A weekend interview with Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson
Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. We shared some excerpts last weekend relating to school choice, magnet schools, charter schools and vouchers. Today we share more from the conversation focusing on the issues of parent accountability, private companies in public education, and testing. Earlier in the discussion, Robinson delayed answering a question about the "parent trigger" bill that failed in the Florida Senate during session. He returned to the subject midway through the talk.
Parent trigger. I'll share with you what I said before. I don't think the word trigger should have any place in education. So I will call it parent empowerment. What else do you want to know?
The whole idea that parents could wholesale change schools. ... Do you think this bill would bring that home, that parents could transform their schools if they're not happy with what is going on?
Parents can transform their schools currently. They do it by strong PTAs. Parents transform schools with the ability to take their students out. So the transforming aspect of parents part is there. Where this was different is was this was a focus on schools that don't have strong PTAs or strong social networks that we have. We utilize our contacts to make sure our kids are getting through the right schools and have the right activities. ... I understand the concept. As commissioner I didn't take a stance for or against the bill. But I understand the concept. But, I will use the term trigger in light of what you said. In calling it the parent trigger, it moved the conversation and made the trigger the subject of the conversation when in fact the question is, how do we empower taxpaying residents of Florida with children in the school system to have a say so in the same way that we often find being utilized in more socially connected networks. Part of this is a class issue, which gets to the whole other aspect of the achievement gap. We know that kids who are in homes with parents who have a lot of books, we know about the million-plus word gap between kids who read. We read to all three of our daughters. They're going to be fine. My wife is a law professor. They're going to be fine. ... Some of this is a class problem. So understand, from my perspective, part of that bill was to try as much as you can to give a step up to parents for a whole host of reasons to get a better role. But here's another thing. ...
I think we also need to hold parents accountable. Because so much of our discussion about parental choice is focused on what teachers aren't doing. I said to a parent the other day, schools have that kid from 8 to 2. They're with you a lot of the time. Let's have some parent accountability. Look at the Milwaukee plan. We had parents actually go through programs if their kids were participating in vouchers. That wasn't to be cute just so they could sign a checklist and get around the legal aspect. It's because they were realizing after five or six years, parents really weren't that much more involved. So the idea that suddenly my kid gets a voucher, or I get to participate in the trigger, I am more involved. I can tell you that is not the case. We need to learn how to make our parents more involved. And you can do that in a traditional school.
I'm curious about your thoughts. You have had an industry grow up that is a private education industry that is getting its money from government. There's bad actors. Are there any good actors? When you look at those operators, which ones are doing it well in your mind, versus others?
... Most of what we have in public education, independent of 1990 when charter schools were started, independent of 1991 when we had the first voucher program in Milwaukee, for profit providers have always been involved in education. So for me, that's a non-starter as a conversation. The question that you are raising is one that is not specific to vouchers or to charters: Do you have actors in play that are doing the wrong thing with public money? That's just an issue of having bad practices or providers. During the parent empowerment bill debate, there were a lot of concerns that you would invite people to make money off public education. Again, I'd be interested in knowing what school district in Florida is not having a contract with a private provider who's making money off of public education. So for me, I'm being much more blunt, for me, the question isn't privatization. You have it. The question is pimping. Are we actually utilizing public money in a way that's hurting kids, hurting taxpayers. Those are two different questions.
Can I ask you a question about testing? The Palm Beach school district took up this national anti-testing issue that is really taking off in Texas. Does that have a foothold in Florida? Is Florida going to in any way consider scaling back high-stakes testing or look at testing in a different way?
Why call it high-stakes testing versus standardized testing? I have an idea why. I just want to know why.
Jeb Bush. He created the A-Plus accountability plan. Prior to that, the FCAT has been in Florida schools. It just didn't have consequences, he would say.
Right. The reason I mention high stakes is, the SAT is considered high stakes, and the ACT is considered high stakes. It helps you get into college. We never call those high stakes.
Sure we do.
A lot of people don't. You guys are probably different. A lot of people don't call those, you know, Gerard is going to take the high-stakes SAT. But they'll say you're going to take the high-stakes FCAT. So, I'm just saying, how you utilize the name ...
Well, it's also how it's used in the school. My son is in third grade right now, and I can't tell you how much he saw it as being high stakes. And it wasn't because of what we said in our house. It was because of what was said in the school. Be that as it may, would you take Florida in that direction?
Would I take Florida away from high-stakes testing?
Or in changing the direction of the testing mentality.
So, the article that I read said kids are nauseated. There's actually an example from one school district of a principal who sent a bag of throw-up with the test to prove that it did happen. We need to separate this between testing accountability and anxiety. The work that you guys do here, there's probably some anxiety. A lot of work, a lot of deadlines. So we know that what we're doing in part through the schooling process, independent of testing, is preparing students for how to be functional adults in what we call an economy you can make a living in. ... So the anxiety part is independent of school. No. 2 is the accountability part. We want to have an idea as taxpayers of are we getting the best bang for our buck. In some areas we are, and in some areas we are not. Where we know we're not, we try to make it right. I am making some changes to put these things in place from the state level. But it is not the state only. It's also superintendent driven. Superintendents will tell you I've given them lots of access in terms of where I am. They're pretty clear about where I stand on certain issues, so there are no big surprises. ... We have tests all the time as adults. In some industries you have tests to remain credentialed or to perform your work. So the idea of testing isn't going to stop just because you're out of high school. What I want to change is the notion that because we have this test, that if somehow you don't pass, you're a failure. Or if you get a great score and decide to go into the work force, what happens if you didn't go to college? You're a failure. So the aspect of where Texas is going and others, my job is to make sure that we keep the FCAT moving forward as it is, to educate the public about what it means, particularly with the new scores. In fact, you're going to have many more F's than before, and more D's.
That's a problem. It is high stakes, because if you don't do well on the SAT or the ACT, you don't get into the college you want to go to. If FCAT scores are low, it affects the student, it affects the teacher, it affects the principal, the administrators. They all have to bear the consequences of a poor FCAT score. So I guess my question is, what kind of system is that? ...
I'm just saying we need to apply the term high-stakes across the board. No. 2, there are teachers I've talked to ... they're under the same August to April time period. They're not teaching to the test. But they are getting the results that they need. Are there teachers teaching to the test? Absolutely. But I know there are a lot of teachers who aren't teaching to the test who are getting great results, even from the kids we thought they wouldn't.
But are there too many tests? You've mentioned PERT. We have FAIR. We have FCAT. And the list goes on. End-of-course exams. And those are just the ones that have come up in this conversation. There are other ones as well. This month is testing month. And I think that's kind of the point of the complaints. Even if you get past all of the other stuff that you're talking about. So I'm just wondering. Do we need to scale back the way that some people are saying ... so that there's time to actually teach and learn and not always be using the computer lab for testing?
There are things I have done that didn't change how many tests we have, but did change the impact of what the test will mean for grades. At the February board meeting I put out a recommendation, the board approved it, that if your school had 25 percent or fewer students who can read ... those schools would automatically become an F. I put in place that they would only drop one grade level. ... I've got some more recommendations I can't share right now. ... I don't pretend that anxiety doesn't exist. I don't make a value judgment of whether we have too many tests. Because the question I have is, compared to what? But what I will say is there are, through rule, things that we can do to soften what is happening. And also I've put together this teacher group to frankly listen to them so when I walk into the session next year, I can get some different perspective that I don't have now. So, the number of tests probably won't change. What can we do to soften or to put in some safety guards to deal with the impact on grades are things I can do and things the board will support.