A weekend interview with former Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith
Eric J. Smith left Tallahassee quietly and without public comment, amid speculation that he had been forced out by newly elected Gov. Rick Scott. In the months since, he has kept a low profile, consulting and speaking to education groups. Smith agreed to speak with the Gradebook about the job he did, the work he left behind and his future. As for why he left, well, not so much. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek.
The question everybody has is, where are you?
(Laughs) Well, I've successfully relocated to our home in Annapolis, Md., and that's where we are living now. We were able to sell our house and make the big move.
We see you listed a lot as "former Florida education commissioner." I can't believe that's something you're going to be for long, former commissioner.
(Laughs) Well, I don't like the first part of that -- former. I am doing a fair amount of work around the country with states and so forth, and some districts. I am enjoying that a bit. I don't have any real definite plans at this point of what my next move is going to be. I'm still exploring a lot of options.
So you're a consultant right now?
Basically, I guess you would call it that.
When you left, you left quietly. So we don't know what you feel like you had left undone, what you see as doing well, what you see as needing more time or more work. I was kind of interested in hearing your assessment now that you've been separated from here for a little while.
I think we had four years of very aggressive reform work that I certainly was very proud of and Florida should be very proud of, continuing to lead the nation in a lot of ways in trying to push education forward for our children. What I really saw going forward was a lot of work on the implementation side, getting it right. So I think that, at least from my perspective, not saying there's not more reform that needs to be done or more work that needs to be done in policy issues, because I think there is. But I do think there is a lot of implementation work. A lot of good policy can get lost in the details. ... That means a lot of follow-up on everything from Race to the Top to the educator effectiveness work, all that plus so much more that needs to really be monitored very carefully. That is exciting work for Florida. Some of the strengths for Florida are that it is really blessed with some of America's best superintendents and incredible school-level principals and teachers. I think the implementation work is going to be an exciting time.
I've heard a lot of people say they were given no time to start with these new evaluations, that they took place almost instantly after having been approved by the Legislature. Do you think what they're doing now, trying to put them in place while building them, is the right way to handle it?
Yeah. I think there's never the right time for anything that's new. It always needs more time or less time. I think it is time to move on. Just for logic, having an evaluation system that connects the success of children to the work we do in every aspect of education it just makes sense. So change is hard, it's complicated. In my view, the best way to get after it is just to get after it and work out the bugs as you get involved with the doing and make it a better, stronger system as you move through that process.
Can't you get caught up in that, though? Like a teacher who gets a needs improvement and then suddenly they're one step farther down the road toward being dismissed, possibly.
I think the system that we had had such a massive glitch that I think the work going forward is going to be better for children and better for educators across the board. It will begin to shed some real light on trying to help teachers improve their skill and their work. It has an opportunity to make the profession more professional.
Does it create the need for too many tests? Because I've heard districts talk about having testing almost every day of the school year for one grade level or another.
You know, I started as a teacher 40 years ago. We didn't have state accountability back in those days. But we did give tests every week, in every class as far as I knew. What the change is, isn't more testing, because we've always tested in our schools. It's giving the tests that we give more meaning and more purpose. ...
Now that you're not in Florida and you look at it from afar, do you see that Florida is a leader? Or do you see other states that it could learn something from? Where do you put Florida now?
I think Florida definitely is leading the pack in terms of its effort to reform. What I see that is very very encouraging is that other states are taking up the challenge. That's one of the quiet changes that has taken place nationally, that where Florida has had a history of state-led school reform, a lot of states have not had that. The departments of education have served in a regulatory role of checking and monitoring. Florida didn't take that path 10 years ago. They did implement statewide agendas of reform. What we're seeing more and more is states stepping up with a state purpose. In part that's been encouraged by Race to the Top and other programs to improve the schools through state action. So I think the heat is on for Florida to continue to push hard and really move into the next generation of reforms that are needed. And I think there are some really exciting ones that are going to be exciting to kids, parents and educators. A lot of work in technology that can be applied more effectively, that can bring about a greatly expanded sense of what a classroom is, that it's not bound by walls and brick and mortar. Through effective use of technology we can be much more aligned with the way that kids do learn today, and we can rather than fighting that use that as a resource to expand learning time and students' engagement in it, individual student personal drive and curiosity to use it. I think there are huge opportunities ahead....
A lot of this gets caught up in politics. ... How much do you think we can get to do what's right without getting caught up in these battles among who has a stake?
Education has really got to be a bipartisan agenda. Elected officials that want to make it a political agenda, they need to be taken to task for that because it's not right for kids and it's not right for our country. There is too much riding on this, not only individual children's future. It is about the future of our country. So again it needs to be an effort where both parties find ways to join together around the needs for kids. The more local you get, the more partisan you get around some of the issues. You saw in the last couple of sessions when I was there in Florida you did see issues where leadership from both sides came together. I think both parties do continue to see education as a priority. You have some debates about how best to do that. I think they're probably healthy. But we need to make sure that we keep education as a priority for the state and the country.
Would you give a little more insight into why you wound up leaving?
No. (laughs) I think just a lot of factors played into that. It was the right time for me to submit my resignation and just leave. I wanted to make sure I did that at the conclusion of the school year so we got the work of that year wrapped up. I think, as I said in my departure, I needed to give the governor a chance to make decisions about leadership in education and so forth. I think he's done a great job with that. I think Gerard Robinson is a great individual. I knew him before he came to Florida and I've talked to him some since his arrival. He's a person of great integrity and he is a very capable educator that is going to continue to move Florida forward. So I am very pleased with his choice.
There are some people who still bring out your name whenever they talk about these big superintendent jobs that are still open in Florida. Is there any chance we might see you again some time?
I doubt that. I do intend to find a way to keep my residence in Florida, but it won't be in the form of a superintendency. I love the state. It has been a big part of my life. We don't know exactly where, but we probably will be relocating in Florida someplace in the very near future.