A weekend interview with Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson
After only a year on the job, Florida education commissioner Gerard Robinson announced this past week that he'd be stepping down at the end of August. His tenure was marked by controversies over FCAT scores, school grades and the assessment of students still learning English. His style rubbed some school district leaders, and even some parents, the wrong way. Yet the governor and the State Board of Education stood by him through it all, penning editorials with him and supporting his contentious decisions relating to such items as the state's No Child Left Behind waiver. In the end, family matters prompted Robinson to leave. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek a day after submitting his letter of resignation.
You caught us all off guard. You know, of course, people are talking about whether you were forced out. So the first question is, were you forced out?
I can tell you I am not being forced out by Gov. Rick Scott. I can also tell you that I am not being forced out by Chairwoman Shanahan or the board. Now, put into context, five other secretaries or commissioners left office over the past year. How many of them sent out a letter and press release? They made an announcement and were gone the next day or the same day. Third, there was an immediate replacement, maybe not for all, because they already had someone in mind who they wanted. The fact that you mentioned that you were caught off guard, you would probably also find people in high positions who were also caught off guard. So it was not planned. But I get it. With FCAT, the writing and everything else - here are reasons that you were pushed out. But I can tell you that's not the case.
What do you make of all the conspiracy theories, I'll call them, then? Because a lot of people see it that way - the FCAT, the school grading, the pressure, the mistakes. The drumbeat was sounding. Somebody's got to take responsibility for that. Is that something you feel contributed to your thought process at all?
The term conspiracy theory, in fact, I'll use that one as well. Because it is a frame of interpreting reality that's important. My arrival here was a conspiracy theory. So that's been a part of the whole piece. I arrived, hand picked. In fact, you're the guy who called me about it before even I knew the process was taking place. ... It was a conspiracy to bring me in, and now it's a conspiracy to get me out. That part doesn't bother me. The part about someone has got to take the heat. The heat ultimately was taken by me. I walked in on fire, will leave in the same way. When there was the whole writing piece, I handled that. ... I did an internal review, looked at Buros report, had a conversation with Pearson, identified the challenges. And I stated publicly, when I first saw the scores ... I knew immediately that something was out of kilter because students could not write that badly overnight, or in less than a year. So I managed that, which led to us having a reactor panel of 20 people that made a recommendation and the process is moving. In this kind of work you are going to have hiccups. We are human beings working on human endeavors, and there's bound to be some. What I'd like to focus on is the fact that while we had 8 percent of our schools' grades change, 92 percent did not. If you had a reverse, and 92 percent of those school grades ... would have been reversed, then, yeah, I think it would have been a different conversation.
Everybody is already talking about what kind of person needs to replace you. On one side I'm hearing, We want somebody just like Gerard Robinson, somebody who will take our system to the next level. On the other I'm hearing, we need somebody who will listen to the opposite side and fix our failing accountability system. Did you ever expect to be in the middle ... of such a divisive cross section like that?
Because I have worked in this field of school reform and public policy for 20 years, for 20 years I've been in the middle of it. This is just a larger stage for the same dynamic. The part about bringing in someone just like Gerard, that's a conversation for the board and the governor. What I will say is, someone who wants to take Florida to the next level is important. Someone who will listen to the opposition. I definitely listened to the opposition, as evidenced by my travel throughout the state. My not agreeing with some of the conclusions in no way means that I didn't listen. It means we just found an area of mutual disagreement. ... Florida still remains today an attractive state for a school chief, as it was when I arrived. You've got a governor who's got a strong vision he's backed up with an additional billion for K-12 to make sure we've linked the importance of education to the work force to jobs and the talent pipeline. You still have a reform-minded board in place who wants to reform and put some new innovative ideas in pre-k to college. You still have a legislature, while there will be new members, who will come back next year with a mandate to take it to the next level. Those dynamics are still in place. And so is the opposition, and so are the supporters.
Do you think the people who have been fighting for a change are gaining a foothold? And what kind of place at the table do they deserve? ... Is this a pendulum swing back?
You know, I don't know. I think it may just be history walking against a handwalk in the park with time. The initiative that Florida is now a part of has some of its origins in Texas. So independent of my being here, independent of maybe even some of the other changes on the board, this may have just come up naturally because it's just that time. It happened to possibly coincide with changes to testing that we haven't had in a decade. Will they gain more momentum? Probably so. When you have one become two become three and more counties that support a resolution, that is a movement. And it's a healthy part of democracy in America and school conversation in Florida. That in itself doesn't bother me, because you've got more people talking about FCAT than before. You've got a lot more people interested in writing. You now have not only business people but educators, retired people, who are involved on pro and con sides saying, What do we need to do to prepare our young people for college and careers that are very different from what we inherited when we were their age. I think that's healthy and part of having the anti-high stakes resolution is a healthy part of the conversation. ... There will continue to be momentum gained. The question is, as it grows more, do we move further away from testing or closer to testing remains to be seen. ...
I think nobody was paying attention to the commissioner when you came, even, and I think that everyone is going to pay attention to who the next commissioner will be. Do you think your role or your part in the system changed that?
I put into context maybe three things I heard from Floridians about myself as commissioner. One of the things I said I wanted to do to was to modernize what people thought about a state department of education. Simply meaning, when I say I am here from the Florida Department of Education, I am here to help, I really mean it. ... When superintendents can call and say, I've been trying for x number of years to obtain A and have been unable to do it because of your bureaucracy, I have taken a look into it and been able to find an answer and say, Here you go. Sometimes I'd find an answer they didn't like. But at least I got an answer. ... Part 2, I wanted to make sure the commissioner was seen as someone who was involved not only in K-12 education, because traditionally the commissioner is seen as a K-12 person. I said, No, I've got pre-k, kindergarten, K-12 and higher ed. So with the hires I made with Randy and Pam and Chancellor Duckworth, you've got us now talking across the line and within the department of education that people haven't seen in years. I think that was healthy. Third, a number of people have said, You're the first person to come to our county, our school, to have a conversation about education. These conversations went anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours. And they were open mike and you could ask anything you like. And they said they just hadn't seen that. So I think if I made any contribution to Florida, it would be those three things. Others may think differently.
Some people said that you were confrontational, or they felt like they were not so much having a conversation with you as listening to you when you went out there. Did you get the sense that it was a combative atmosphere? The school board members after you spoke to them ... felt like you were condescending to them. Was there a bad relationship there?
If you talk to FADSS you'd probably reach a very different conclusion. ... People forget, this wasn't the first time I was talking to school boards. The first time was several months ago. ... There were questions and we talked about different things. What didn't exist at that point was the resolution. So for the first meeting ... there were no major newspaper articles saying I was condescending or anything to that nature. At the second meeting, it was definitely a different conversation I had to have with them. In part, and to put in context, when I would meet with people around Florida, they would say, Hooray, my child no longer has to take the FCAT. I would say, What makes you think that? They would say, Well, my board just passed a resolution, the resolution says my kid doesn't have to take an FCAT. I said, That's not what the resolution said. But there were enough people who bought into that, that I had to put into context what the resolution could and could not accomplish. So that was part one.
Part two was to make a stand on where I stood as a department as it relates to FCAT. We can disagree about its use, or some would say misuse, whether or not it really is a good gauge of how students are doing. That part is fine. But when you really start questioning the fundamental mechanism that in my opinion has moved Florida forward in ways that no other state has seen, then we've got to have some really hard conversations. Particularly when you're in a state where a majority of public school students K-12 are black or Latino, and you're saying these tests have a horrible impact on them. Yet the data shows they have sometimes 10, 20 percentage gain in achievement, that gets kind of funny. After that, the letters, people said they were concerned about the tone, things like that. These are adult conversations about children, and sometimes in adult conversations people feel uncomfortable. ...
Did you want to stay, but you are leaving because of your family? Or did you want to leave and your family is a good reason to leave?
You know, in politics people always say, I'm going to go home to my family. ... I am leaving because I need to go back and be with my family. When I took the job from Virginia, we expected our time away to be relatively short. ... As time began to pass, we just realized that for employment purposes that just wasn't going to happen. Then we looked at several opportunities - what about A? What about B? Then we realized, just over the weekend, that you know, this is just where we are and it is not going to change. I didn't leave [Virginia] with the goal of saying I'm going to spend one year [in Florida] and leave. I didn't want to do that. What I did want to do was spend out my term, see Gov. Scott reelected and then if there was still any interest for me to stay for Part 2, give that consideration. But that's not the case today.
Why now? It seems like a really weird time. School starts in two weeks. And there's been a lot of conversation about FCAT and other things going on. Is now really the best time to go? Could you have waited until December?
There would never be a time prior to the election that people would say is good. There just wouldn't be.
So what are you going to do now?
Go home and play with the girls as a start, and then figure out what the next move is from there. Your part about December, yeah, I get you. School is going to start. But one could say this is a good time for the board go out and bring in someone who actually can welcome and bring in a new group of students, whether it's right before school starts or afterward. ... But there would never be an ideal time. ...
So you have nothing lined up? You're not going to work for somebody?
At this point, I have signed no contracts, I have done none of the big things people would say you need to have in place to make it happen. Again, this is a very recent decision.