The joke was that he would follow me around for the second 20 years. That was a joke. We didn't think it was going to happen. But I've worked for five governors. And we have moved in our 34 years of marriage 16 times. I am done with that. ... When we move to this house, take the university position, that's going to be where we retire.
What are you going to teach?
I will be with the college of education, in both cases, teaching education policy and education leadership and, in one instance I'll also be helping to build their program for gifted education. My Ph.D. is in gifted ed.
You said you were done in Florida. I didn't know you were done in Florida. When did you decide you were done in Florida?
My decision was that if I got the commissioner position I would stay here, and if I didn't, that I would move on. Once the board made a decision, I started the wheels rolling on working with both these universities and we'll know something by the middle of the month. ...
Tell me a bit about what you see you've accomplished here. Because it was one of those things where you came in and there was a lot of opportunity.
Quite a few things. The beginning of the standards revision. Of course they hadn't been revised since 1996. So I helped to get the ball rolling on that. I'm very pleased with what we've done with reading and language arts, and we've got others in the hopper, I think you know.
Can you talk about the science standards, by the way? What do you think about what's going on with the ruckus?
You know what? This is what's funny. There is now the Office of Math and Science. So I don't have to worry about it. (Laughs) So it makes my life easier.
When it comes to secondary reform, I think that's where we left a really good start. Of course the task force that met was a really great task force. We were able to get almost everything through in the A-Plus-Plus legislation, so I feel very good about that. I also helped to bring more attention to gifted education. There is one position for gifted education at the state level, and it was housed at the ESE office. ESE is like Title I, the 900-pound gorilla in the room. It kind of overpowers everything else just because of sheer numbers. ... So I took the gifted position and moved it into the curriculum and instruction area so that we could then use the gifted person and her advisory group to provide ... the enrichment opportunities in the new standards. That was something I see as a good fit.
Also, I reorganized the K-12 division so we were able to put all the individuals who work with school improvement and student achievement onto one team. I think that was huge because it had been all spread out. To me it was not bringing the cohesiveness that you need with a team approach to work with student achievement and school improvement. ...
A lot of articles and the pundits, if you will, are saying it's the official, formal end to the Jeb Bush era with your departure. What do you think of people tying you in to that whole situation?
I am proud to be associated with Jeb Bush. He really was the education governor who made some bold and dramatic changes. He is the reason I left Minnesota and came to Florida. The opportunity to work for Jeb Bush, how could you pass that up? You have to consider from outside the state of Florida what the perspective is. That is he is the person who had the courage and the boldness to make some dramatic changes. And you know what? When you're a leader like that, you're not going to make everyone happy. You're going to make some waves. Certainly I'm aware of that from Minnesota. So I very proudly am a person who worked under Jeb Bush and I wouldn't change that for the world.
Does your departure then truly mean that it's the end of the way things were under Jeb Bush?
I guess that's for other people to decide. Let the pundits talk about that. I was not appointed by Jeb Bush, although he did interview me for the position. So it's hard to say. We'll let the pundits worry about that. Right now, I'm worried about getting my house sold so I can move....
The reason I ask you about whether the time has ended for that reform era is because some people really think that it should, and some people think that it shouldn't. I'm just wondering, from your perspective if the work that you put so much effort into is for nothing.
Here's how I picture it. ... In the work of education reform, I see Jeb Bush as the Marine Corps. He took the beachhead. That is the hard work of reform, to get it institutionalized and to fight those battles. Other states are still having fights over accountability. That's not happening in Florida. Once the Marines take the beachhead, then you want to stabilize the situation and make sure everything is institutionalized. That is the era I see us in Florida at this point in time. I don't see us going backward. Because we've already won the battle on accountability. I see fine-tuning having to take place, you know, modifications. But I don't see any backtracking occurring.
So when they talk about doing things like changing the way the FCAT is used and changing the way that the tests are offered ... do you think that is a positive step forward for Florida?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that's an evolution of reform. Look at the research from John Bishop of Cornell. The states that have end-of-course exams outscore the students in the states that don't. I think that's a natural next step. So what I see happening is that a refinement of the reforms will be taking place.
So from the very start you were saying if you didn't get this job you were out of here?
Yes. And that's simply because when a new person comes in, they certainly have the right to bring in their own people. I spoke to Eric about this before we were being interviewed, before any decision had been made, just to make it clear to him that I certainly would stay on for a period of transition and help out, but that I would be leaving. And it's not like, ooh, I'm going to take my marbles and go home. It seemed like a very natural thing to do. Dennis (her husband) and I have been talking for some time about going to the university level. I mean, I'm no spring chicken, Jeff. Every one of these moves is harder and harder on me. We want the opportunity to put down roots. ... I guess I'm kind of a romantic. Jan. 1. A new year. To me, your life is like a book with chapters. And it's a good place to end a chapter and start a chapter.