A weekend interview with ...
... Frances Haithcock, Florida's new K-12 chancellor. Haithcock began her education career in Broward County, working as a teacher, principal and district-level administrator. She left the state in 2000 to work at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system under Eric J. Smith, Florida's new education commissioner. She eventually became interim superintendent in Charlotte, but did not win the permanent job. Afterward, Haithcock took a job at the College Board, again working with Smith, who recently hired her to replace Cheri Yecke as chancellor. Haithcock spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her views on Florida's education system and where it needs to go.
I wanted to start out by asking why you decided to come back to Florida to take the chancellor's job.
I just had so many reasons for that, and all of them just seemed to come together. One of the most important I think, to me, reasons was that I spent a great deal of time in Florida, as you know. I was here about 37 years - I kind of grew up in the educational system here. And then I had the opportunity to do some other things that I think added some value as far as education for me was concerned. And then to come back at the state level and work with Eric Smith was something that I just couldn't turn down. I've told many people that, number one, I would have never come to Florida without Eric and I would have never gone with Eric Smith anywhere but Florida. Just those two things came together and it was just a wonderful opportunity to what I call take it to the limit, see if we can't move some stuff that has already had a great start here in Florida.
Let's talk about those things that need to be moving. What are some of the issues that you need to deal with right away?
Well, there's never a lack of opportunities to deal with. We don't have issues here at the state department. We have opportunities. There's always some critical things out there, and one of the things that's most exciting I think I alluded to in that last statement. Florida while I was here, and particularly since I've been gone - I left in 2000 - has made some remarkable progress in education. Because Florida is a very large and complex and complicated state. I think some of the recent data that has just come out has been very impressive about the base line we have to build on here.
With that being said, there are several things I am looking at right now that the commissioner has asked me to kind of address. Most of these things are things that really he has an interest in and the legislators have an interest in. One of them is starting back with the reading program that's been around a long time. We need to have more definition about exactly what needs to be done with the pre-k through 3 students. You know, the accountability system really doesn't kick in until the third grade. And we're seeing some really good results from some of the programs we have there. But the accountability is not tight enough for us to do good data analysis of some of the stuff that is going on in pre-k on through 3. So we are going to continue to look at that. As I said, that is an old conversation, but there is nothing in the world that is more important than reading in the elementary school in order for us to be able to say "We solved this, we have it down and all of our children have the ability to read at that higher level."
Is there an answer to that?
Yes. There are some good answers to that. And we're just starting. Of course, I've only been here 3-1/2 days.
You mean you don't have everything worked out already?
No. I've got it defined as one of the things that we are going to look at.
Another thing that the commissioner is very interested in and that we have been working together for the last couple of years on, and that is defining how do you ensure that your secondary program is aligned to your college and university program and that more students have access to a rigorous curriculum so that when they get to the community college system and the university system and the world of work, which requires a much higher skill level at this time, how do you assure that when they get there they are ready to start?
In other words, to really address the remediation factor that goes on in some of the community colleges, do a good analysis of that. Will Holcombe, who is the chancellor for the community colleges, is someone who I worked with for many many years in Broward County. He was president of the community college there.
Is he staying? I remember him being interim.
Yeah. I believe he is going to go out from that interim position and stay. Because I told him if I come he has to stay. So I am really excited about having that opportunity to work on that alignment and facilitation to those higher divisions.
Does that tie into Go Higher Florida and all the recommendations that were made there?
... That is on our list to kind of go over those recommendations and see what our first steps will be on that. So that's another thing.
But that whole thing about ensuring that high school is meaningful, which goes right into that same category. To ensure that high school is meaningful and rigorous enough to be able to prepare these students at the right level. ... We are right at the start of redoing the standards in Florida, which of course is right up my alley. We've been working at the College Board the last two years in defining exactly what type of standards you need to have in high school to be successful once you get into college. ...
Florida has already started incorporating some of those standards in their language arts and math and science standards. I want to be sure to incorporate that in every standard we're addressing from this point on, and to go back and check the standards at this point to be sure those college readiness standards are in there. Because I think that's the next level. Remember, we've been around standards a long time. They came out in the early '90s. They were minimum standards. Now, again, it's taking it to the limit, taking it to the next step to be sure that students are at a different level and are very competitive internationally as well as nationally.
If you're looking at all that, I wonder how the current accountability system we have in Florida fits in. Does it need to be overhauled? Tweaked? Changed in some way? Because there's been a lot of talk about doing something different with it.
I don't know all the nuances of that yet. But I will tell you one thing. I really am a strong supporter of accountability. And I feel that Florida - even before I left, the FCAT came in and the accountability system was in progress at that point - has developed a lot from that point. But it still needs for us, I think, to continue to improve it. So I know that is one thing the commissioner is going to look at carefully. He's already talked to me about it three or four times, and as I said, I've only been here three days, although he'd call me 20 times a day before that to have conversations about that. But that whole process of accountability has a great start. But like any other system, it's time to kind of address seeing if we can take that to the next level.
Do you see the FCAT as going away, as some people suggest? Or is that just some peoples' pipe dream?
I think that will come out of that discussion. It could stay the same, it could be changed, or it could be in combination with some other type of assessment. That will be on the table for discussion.
OK. Now, money obviously goes along with education so closely. Everything we see refers to the fact that Florida's education system is not funded as well as it should or could be. Do you see any problems with the current funding system? Do you see any way to fix it?
Up to this point, I think the governor and Legislature have done a great job in supporting our students and schools. Much of this support can be seen in the progress that's already been made. So I think the good news is, the money that has been afforded education has made a difference, and that difference is becoming evident in national types of assessments like NAEP and the review in Ed Week. I also realize that clearly, I am coming in - I don't know why, but whenever I come into systems they have this big financial woes. Florida is certainly in a difficult financial situation as far as revenue is concerned. So, we will continue to try to push the system to take the money that we have and continue to do a good job with it and see that it's spent well and we have good results from those expenditures. We will just hope that someone in the future comes down to Florida and spends some money. ...
I'm curious, if money is an issue, about the class size amendment. Because we've always heard how expensive it was going to be, and there's always been a push back against it. Do you think the class size amendment needs to be changed?
I think that class size is really important. And I think Florida has done a really good job of making progress in this area. I also think know that reducing class sizes is a very expensive initiative. And I think that under the circumstances of funding in this state that people will look at it and see if there's some flexibility that can be built into it, so it's easier to administer. At the same time, to keep very much in focus the intent of that legislation, and that is to keep the class sizes down for the students of this state.
So you might support perhaps going to the school averages that some people have spoken about?
Right. I think the department has come out with a position on that in the past ... to look at it at a higher level than the classroom size.
But that was a whole different administration. You guys are all new.
You're right about that. ...
I do have to ask you about the exciting debate over evolution and where you stand on that one, if you want to plunge in there.
Well. Uh. (pause) I just talked to our science person the other day ... to try to get an update on where we were. ... They are compiling the information that came in. So I really want to look at that first before I make any definitive statement about it one way or the other.
I am interested in whether you have taken any position. Your predecessor had taken some heat for her position on the issue of evolution and intelligent design and so forth. What do you think belongs in the curriculum?
Well. No. 1, I really want to review the input before I take a position. But No. 2, I am more than excited that they took on these science standards to begin with. Because of all of the positive things that came out of Florida, one of the big negative things was the grade of the science standards. It's unacceptable for a state to have that. There's been a whole lot of hard work done on that. I did some reading on all of this before I came here as far as who comprised the committees and how much public input they were getting. I think they've done a really good job with that.
As I understand it, from the initial review from a number of different outside sources, they feel like these standards are almost 100 percent improved from what they were. So there's just so much more to the standards than just the one word, the "e word." Before I really come out with any type of statement on that, I am going to review what is said by the people in Florida. And as I said, that is being compiled right now, so it won't be a long period of time before we address that. And of course the science standards are going to the State Board on February the 19th. And there will be a vote by the board at that time that will tell everybody the answer on where they are with it....
Overall, do you have any guiding philosophy that we should be expecting from you as we look to your leadership in K-12 education?
I've been in education a long time. My guiding philosophy is that you need to keep the focus, and you need to have accountability for that focus, and you need to develop systems around that. There are a lot of good things that are defined in education and I think the real challenge is in the fidelity of implementation of some of the good things that are out there. It's easier to have goals and plans and programs. What is difficult is really ensuring that there is a good accountability system and a good support system around what you are doing. I would hope that this office will become known as a place that really does have good focus and good support. I have been out in the field all my life. I have not been at the state level. I said the same thing when I was a principal in Broward and went to the county. I want to leave this position having the districts in the state feel like there was value added because of the things we were able to support them in doing.