A weekend interview with Eric J. Smith, former Florida education commissioner
As Florida buzzed over plummeting FCAT writing scores this past week, some officials pointed fingers at the state's past education leadership, saying it was under their watch that new standards were put in place. Many educators have complained that the added emphasis on grammar, spelling, punctuation and the like was implemented without enough time to prepare. After seeing the poor results, the State Board of Education reduced the passing score for a year to give schools more time to incorporate the criteria into their lessons.
Eric J. Smith was the education commissioner at the time Florida ramped up its writing requirements. Now living in Maryland, Smith said he did not want to get drawn into a political battle over the state's accountability system.
He stood by the moves that he made before being forced out of his position.
"We had a disconnect between writing proficiency and reading proficiency," said Smith, now a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. "Kids needed to have proper grammar."
It was clear from the start that the change would lead to significantly lower results at first, he acknowledged.
"Change has to be worked through," Smith said.
That the State Board of Education decided to lower the passing score as an interim move simply shows strong leadership by the board, he suggested.
"They made change in real time," he said. "We need to make progress. As conditions change, we need to adapt to them so we don't do any harm."
Smith praised Florida for keeping its expectations high, pushing hard to get there and having the courage to change midstream as reality dictates.
"You have to define what you think kids should be able to do and need to do, and then go after that," Smith said. "If you're going to err, err in believing in the capacity of children to perform and the teachers to deliver, then adapt and adjust."
Altering and improving Florida's education system "might not always be pretty," he said. "but it's on target."